The Great Wall of China Overview
Built by a succession of Chinese dynasties, the Great Wall of China is an architectural marvel. Initially constructed more than 2,000 years ago to hold back Mongol invaders, today it remains a compelling visit. The wall was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1987 and has attracted millions of visitors since.
It was first revealed to the west after the discovery of the Jade Gate and a series of guard towers, which stretched out into the Gobi desert. Englishman William Lindsay walked 2,470km along a route between Shanhaiguan and Jiayuguan, becoming the first westerner to do so. Your Great Wall adventure may not be as long, but can still be as rewarding.
First established by the Han dynasty, the wall was refurbished and improved by subsequent dynasties until it was no longer needed for defense. And claims that it can be seen from space, while flattering, are somewhat misleading. Really, such a masterpiece of engineering can only be fully realized by viewing it first hand.
However, the wall is no continuous barrier; battering by the elements and the sands of time, have taken their toll. While represented to tourists in its tall brick construction of parapets, gates and guard towers, tourists will find it takes different forms. Most visitors see the parts created during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when architects more commonly used stone and brick.
That said, such was the vastness of the project, architects often relied on local materials. Thanks to the diversity of terrain, the time span involved and the re-appropriation of materials – many local villagers took parts of the wall to help construct their own buildings – the size, shape, and height of sections vary considerably.
Great Wall hiking will reveal that many sections are maintained to the highest standards. Pictures, while intriguing, can never do such a site justice. The wall passes over mountains. Its towers perch precariously atop rugged ridges, which when climbed will see the fittest person on your Great Wall trekking trip draw breath.
Overviews of the wall, be they taken from a guidebook or seen in aerial photographs, are impressive. However, by walking even the shortest of sections, the true significance of this structure is made clear.
Once through the towering gatehouses and up onto the wall proper, you will see that it is a truly astounding architectural feat. Culturally, too, it is not until you mount its ramparts and look back into China, then turn north – now in the shoes of a soldier guarding his homeland – does its historical significance sink in.
Hiking the Great Wall of China
This was the wall that defended the Chinese Empire. It protected a proud people, took years to build and cost the lives of hundreds in its construction. Great Wall walking is truly the best way to appreciate such a colossal feat of engineering; by trekking its sections, the story of the Great Wall of China comes alive!
Fortunately, for visitors to Beijing, eight sections of the wall are within travelling distance. Short Beijing Great Wall tours are possible in Jinshaling, Simatai, Gubeikou, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Huangyaguan and Shanhaiguan.
The steeper parts of the wall do require a good level of fitness, although walkers can choose which section best suits their ability. If the more mountainous sections are not of your liking, they are still worth a visit, even if it is just to appreciate their scale.
Typically, Great Wall hiking trips, as day trips, begin with either a taxi or bus journey to the start point. Thanks to its shape, there is little fear of ever getting lost; routes are commonly ‘out-and-back’. However, it is recommended to make an early start; the wall is understandably a popular tourist site. Perhaps first decide how long you want to walk for, how far it is to your embarkation point, and when you hope to return. Often sections are easily accomplished in a short period, and this way you will have more time to enjoy the experience.
Organizing a Great Wall adventure yourself may sound like a good idea, but take care. Without decent Mandarin skills and local knowledge, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of communicating and the distances involved.
As well as the popular ‘out-and-back’ option, you could instead arrange to be dropped off and picked up at a different place. More intrepid wanderers should perhaps try the section between Simatai and Jinshanling, which is a fascinating route.
For walkers wanting to see the less well-preserved sections, longer trips are available. However, tourists sometimes underestimate just how far the Great Wall of China stretches: If you want to visit Jiayuguan, you will need additional flights and connections, as it is more than 5,000km from Beijing.
Whichever you choose, you can be sure of two things: The Great Wall of China is worth the visit, and the best way to enjoy your trip, is to go Great Wall on foot.