North of Beijing
The Great Wall
Two thousand years old and several thousand miles long, the Great Wall is China’s most captivating historic site. Stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Central Asian outpost of Jiayuguan, the wall was originally built under China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang to protect against northern invaders,
a task it never really effectively served.
However, a couple of thousand years later, the wall seems to make a lot more sense – there are few tourists who visit Beijing without seeing the wall and it is the country’s most instantly recognizable tourist sight. Fortunately, if you avoid the most visited section at Badaling, it’s still fairly easy to appreciate the majesty of the ruggedly isolated land the wall once protected, and a hike at Jinshanling, Simatai, Huanghua or even crumbly Jiankou is both stunning and evocative.
The Chinese had historically built walled cities and regions and, in reality, the Great Wall was just a consolidation of these, focusing on the more vulnerable lowland and valleys, in the belief that the higher mountains were a natural defense in themselves.
After the fractious periods that had come before, Qin Shi Huang was determined to maintain his empire, the newly formed China. Fearful of the threat from the north, he linked the various regional barriers to make this first, crude version of the Wanli Changcheng (10,000-Li Wall – one li is around a third of a mile) using over a million laborers.
The wall was made of rammed earth but, such was the suffering incurred, that the wall’s foundations were said to be made up of the bodies of those who had died making it!
After the collapse of the short-lived Qin dynasty, the wall continued to serve its defensive purpose until the empire expanded under the Tang and the wall found itself several hundred miles back from the front line,although the Song quickly reversed their predecessor’s gains.
In contrast the Yuan had little need to protect from northern invaders – they were the northern invaders, and it wasn’t until the Ming dynasty that the wall once again became of key importance. The Ming didn’t have the resources for expansive forays to the north and therefore they tried to maintain the extent of their influence by reinforcing and improving the wall.
The Great Wall of China
All that had come before was made of rammed earth or piled stone at best, but the Ming began baking bricks to rebuild the wall. Most of the sections of intact wall you can see around Beijing today, including Badaling, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Jinshanling and Simatai, are Ming, albeit often built on the remnants of older versions.
While the wall is often cited as a failure, it wasn’t without its successes and, for the most part, served the purposes of the Ming. The Qing, with their stronger northern ties, had less to worry about in this direction, and as time wore on it became apparent that the principal threats were from the ocean: Japan and the Western powers wanted their piece of China and they didn’t need to cross the wall to get it.
Today, historically successful or otherwise, the Great Wall has become a symbol of the greatness of China, as observed by Richard Nixon in his state visit here in 1972. Claims that it is the only manmade barrier visible from space with the naked eye may be untrue, but it is undoubtedly one of the greatest constructions the world has ever seen and continues to amaze. Don’t leave without seeing it.
_ The Wall is really, really long (no one knows quite how long, but at least 3,500 miles).
_ The Ming sections of the wall are around 23 feet high and almost as wide.
_ There were once some 25,000 watchtowers.
Visiting the Wall
|The Great Wall’s manifold segments pepper the countryside north of Beijing and offer opportunities for quick day-trips to
easily accessible and fully restored sections, as well as more adventurous journeys along its wilder stretches.
Of those listed below, Badaling is the easiest to visit, but
also the most touristy, while Mutianyu is slightly quieter,
and farther afield, Jinshanling and Simitai are far more rugged
and have fewer visitors. If you want to see the wall at its unrestored crumbliest, Huanghua and Jiankou aren’t too far
from Beijing and will reward the journey with unspoiled wilderness.
The Great Wall at Jiankou
The wall is a great place for a picnic and, for the ultimate tacky picture, you could buy a bottle of Great Wall wine to consume on the ramparts! Tourist buses operate to Badaling (in conjunction with the Ming Tombs) and Mutianyu from opposite Qianmen subway station.
You can also take local buses from Dongzhimen or Deshengmen stations. While hotels charge as much as ¥300 for the Badaling trip, hostels are much more reasonable at ¥180, ¥150 for Mutianyu, or ¥90 for Jinshanling and Simatai (entry fees not included for the last two). Finally, some outdoor companies run excellent hiking trips along the wall.
(daily 6:30 am-6 pm; ¥45; bus #919 from Deshengmen or tourist bus #1 & #5 run from Qianmen; 90 mins).
If you’re on a standard organized tour, chances are this is where you’ll visit the wall, and, despite the extensive restoration and hordes of tourists, it’s still undeniably striking. This was the first section to be restored for the benefit of tourists in 1957, and its proximity to the capital has maintained its pole position as the place to see the wall. However, if you have the choice, then Jinshanling, Simatai or even Mutianyu will offer a quieter experience.
If you do find yourself here nonetheless, once at the top try walking to the north (left) and you might just find a little peace to appreciate the majesty. Turning south (right) is more popular and will eventually bring you to the cable car (¥50).
If you’re coming under your own steam and are visiting Badaling in conjunction with the Ming Tombs or Longqing Gorge, then try to come when the site opens or closes to avoid the crowds. There’s a hotel here, but, if you have enough time to stay overnight, you’re better off heading to one of the quieter wall options.
(daily 7 am-6:30 pm; ¥35; bus #916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and then a minibus, or on weekends tourist bus #6 runs from Xuanwumen; 90 mins).
Thirty miles east of Badaling, Mutianyu offers more dramatic
scenery and (slightly) fewer crowds, making it a better bet if you
have the choice. The 1½-mile stretch of wall is furnished with
plenty of watchtowers and was first built as far back as the sixth century, but was rebuilt under the Ming and then extensively
restored in the 1980s.
It’s a steep hour’s climb up to the wall, but if you’d prefer to save
your energy, you can take a cable car to the highest point (¥35
one way or ¥50 round-trip) which offers fine vistas along the way.
You can also descend in novel fashion by taking a toboggan (¥40) down the hill! President Clinton came here in 1998 and enjoyed
the wall in relative solitude but, if you don’t have such status,
to beat the worst of the crowds try to come as early as possible.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu
(¥10; bus #916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and then a minibus; two hrs).
Jiankou is one of the most easily accessible sections of wild wall where you’ll really feel as if you’ve stumbled onto a lost tract of history. Note that it can be crumbly underfoot and you’ll have to be careful not to trip over it. The wall here is made from a white-hued rock that clearly etches its serpentine trail over the rugged terrain, making Jiankou one of the most dramatic of all the Beijing sections, although it’s a steep climb up to the wall.
You can hike from here all the way to Mutianyu (four-five hrs) and then pick up transport from there back to Beijing, although the wall is in fairly poor condition for most of the way. You’ll need to be very careful –better to join one of Cycle China’s one- or two-day hikes along this section. There’s nowhere to buy supplies up here so make sure you bring snacks and plenty of water.
(free; bus # 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and then a minibus or taxi; two hrs).
The Yellow Flower Wall gets its name from the profusion of sweet-smelling flowers which characterize this remote area in summer, and the unreconstructed section here offers some fairly easygoing, beautiful hiking until you reach the steep “camel’s back”.
However, the wall here is being restored, which will inevitably lead to tourist buses and more visitors, but for the time-being it remains a peaceful spot. The road cuts through the wall and if you turn right from where you’re dropped you’ll rise high above a reservoir before reaching a steep, rubbly ascent, which might be enough to make you turn around.
But, if you continue, after another 10 or 15 minutes you’ll come to a path leading down to the road from where you should be able to get a bus or taxi (¥20) back to Huairou and then a bus back to Beijing.
(24 hrs; ¥30; board bus #980 from Dongzhimen to Miyun and then a minibus or taxi; three-four
Seventy miles northeast of the city, the wall at Jinshanling is slightly less impressive than along the road at Simatai, but it also sees fewer visitors. Once you’ve made the 15-minute walk up to the wall, restored sections of Ming wall run in both directions, and this is the starting point for the arduous three- or four-hour hike to Simatai.
The stretch here is open 24 hours and you can camp on the wall itself, which affords the opportunity to see both sunset and sunrise on the wall using
the same ticket.
(daily ; ¥40; bus #980 from Dongzhimen to Miyun and then a minibus or on weekends take the tourist bus from Qianmen; three-four hrs).
Simatai offers the wall’s most dramatic scenery and is thoroughly worth the long trip out, especially if combined with the hike from Jinshanling, six miles to the east. The snakelike wall here clings precariously to the mountain, which makes for a daunting climb, or if you don’t feel up to this there’s a cableway (¥20), which will take you as far as the eighth watchtower.
If you’re up for the climb, simply turn right from the car park and you can puff and pant your way as far as the 14th watchtower, from where you’ll get stupendous views. As at Mutianyu, there’s also a thrill-seeking way to get down – a flying fox zipline runs from a little below the lower section of the wall down across a reservoir!
If you want to spend the night at Simatai, there’s a hostel, but the wall here and at Jinshanling should both soon be much more accessible as a daytrip from Beijing when a new expressway is completed.
Staying at the Wall
To really appreciate the majesty and isolation of the wall, staying overnight is definitely worthwhile and there are increasingly numbers of places to do so. While tours might offer you the opportunity to stay in a local farming village near the wall, if you want to head out by yourself, you’ll find a hostel at Simatai, camping at Jinshanling, or, if money is no object, the exclusive retreats of the Commune at Shuiguan, and the Red Capital Ranch at Xiaguandi offer unique experiences at the wall you’ll never forget.
See also Great Wall pictures
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