The Great Wall of China is fabulous. That is, it is both wonderful and known most commonly through exaggerated or misconceived accounts. Take for instance that old claim that it is the only man-made object visible from space. A claim made by someone without knowledge of the Great Wall, of space and of vision for sure.
The Great Wall of China is in fact a series of walls. Originally there were many walls and these were first joined into one consecutive structure by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor. In places there are also several lines of Great Wall; such duplication being created by the ever-changing boundaries of the dynasties and by developments in the construction techniques used.
The original walls were generally formed by digging a ditch on the offensive side of the wall and using the material removed to form a barrier on the defensive side. The earth would be mixed with other materials and rammed down to make something a little more resistant - but the brick-clad wall that we recognise today was not created until the Ming Dynasty just 600 years ago.
The visitor to China can see sections of the Great Wall from many cities. This page focuses on the Great Wall as seen fromA Note On Safety as that is where most visitors do take an excursion. Other sections will be covered as separate sites, located within the appropriate prefecture.
Visitors should be aware that much of what they will see is the Great Wall as restored to make it safe enough for the huge numbers of visitors that come each day. Many of the unrestored sections are out-of-bounds, certainly to tour groups. This is for the protection of the monument as well as to avoid undue accidents in areas well away from medical facilities. In some places guards are posted to stop visitors going to unsafe places. In summer, lightning strikes are a potential threat and, when likely, guards may be positioned to stop visitors going up to more dangerous spots. Guards can also facilitate a rescue if an emergency does occur.
Mutianyu Great Wall is characterised by the dense woodland that surrounds it. The wall covers one of the most important strategic positions and is therefore also one of the older sections. Given its importance the fortifications are both numerous and strong. Granite is available locally and was used widely during the Ming Dynasty reconstruction phase. Perpendicular sections of wall were also added at this time to protect the ridgelines so often used by attacking forces.
Mutinayu is about 70 kilometres from Beijing and therefore one of the most accessible options. It does not attract the same numbers of visitors as Badaling.
Please note: The Great Wall at Simatai is now closed for renovations and is not open to the public.
The Great Wall at Simatai soars up over a precipitous ridge and is one of the most exciting sections to visit.
Simatai is some 120 kilometres from Beijing. A new expressway has cut the journey time down and made this a viable option for all. There is a cable-car up to the wall which also saves time and effort.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling is one of the most interesting. It bore the brunt of several attacks and has some of the most advanced structural features as a result:
These features can all be seen (or imagined) in the photo above.
Badaling is the nearest section of Great Wall to Beijing and therefore also the most popular, especially as a visit here can easily be combined with one to the Ming Tombs. The wall here is almost entirely restored and so, although impressive as the wall always is, this section has the least appeal for those wanting an authentic experience.
It is possible to arrange transport to Jinshanling and then have that drive around and be ready to leave again from Simatai. This then allows for the more interesting option of hiking the section in-between. This is quite a tough walk, being up and over a mountain - on rough ground - and with the elements to brave. It is therefore not an option for everyone.
Finding the way is not difficult. In fact, you are more than likely to attract a local 'guide' who will want to sell you things along the way. It is difficult to persuade these locals to leave you alone; sales are their livelihood.
The hike should take between 3 and 5 hours depending upon your level of fitness and the time taken for photo opportunities. It is well worth taking a picnic lunch, which can be eaten in a watch tower or open space depending upon the weather.
Spending this amount of time on the Great Wall is a truly memorable way to appreciate it - but one that is very demanding. It is well worth getting up especially early so as to avoid the traffic out of Beijing and the heat of the day in summer.