As the Great Wall of China stretches across most of a massive country, its justifiable fame and beauty make it one of the best known of all UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The wall, however, is not the same in all places. From the seas of the east to the western deserts of the Hexi Corridor, the Great Wall changes and so does the experience of a visit to this massive defensive bulwark. Whereas a number of segments like those at Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan still preserve the ruined splendour of the original fortifications, several historic sections have been rebuilt according to what is believed to be the wall’s original plan. Regardless, each part provides a new vista of and new justification for its 1987 inclusion on UNESCO’s vaunted list.
Beginning in the East
In the far east, on the Bohai Sea, the “Old Dragon Head” is traditionally considered the start of the Great Wall. Built in 1381 C.E., during the Ming Dynasty, and reaching just barely into the ocean, this initial section is named for a fearsome dragon that once capped the wall where it plunged into the water.
From here, the wall passes across open plains, through the ancient pass (and modern city) of Shanhaiguan and then rolls at a gentle stroll until it first meets the mountains that define some of the most unforgettable landscapes of the “Long Wall” of China. Proving ineffective for its original defensive purposes, this “Mountain-Sea Pass” is where the Manchu invaders who founded the Qing dynasty fought their way into the Middle Kingdom to usurp the rulers of the day.
The Wall in and Around Beijing
Though now mostly crumbled to a shell of what it originally was in 1570 C.E., the Great Wall continues up and down mountainous ridges to the region near China’s capital city of Beijing.
Rather than one continuous snaking line through the countryside, the Great Wall forms a web of spurs that were built over successive dynasties as rulers’ strategic and defensive needs changed. The most visited of these sections are the ones surrounding Beijing, which have inspired many of the iconic pictures so well known to tourists today.
From the Jinshanling section, a popular hike connects to the Simatai stretch of the wall with several hours walking over green hills and through numerous guard towers where soldiers would have once been stationed. Of all the areas accessible by bus from Beijing, this offers one of the least crowded and most athletic ways to experience the Great Wall on a short trip to China. It’s close enough for a day trip, yet far from the crowds that visit sections closer to the capital. Though there is no public transport all the way to Jinshaling, independent travellers can get there by bus to the village of Miyun and continue by taxi to the wall. Alternatively, from Beijing, hop on a private minibus shuttle operated by hostels throughout the city.
In terms of tourist numbers, the most popular sections of this World Heritage Site are Badaling, Jiankou, and Mutianyu, all within short bus rides of Beijing. Badaling is famed as the scene of Richard Nixon’s “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall” sentiment during his historic 1972 visit to China, but large crowds now mean that tourists today don’t have quite the same visit the president did. Jiankou has seen less maintenance on its steep staircases than more visited Badaling, while the toboggan back down from the top of Mutianyu makes this section a popular draw. All three of these well-known sections are part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.) Great Wall.
Final Stretches in the West
After leaving Beijing and winding the rest of its 8,851-kilometre total length, the Great Wall finally comes to an end in the deserts of western China’s Gansu Province. Completed by around 1372 C.E., the Jaiyuguan Fort at the end of the Great Wall was historically considered the far limit of the Chinese Empire, where dissidents and exiles would be banished to the barbaric wastes beyond. As legend recalls, the engineer of the fort was so skilled that he calculated to the exact brick what construction materials would be necessary to raise Jaiyuguan Fort. When encouraged to order more, just as a precaution, the designer added exactly one brick, which is said to be still sitting unused atop the main gate today.
Though not quite so desolate now, the southern reaches of the nearby Gobi Desert mean the landscape has retained a bit of the stark and empty feeling for which it was so famed in ancient times. At the “Water Gate” leading into the nearby mountains, one last climb up the sandy steps of the Western Great Wall reveals a panoramic view of black desert in one direction and rocky mountains in the other, with one line of defence standing between Ancient China and all the invaders of the time.
Outstanding Universal Value
Though of varying ages and construction materials, the Great Wall of China was intended as a barrier between Chinese civilisation and what rulers of the times saw as the barbarian masses outside. While ultimately unsuccessful at its defensive mission, the Great Wall of China does, as UNESCO eloquently reports, “bear exceptional testimony to the civilizations of ancient China.”
While each section offers a different experience (Jianshaling for easily accessible crowd-free hiking, Jiayuguan for exploring a Gobi desert fortress and Shanhaiguan for valley views out to the Bohai Sea), expect to pay 50-100 RMB in entrance fees for any trip. The cost of transport from Beijing to Jiayuguan or Shanhaiguan makes these sections more expensive on a short trip to China, but the ability to see the famed Great Wall in the context of different scenery and with fewer tourists can make the trip worthwhile.