The Great Wall of China, Beijing
“I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall” – Richard Nixon
The Great Wall, which stretches 6000km from the Gobi Desert in the West to the crashing waves and rocks of Shanhaiguan in the East, is one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. It is of incomparable importance in the Chinese psyche, both as a symbol of the nation’s former might, and of the need to unite and fight for their future.
The wall features in the second line of the Chinese National Anthem, and is used to advertise everything from cigarettes to cars. Millions of tourists flock there each year and not only because Chariman Mao said ‘If you don’t go to the Great Wall, you’re not a real man’ (Bú dào Chángchéng fēi hăo hàn- 不到长城非好汉).
Construction of the Great Wall of China
The first building began in the Qin Dynasty, more than 2000 years ago, and various dynasties have added bits, improved bits, or started up whole new sections of their own. Most construction took place in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
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Many of the Great Wall construction workers were convicts. It is thought that up to one million may have died, but the wall never really did its job as a defensive structure. Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and later the Manchus who established the Qing dynasty, both found their way through with bribery and trickery before overrunning the whole of China.
The Great Wall is not visible from space
The idea that the Great Wall is visible from space has been around since at least 20 years before anyone actually got to space. Many people still believe that it is, in spite of the contrary testimony of astronauts. It is true that it would be visible from space with a telescope, but most things are.
What’s left of the once-Great Wall
The wall itself, and what is left of it, varies from place to place. In some places it’s been totally renovated, in other places it’s little more than a crumbling pile of packed mud. It was in the Ming dynasty that brick and stone were first used to face the wall, and the guard towers visible today were built along its length. As a rough estimate, the sort of wall you will probably end up seeing near Beijing is about ten metres high, and five metres across. Perhaps not too intimidating now, but a formidable obstacle to those armed only with swords and bows.
Great Wall Practical Information
There are numerous locations around Beijing where you can see the Great Wall.
The best option is often to hire a taxi. A driver will take you to most of the locations mentioned below, wait for a few hours while you have a look round, and bring you back to the centre for 400RMB or less. Huánghuā, Gǔbĕikǒu or Jīnshānlĭng may be slightly more.
Another easy option is to join a tour, or catch one of the special tourist buses to each destination.
Badaling Great Wall
This is one of the best known parts of the Great Wall, but it’s arguably least authentic, pervaded by a theme park-like atmosphere. The views are very nice though. Entry costs 40/45Y, which includes entry to the Great Wall Museum. To get here by public transport, take bus no. 919 from Déshèngmén (德胜门), or Tourist Buses No.1 from Qiánmén (前门) No. 2 from Beijing Railway Station (Bĕijīng huǒchēzhàn-北京火车站), or No.3 from Xīzhímén (西直门) or Beijing Zoo (Bĕijīng Dòngwùyuán-北京动物园).
Gubeikou Great Wall
The Gubeikou is a very unkempt section of the wall which sees few tourists… yet. It’s perfect if you want to catch a bit of wall without having to be careful not to get in other people’s photographs. There’s also a temple here. To get here, take the bus to Miyun then the bus to Gǔbĕikǒu as explained in the Jinshanling section below.
Huanghua Great Wall
Huanghua, like Gubeikou, is relatively wild, although no longer as wild as it was five years ago. The government has recently been repairing some of the more precarious parts of the wall.
To get here from Dōngzhímén (东直门) take bus no. 916 to Huáiróu, (怀柔) then a minibus to Huanghua Great Wall – Huánghuāchángchéng 黄花长城.
Jinshanling Great Wall
Jinshanling is one of the less touristed areas of the wall. The wall has not been extensively renovated, and ancient watchtowers crumble slowly to dust. Unfortunately, getting here is not straightforward. If you don’t want to hire a taxi, you need to get the bus to to Mìyún (密云) from either Dōngzhímén (东直门) or Xīzhímén (西直门) Bus Stations, then a bus to Bākèshíyíng (巴克什营). No 970 is one of several buses you can catch from Dōngzhímén to Mìyún. Entry is 30RMB.
Juyongguan Great Wall
Juyonguan, like Badaling, can get rather crowded at times, but it is the easiest place to get to, about 50km North West of the city. To get here just follow the instructions for Badaling, but tell the bus drivers you want to get off at Juyong guan. Admission 45Y.
Mutianyu Great Wall
Mutianyu is a very picturesque, though extensively renovated, section of wall. The place seems sometimes to be utterly deserted, at others is packed with busloads of tourists. The Wall winds over green hills, and there are guard towers dotted along the way. Postcard sellers can be a little sticky here, but friendly enough. The entrance fee is 85RMB, but you also have to pay to get on the cable car, which is an additional 50RMB. Tourist bus no. 6 leaves from Xuanwumen, Dongsishitiao or Andingmen. Alternatively, take bus no 916 from Dōngzhímén to Huáiróu, and from there one of the private minibuses, which should cost around 30RMB.
Simatai Great Wall
Simatai stakes a claim to being the most awe inspiring part of the wall. The wall plunges up and down steep valleys, and at times runs right along the edge of sheer-drop cliffs. The climb to the top is extremely steep (come prepared for a real scramble), but there is a more sedate alternative of a cable car to the top. Entry is 30RMB, and the cable car costs 50RMB.
To get here, hire a taxi, join a tour, or take Tourist Bus no.12 from Xuānwǔmén (宣武门) (70RMB). The public transport alternative is exceedingly inconvenient and will not work out cheaper.