An undisputable symbol of ancient Chinese military power, the Great Wall is the world’s largest military defense system in the world. It stretches across northern China, separating the mainland from Inner Mongolia, starting at the mouth of Yalu River (Hushan, Liaoning Province) in the east and ends at Jiayu Pass (Gansu Province) in the west, measuring 8,851.8 kilometres (5,500.3 miles) in all.
Rather than one continuous wall, the Great Wall is made up of several sections built at various times throughout history. Its construction spanned 2,000 years, from the Warring States Period (5th Century BC – 221 BC) to the massive expansion period undertaken during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).
Constructed using the rammed-earth technique, little of the ‘original’ Great Wall – built during the reign of Qin Shih Huang – has survived the test of time. Much of what is left standing today was constructed with stones and kiln-fired bricks, an engineering innovation under the Ming emperors.
The Great Wall of China
One of China's most scenic attractions that calls for repeated visits, the Great Wall’s lengthy span passes through diverse landscapes and geographical terrains. The easternmost section at Hushan in Liaoning juts right into the Bohai Sea (Pacific Ocean), then it winds up and down mountains, through grasslands and deserts, passing through Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, before ending at Jiayu Pass in Gansu.
Each wall section is fortified with a series of double- or triple-lined walls and military structures, including watchtowers, beacon towers, fortresses, garrison towns and blockhouses. Some of the sections are merged with natural defensive barriers, such as rivers and hills.
As such, walking a section of the Great Wall is not exactly a walk in the park – mostly it involves inching along with hands firmly on the handrail. In remoter, less well-kept sections, it can be dangerous, with loose bricks and stones. One man, though, has trekked the entire length of the Great Wall – but it took him two years – which meant surviving some of China’s most difficult terrain as well as unpredictable weather at high altitudes.
The Great Wall History
Up until the early Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), China was in constant warfare with neighbouring states and northern invaders. When Qin Shih Huang – the first Chinese emperor – unified the fragmented warring states under his Qin Empire, he linked the existing fortification system together as well as expanding it westward in hopes of warding off the northern nomadic tribes for once and for all.
Finally, what started off as an expansive fortification project turned into the largest military defense system in the world. Constructed using the rammed-earth technique, little of the ‘original’ Great Wall – built during the reign of Qin Shih Huang – has survived the test of time. Much of what is left standing today was constructed with stones and kiln-fired bricks, an engineering innovation under the Ming emperors. The Great Wall was made longer and more robust, with multi-line walls and additional structures, such as canon towers, observations posts, fortresses and beacons.
In effect, the Wall’s military function ceased once Mongolia was annexed by China during the Qing Dynasty. After extensive renovation by the government of the People’s Republic of China, the Badaling section was the first to open as a tourist attraction in 1955.
Highlights and Features
- Badaling: The best-preserved – and most-visited section – situated 73km north of Beijing (accessible by bus or taxi). A military stronghold during the Ming Dynasty, Badaling’s outpost at Juyongguan is believed to be the highest point of the entire Great Wall (at 1,000 metres above sea level).
- Shanhaiguan: The easternmost section (Ming), with one of the most heavily fortified and best preserved passes (The First Pass under Heaven). Flanked by the mountains and sea, Shanhaiguan is home to the eastern beginning of the Great Wall, or Laolongtou (Old Dragon’s Head), which juts into the Bohai Sea, and the Great Wall Museum. It lies 300 kilometres to the east of Beijing and is accessible via the Jingshen Expressway.
- Simatai: Famous for its steep, ragged and intact appearance. The Simatai section (Hebei Province) features an attractive lake (Mandarin Duck Lake) and the famous Fairy Tower, with a steep stairway that rises at an 85-degree angle. Accessible by public bus from Beijing (120km).
- Jinshanling: Connects with Simatai to the east (110km northeast of Beijing, accessible by bus), the Jinshanling section (Hebei Province) also has a steep, ragged appearance. Trek up the craggy stone stairs that lead to a watchtower for a spectacular view of the Great Wall snaking across the mountain ridges into the horizon.
- Mutianyu: Winding through verdant mountains and pine forests, the Mutianyu (72km from Beijing, accessible by bus) section is renowned for its spectacular scenery.
- Jiayuguan: Constructed in 1372 using the rammed-earth technique, Jiayuguan is the western starting point of the Great Wall and one of its best-preserved ancient military fortresses. The pass boasts magnificent three-storey fortresses and watchtowers, which look out over the vastness of the Gobi desert. Visitors should fly in to Jiayuguan City, then take a taxi to the pass.
Good to Know and What Not to Miss
- Depending on the sections you visit, the Great Wall can sometimes be dangerous as it is built into steep mountain slopes and ridges. The less maintained sections can have loose bricks and stone steps.
- Wear comfortable shoes and sporty clothes, as the Great Wall is more of a trek than a walk on level ground.
- Dress appropriately for the weather.
The Great Wall of China
- Opening Hours: Each section of the wall has its own opening hours and admission fees. Most sections close earlier in winter/spring.
- How to get there: When visiting the remoter sections, it’s best to hire a taxi or private driver. The more touristic sections, such as Shanhaiguan, are accessible by public bus.