Do you know anything about the New Seven Wonders of the World? Up until today, I have featured a few of Wonders, from Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Colosseum, Chichén Itzá, to, of course, the honorary wonder – the only surviving original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, The Giza Pyramids.
Now, we are moving to our next stop in China. When we talk about the Great Wall, I think the one thing you would be able to tell is that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from space. Now, it’s becoming a space-based myth because, generally, this is not necessarily true, at least to the unaided eye in low earth orbit, according to NASA. Having said that, the colossal scale of the Great Wall is still hard to ignore. I have been to the Great Wall twice, while my first time was in winter that was so cold, I could barely remember what it was like except holding on to the rail to stop myself from slipping down on the hard ice that covered the ground. It was years after and I re-visited Beijing once again, and I thought it was time for me to take a look at what the wall is like today.
There’s an old Chinese saying that says “You’re not a man until you have walked the wall”; the proverb is not a misogynistic slur, it is a reiteration about the importance of visiting this impressive wonder, and what an accomplishment it would be for stepping foot on this majestic stone wall that stood on the mountains for centuries.
Why the Great Wall?
If you feel there’s a need to understand the importance of visiting the Great Wall – it is one of the most significant landmarks, and it is one of the most visited attractions in the country. First, the Great Wall is a powerful symbol of China’s architectural achievement. It represents the unification of China, as the wall was built with blood and sweat for years to defend their countries from Ming Dynasty to Qin Dynasty. The fortification is actually not a single project – some part of the wall was built as early as the 7th century B.C. Multiple sections of the wall were eventually linked up as protection against many nomadic groups from the Eurasian Steppe. The linkage of the wall is a representation of the collaboration and determination of the people.
Secondly, the Great Wall is simply unique. A large defensive wall is nothing new. The Walls of Ston in Croatia, the Diyarbakir Walls in Turkey, the Hadrian’s Wall (The Roman Wall) in the UK, the Aurelian Walls in Rome, to the Kremlin Walls, and the Berlin Wall, some of them have also made it on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site. But in no way these walls can closely rival the length and scale of the Great Wall. The second longest wall in the world is the Bastions of Kumbalgarh Fort, and it’s… 36 kilometers long – only a fraction of the length of the Great Wall, for 21,196 kilometers in total. This is the one and only Great Wall in the world.
Lastly, the Great Wall is disappearing. No, it’s not going to vanish into thin air the next day, but around 30% of the Great Wall has disappeared over time due to natural disasters, erosion, and human activities. Given the long stretch of the wall, it’s difficult to maintain the condition of the wall without a sustainable preservation measure. Besides, one key reason that the wall is disappearing is because of human destruction. Blocks in different parts of the wall are continuously stolen to build houses. Who knows what will happen to the original beauty of the wall years after?
Great Wall 101
It’s called the Great Wall today, and in fact, it is a collection of defensive walls that date back to the 7th century BC. The first series of walls was built since the Qin Dynasty by Emperor Qin in 200 B.C., and it was joined together in Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.
The main purpose of the wall is to protect against various nomadic groups from the Eurasian Steppe. The wall is also used as border control, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the silk road, regulation or encouragement of trade, and the control of immigration and emigration. There are watchtowers, troop barracks, garrison stations, and signaling towers on the wall – the path of the wall is also a transportation corridor that connects from west to east.
Back in the 8th century B.C., The Chinese have already known a thing or two about building walls. At that time, the country is split into different states during the Spring and Autumn Period, and extensive fortifications were built to form the borders of the Warring States. Centuries passed by, and the walls were continuously reinforced, improve, and rebuilt through Han, Tang, and Ming dynasties. The style, design, and architecture of the wall and buildings vary at different times, from rammed earth, bricks, and stones to a mixture of the above.
The wall that we see today was constructed mainly in the 14th century when the idea of having a Great Wall resurfaced. While the power in the Ming Dynasty failed to defend themselves effectively against the Mongol tribes in the north, they constructed a long fortification to keep the nomadic tribes out of the borders. The wall followed the desert’s southern edge of the Ordos Desert and build along the bend of the Yellow River. It was a successful strategy and somehow helped defend the empire against the Manchu invasion until it eventually succumbed, hence the Qing Dynasty.
Where you can see the Great Wall?
The total length of the walls reaches 21,196.18 kilometers, and while there are so many layers and constructions in the entire region, it’s hard to define the full course of the Great Wall of where and what. Generally speaking, the Wall starts from Hushan, Liaoning province in the east, and ends at Jiayuguan Pass, Gansu in the west. The Great Wall passes through a number of provinces including Liaoning, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. Not all the walls remain intact or open to the public for visits. As there are sections of the Wall located on the top of rugged mountains, left untouched with trees growing on the wall. Some sections in the remoted area are suffering from erosion and they are disappearing due to human destruction.
One of the best cities in China to reach the Great Wall is in Beijing. Most of the best sections of the Great Walls are located near Beijing. For example, Badaling is the most popular. Mutianyu is considered one of the best restored. Jinshanling is the most beautiful. Jiankou is the wildest.
Mutianyu is the most beautiful and one of the two most visited sections among foreign travelers and it’s considered the most beautiful section. Mutianyu is 73 kilometers from Beijing with cable cars going up and down. There is a cart railway going down the mountain as well.
Jinshanling is a popular hiking route starting from Jinshanling to Simatai. This section of wall is half restored and half-wild, meaning it has a different kind of scenery – having the wall snaking up and down the steep mountains, part of the wall ruins. Jinshanling is 154 kilometers from Beijing and it has a cable car connection, too.
Simatai is the only section that has a night tour. It’s 120 kilometers from Beijing, and it is listed as a World Heritage Site since 1987. This is also a great location to view the foliage in the fall. This section is an exciting part as it has cable cars, battery carts, zipline, and boat tours.
Huanghuacheng is recognized for the mix of lake scenery with the Great Wall. It’s located just 75 kilometers from Beijing, and some parts of the wall are actually underwater. A chestnut orchard is located at the foot of the wall, and it’s 500 years old, since the Ming Dynasty.
Jiankou is the most remote and dangerous section for being located on steep mountains, completely unrestored. You will see part of the wall is almost climbing vertically up the mountains! It’s 100 kilometers from Beijing and it offers a completely original, wild, and untouched beauty. However, this section is recommended to experienced hikers only, and there were a number of accidents reported for trying to climb up the dangerous parts.
Juyong Pass is the main gate and a fort on the wall, it’s the closest one to Beijing and it’s a great location to appreciate the majestic Chinese architecture for any type of visitor. It was one of the most important forts in China to defend ancient Beijing at that time. Genghis Khan once led his troops through Juyong Pass during his conquest of Chinese territory.
Huangya Pass is closer to Tianjin, another important gate of the Great Wall and this is where the Great Wall Marathon is held each year.
Shanhai Pass is located in Qinhuangdao City, Shangdong Province for being the east-end of the wall. It’s a very strategic pass and it’s actually extended into the sea.
Badaling is the most important and popular location of the Great Wall, and it’s located 72 kilometers from Beijing. It’s a 2 hours drive and the most popular section for tourist groups. While it can be the most crowded, it has the most developed facilities for all types of travelers. Here I am sharing more information about visiting this part of the Great Wall :).
How to get to Badaling
If you are interested to venture to Badaling by public transportation, take bus #877, departing from Deshengmen. The bus journey takes about one to 1.5 hours, depending on the traffic; another way is to take the subway Line 4 and head to Huangtudian station. There, the railway takes passengers to Badaling with Train S2, and there are about 10 trains that go to and from Badaling daily (but note that the schedule of the train changes a lot and it’s not as reliable as the bus at the moment).
What I recommend is hiring a taxi, or trying to catch on a carpool that usually fishes for passengers on the side of the road outside the station. It may sound a little bit dangerous yet it’s more direct and somehow it makes your visit easier with someone to guide you. It’s true that you may get lost with waves of tourists coming and going and rushing onto the shuttle.
There are free shuttle services taking visitors from the main entrance to the cable car station. It is also where the ticket office is. If you want to stay off from the crowd, and you can not plan to take the cable car. Get off the shuttle at the first tower and have a walk! The cable car brings visitors up the mountains, where towers number 7 and 8 are. In general, it’s possible to walk from tower 1 to 14, but it’s a bit of a hike.
Ticket price and opening hours
If you have a verified Wechat account (which I don’t) it’s possible to go online with your phone and purchase a ticket using the app. For foreigners (like me), it’s required to purchase the ticket at the ticket office while you arrived.
I headed to the ticket office and I was asked to head up to the second floor, when I was asked to show the QR Code to ride the cable car, I told them I need to purchase a ticket as a foreigner, I was guided to a small table in an adjacent room and I have to show my ID before they gave me a ticket. Follow the signs and guidance, yet don’t forget to voice out if you have a question because the locals’ and foreigners’ way of buying a ticket is quite different.
Entrance ticket (Nov 1 – Mar 31): CNY40 (~US 6.3); (Apr 1 – Oct 31): CNY45 (~US7.5)
Cable Car One way: CNY 80 (~US12.62); Both Ways: CNY 100 (~US15.77)
Toboggan One way: CNY 30 (~US4.73)
Summer: 6:30 am to 7 pm
Winter: 7 am to 6 pm
For the ticket office, the operating hours are different.
Peak season: 8 am to 4:30 pm
Low season: 8:30 am to 4 pm
The best time to visit Great Wall
In terms of weather, the best time to visit the Great Wall is usually in spring (April to May) and Fall (September to November), while it’s not too hot and not too cold. The greeneries in the surrounding mountains during spring is the best backdrop that highlights the silhouette of the Great Wall, snaking off into the distance. In general, Beijing has a higher chance of good weather in the fall with more sunny days and good air quality. It is imperative for a wonderful view because it’s impossible to fully appreciate the architecture if it’s raining, cloudy, or covered in smog.
With that in mind, if you do get to the Great Wall on a sunny day, the wall is basically an open walkway with no shades. Bring a hat and sunscreen if you are planning to have a hike. That’s why a cooler temperature will be so much more comfortable to walk on the wall, imagine if you have to do that climb during summer under scorching heat (yes, Beijing can be scorching).
How to beat the crowd at the Great Wall?
The Great Wall at Badaling is the most visited section of the Great Wall and lots of visitors go there every day (including the locals). It’s really hard for an ordinary visitor to beat the crowd and shoot a picture of the Great Wall without a single person in sight. Why? Because the reserve is closed to the public and when it opens, lots of visitors flood in, and visitors typically need the shuttle service to bring them to the wall. Therefore, visitors are always put in large groups no matter you are fast you move. Luckily, given the large space of the wall, it is still possible to capture a moment without a person holding an umbrella around you that may ruin the picture.
It may sound a little bit hopeless to have the Great Wall all to yourselves. If you really want to visit the wall without a big crowd, the typical rule of visiting the site in low season and really early in the morning (Badaling opens at 7:30 am) still helps. Consider hiring a private driver, renting a car, or joining a private tour will give you an advantage for getting there in a big crowd by public transportation.
On top of that, avoid weekends and the national holidays. Especially the Golden week in October is the worst time to visit the wall because this week is notoriously crowded everywhere, including the Great Wall. The wall will be packed and most visitors are stuck in long queues and poor traffic.
Another way to beat the crowd is simply visiting another section of the wall, given that the wall is thousands of kilometers long, there are other sections of the wall worth seeing. The Great Wall at Mutianyu is slightly off-beat, yet it’s often considered a better option because it’s less crowded, and since it’s less popular than Badaling, it also attracts tourists that appreciate a less commercialized setting.
The Great Wall at Badaling
It is said that the precipitousness of Juyong lies not in its Pass but in Badaling. Located in Yanqing District, Beijing, Badaling Great Wall is famous for its long history, rich culture, magnificent architecture, and majestic momentum. It’s the most outstanding representative of the Great Wall, the best-preserved section of the Ming Great Wall, and a cultural relic of mankind. It’s an important national cultural heritage under state protection and it’s a national scenic area.
The total length of the Badaling section is 12 kilometers but only about 3.74 kilometers is restored and opened to the public. The visit of this section takes about 2 to 3 hours, and 19 watchtowers are in here. The cable car takes passengers to towers 7 and 8, and then visitors can walk in either direction (From Tower 8 to Tower 12) or head down to the entrance on foot (from Tower 8 to Tower 1, it’s a downward path), or you can take cable car both ways, or head down by riding the “Pulley” slide way at Tower 4. It’s a fun ride that brings you down to the ground at a high speed. The entrance is located in the center of the wall with Tower 1 to 12 on one side (the part where visitors usually walk on), and the other 7 Towers are on the other side of the entrance. There are restaurants, fast food places, souvenir shop, and a Great Wall Museum located near the entrance of the wall.
Things you may not know about the Great Wall
- This is a manifestation of the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty. The preserved and restored parts show to the world how the soldiers defend against the invasion of Mongolians from the north.
- The wall is mainly built of stones and bricks. The inside of the wall is stuffed with rammed earth and granular stones to reinforce the density.
- The wall in this section averages about 7.8 meters in height, and 6 meters wide.
- This is one of the most visited attractions in China, and Badaling received millions of tourists every year. More than 370 foreign leaders and celebrities visited the Great Wall, including former US presidents Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II of the UK, and more!
- The watchtowers were used to accommodate soldiers, and connect to the top platform for communication, safeguarding watching, the towers also provided storage. Some towers have shooting holes.
- Through decades, historical events took place at Badaling and Juyong Pass – Genghis Khan once led his troops through Juyong Pass during his conquest of Chinese territory; Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty fled from here to western China in 1900 when an alliance of eight western countries controlled Beijing.