Photograph by Michael Yamashita
The precipitous stone-and-brick Simatai section of the wall includes such whimsically named sections as the Fairy Tower and Heavenly Ladder.
The Great Wall's Draw
By Nida Sophasarun
Long before President Nixon's 1972 proclamation that the Great Wall was indeed "great," European visitors from the 17th and 18th centuries had returned home touting and mythologizing the chang cheng (long wall). Their lasting, often incorrect, descriptions of one vast fortification that ensured China's peace by excluding hordes of nomads, in turn, encouraged hordes of late 19th-century Western tourists to flock there. Though many of the myths have been knocked down, the Great Wall remains the nation's leading tourist attraction in the 21st century, inviting millions each year to challenge or confirm its legends, panoramic beauty, and physically overwhelming truths.
China's capital city, Beijing, is typically the starting point for those who want to see the Great Wall. Offering spectacular views at times thousands of feet above sea level and hikes at 70 degree inclines, the network of walls stretches from Shanhaiguan (on China's east coast) to Jiayuguan (in the Gobi desert). Travelers, whether they choose to climb crowded or remote areas, can marvel at the feat of the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, which built and restored the majority of the walls, the Mongols who raided and maneuvered around the walls, the Silk Road traders who crossed them, and Mao Zedong who destroyed sections in 1966. Graffiti, trash, and natural deterioration along parts of the walls are signs that vandals and time currently compete with renovation projects. Its status as an endangered and World Heritage site has fueled conservation efforts. The Great Wall still allows for every type of touristtame walker or adventurous climberwhile China's tourism industry caters to every single one.
TopWHERE TO START
- Badaling is 42 miles (70 kilometers) northwest of Beijing. This section, restored in 1957, is the most crowded of the sites, with guardrails, cable cars, and Chinese kitsch stands. The views from the watchtowers are nevertheless impressive, and some venture far from the crowds to where the wall is literally crumbling. Admission is 40 yuan ($4.80). The cable car costs 50 yuan ($6) round-trip.
- Juyongguan, or Juyong Pass (Dwelling in Harmony Pass), is 31 miles (50 kilometers) northwest and closest to Beijing. This steep and heavily renovated section, originally built in the 5th century and reconstructed by the Ming dynasty, is known for its scenic beauty. Situated in a ravine between two mountains, Juyongguan acted as a strategic fortification against raiders from the northwest of Beijing as well as a trading pass. Elaborate wall carvings and inscriptions remain. Admission is 30 yuan ($3.60).
- Mutianyu, located 56 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, is connected to Juyongguan in the west. Besides cable cars and crowds, Mutianyu boasts 22 watchtowers along its well-preserved 7,300-foot- (2,250 meter) long wall. Admission is 20 yuan ($2.50).
- Simatai is 68 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Beijing and hosts 35 beacon towers, including Watching Beijing Tower (the 986-meter3,200-footsummit of Simatai), Fairy Tower, Heavenly Ladder, and Sky Bridge. Appealing for its exploration potential, diverse architecture, and steepness, Simatai contrasts sharply with Badaling and Mutianyu in its less-crowded and crumbling condition. Admission is 20 yuan ($2.50).
- Huanghua (Yellow Flower Fortress) is 37 miles (60 kilometers) north of Beijing and the place to go for a real wild hike and well-preserved walls. Adjacent to a reservoir, Huanghua claims high and wide ramparts (a legacy of the Ming dynasty), parapets, and beacon towers.
HOW TO GET THERE
- From Beijing to the Great Wall at Badaling, travelers can catch big tour buses at either Tiananmen Square between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. or minibuses at Dongzhimen bus station starting at 5:30 a.m. Depending on the particular wall site (see below) and the number of bus connections, travel times vary and distances range from 12 miles to 75 miles (19 kilometers to 120 kilometers), so set aside at least nine hours for the shortest distance trip. Major hotels and China International Travel Service (CITS) also arrange guided tours, which are more expensive. Fares and tour prices differ depending on the season and quality of bus, but prices roughly range from 50 yuan ($6.25 a person) to 400 yuan ($50 a person). Renting a taxi to the wall and back, for eight hours and a maximum of four people, will cost at least 400 yuan. For tour reservations, go to the CITS website, www.citsusa.com. For Beijing bus and train information, refer to www.passplanet.com/China/cn/trspt_beijing.htm.
WHAT TO BRING / NEED-TO-KNOWS
- Summer (6888°F / 2031°C) is the peak season when tours and hotels charge higher fares. For fewer tourists and the best weather, visit the wall in autumn (4364°F / 618°C). Beijing's brutal icy winters (1941°F / minus 7 5°C) bring only the ones who can brave the cold. In the spring (5075°F / 1024°C) there are fewer tourists, due to the wind and dust, which might make for an uncomfortable visit.
- Wear lightweight layers in the summer and a heavy coat in the winter. Travel light so that both hands are free when climbing steeper sections of the wall.
- Bring Chinese currency, yuan and small change for souvenirs and ever-increasing admission fees.
- Bring bottled water. Don't drink the tap water
- Warning: Recently, the unrestored sections of the so-called wild wall have become popular with tourists who wish to avoid the crowds of restored areas. There are reports from travelers who were aggressively harassed by locals demanding money for passage. In October 2002 one of these confrontations proved fatal, when a British tourist was robbed and murdered while sleeping on a section of the Great Wall. (Source: South China Morning Post.)
WHERE TO STAY
- For a list of three-to five-star Beijing hotels, as well as a link to a list of restaurants, go to www.chinanow.com/english/beijing/btravel/hotels.html or www.asiahotels.com/hl/China.asp
- There are some local hostels or hotels along the Great Wall, but accommodations for the public or foreigners are not always dependable.
- Ready for a tougher climb? Learn more about the annual Great Wall Marathon in May at, www.great-wall-marathon.com/.
- June 23 has been named International Olympic Day in China. In 2003 an international concert, called 1,000 Saxophones on the Great Wall, is being planned and strives to bring together saxophone players from all over the world in a unique, historic concert. Find out more about the concert's goals and register by March at, www.nuclearwhales.com/china.htm.
- Hike during the day and enjoy fireworks at night. The Great Wall Festival is celebrated at Shanhaiguan Pass, 171 miles (275 kilometers) northeast from Beijing, every August.
- Party hopper? Travelers can check out this list of major festivals held in various provinces throughout the year: www.1uptravel.com/international/asia/china/festivals.html. Depending on the time and place, tourists can enjoy beautiful temple celebrations and join in age-old cultural traditions.
THINGS TO DO AROUND THE WALL
Beijing is more than just a starting point for the Great Wall. While China's capital city is busy prepping to be the home of the 2008 Summer Olympics, travelers can enjoy the following cultural monuments.
- Forbidden City, or the Palace Museum, housed the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Last tickets sold at 3:30 p.m. Admission is 60 yuan ($7.50).
- Summer Palace, an immense park with pavilions and temples, was a garden for the 18th-century emperors. Admission is 35 yuan ($4.15) and does not include all the fees inside.
- Tiantan, or the Temple of Heaven, is as equally famous a structure as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. A temple for ceremonial worship and sacrifice, the symbolic architecture reflects one's relation to heaven and Earth. Open 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Admission is 35 yuan ($4.15).
- In the Ming Tombs, or Shisan Ling, located 31 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Beijing, rest the 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors, their empresses, and concubines over 40-square-kilometers. Three tombs are open to the public. Each costs 20 yuan-35 yuan ($2.50-$4.35). Be sure to allow for time to explore the unrenovated tombs.
- Peking Man Site, or Beijing Yuanren Yizhi, is 31 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of Beijing in Zhoukoudian. Here the 690,000-year-old Chinese ape-man (Homo erectus Pekinensis) and caves were excavated in the 1920s and 1930s. The museum is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is 20 yuan ($2.40).