70 kilometers northwest of the capital city of Beijing lies the majestic and world famous section of the Great Wall known as Badaling. It is estimated that over 150 million visitors have come to the highlands of Yanqing County to see Badaling since China first welcomed tourism here in 1957. Since this public opening, the 5-kilometers of the Great Wall at Badaling has become a staple in travel itineraries and is firmly etched in the minds of most travelers as their image of “The Great Wall of China.”
Commissioned by Emperor Zhudi of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Badaling’s military mission was to protect the Juyongguan Pass. Once completed Badaling, along with its 19 towers, was believed to be so strong that one man at this fortification could turn back 10,000 invaders.
Falling into disrepair during the centuries between the Ming Dynasty and modern times, Chinese leaders began restoring Badaling in the 1950s and again in the 1980s. These efforts worked to preserve the authentic look and feel of Badaling, transporting visitors back to the 16th century when Badaling first stood guard over China’s northern border.
“Badaling” translates into English as “Reaching in 8 Directions.” With a name like this, it’s no surprise that Badaling is accessible by many modes of transport including the Badaling Expressway, which travels from Beijing. Once arriving, visitors can ascend the Wall by foot or opt for the cable car.
The China Great Wall Museum and the Great Wall National Theater offer visitors opportunities to explore Badaling’s beauty and history.
90 kilometers in the northeast of Beijing is Mutianyu, debatably, the second most popular destination for Great Wall aficionados. This remarkably well-preserved 3-kilometer section of the Wall is found in Huairou County, in the lush wooded mountainside of the northern Beijing Municipality. In addition to its original strength and integrity, extensive renovations at Mutianyu in the 1980’s further brought out its beauty and glory.
Although Mutianyu stood since the Qi Dynasty, it was the Ming that transformed this section of the Great Wall into a military and engineering masterpiece. Built to withstand invaders as well as time and the elements, Mutianyu has proven its durability as many sections remain intact even after 5 centuries.
One well-known feature of Mutianyu are its many watchtowers. 22 watchtowers combine to form an intricately designed defensive system. These watchtowers provided firepower to deter invading forces as well as a means of efficient communications up and down the length of Mutianyu. Using smoke and fire signals, warnings could be sent to other parts of the Wall at speeds far outpacing horse-mounted messengers.
Just as in Badaling, Mutianyu features many steep sections. It’s estimated that Mutianyu has over 4,000 steps, which can be quite a workout! For those seeking a less strenuous ascent, chairlifts and gondola rides are also available. As for descending, a fun and exciting option is to take one Mutianyu’s toboggans down.
Approximately 70 kilometers from Beijing, travelers find Jiankou built into jagged mountainsides. This section of the Wall shows off the brilliance and ingenuity of Ming Dynasty engineers.
Popular among the more adventurous Great Wall visitors, Jiankou features many steep and ruined sections, so hikers beware! This beautiful and picturesque section of the Wall has never been restored, thus many Wall enthusiasts see Jiankou as abona fides example of the Great Wall, untouched by renovations or improvements. But for those who choose this road less travelled, gorgeous panoramas and historic “Wild Wall” ruins await.
Jiankou’s many scenic architectural features are aptly named with glorified monikers. The Tower of the Eagle Flies Facing Upward, a section so steep that it is said that even eagles must ascend facing upwards. The Beijing Knot is a fortification where three sections of the Wall converge. Other heavenly designations are the steep and elevated Sky Stairs and the Cloud Stairs, which are said to be so steep and narrow at points as to be virtually inaccessible to humans.
For hikers, the popular and scenic Jiankou-Mutianyu trail travels approximately 10 kilometers from Jiankou to Mutianyu and can be completed in about 4 hours. Although generally considered appropriate for most hikers, the trail is lengthy and there are some difficult sections. Those with physical limitations, senior citizens as well as the very young should proceed with caution.
A mountain pass approximately 50 kilometers north of Beijing, the ancient fortress of Juyongguan was originally built during the Qin Dynasty and then extensively refortified during the Ming Dynasty as an important defensive position defending China’s capital city of Beijing.
Juyongguan stands in the shape of a massive loop measuring over 6 kilometers in circumference. One of its most prominent features is the Cloud Platform. A hexagonal archway that covers the old road through Juyong, the Cloud Platform stands at 9.5 meters in height and displays 6 scripts in 6 different languages, thus earning its nickname, the Language Archway.
Simatai, the “Commander’s Horse Platform,” is a popular stretch of the Great Wall that combines impressive “Wild Wall” features, extraordinary views and ample opportunities to hiking and exploring. Simatai’s highest point is Wanjinglou, a watchtower that sits at approximately 3,000 feet. It is said that on a clear day one can see Beijing from this vantage point, thus its name, which translates to “Watching Beijing.”
Hiking aficionados will enjoy the trail between Jinshanling and Simatai which offers a challenging yet exquisite 10 kilometer hiking experience along the Great Wall.
The Forbidden City
Immediately adjacent to Tiananmen Square stands the sprawling complex of the Forbidden City, where historically none could enter without royal permission. Constructed in the 15th century, the Forbidden City is an earthly replica of the Purple Palace in Heaven. UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site 1987.
The Summer Palace
Covering 2.9 square kilometers with the sprawling manmade Kunming Lake as its centerpiece, the Summer Palace was where Ming emperors and their court came to escape the sweltering Beijing summer heat. UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site 1998.
The Temple of Heaven
Described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of architecture and landscape,” The Temple of Heaven is a supreme example of traditional Chinese architecture. Originally built in 1420 as the imperial altar, the Temple today continues to evoke a transcendent connection between Heaven and Earth. UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site 1998.
The Bird’s Nest & Water Cube
The 2008 Olympic Games produced some of the most symbolic buildings in Beijing, foremost among them are National Stadium, more commonly known as the Bird’s Nest, and the adjacent Watercube.