The Great Wall is an unmatched attraction in many ways. Historians count it as one of the greatest human accomplishments, a building project with the longest duration and greatest cost in human work and sacrifice. Architects revere the enduring value of its design and construction. As a fortification, it served to defend China for centuries. For all of these reasons and more, it has been known as one of the “Seven Wonders of the World,” a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the top tourist attraction in China.
Stretching for more than 10,000 km, or 6,214 miles, visiting the Great Wall is a true journey. It travels across nine provinces (regions/municipalities), and runs across numerous tourist attractions along with impressive sceneries, and has tremendous potential for tourism development. But for a long time, foreign tourists have set feet on only a few sections of the Great Wall, such as Badaling.
To integrate tourism resources along the Great Wall, Tourism departments in provinces and municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia) along the Great Wall joined together to launch the “Beautiful China – Journey along the Great Wall” promotional activity. Here are the recommended sections of the Great Wall that the different destinations have to offer.
For over 2,000 years, the Great Wall has stood as the world’s most profound manmade monument to national defense. With constant threats at its borders, the question was, “How will China defend itself?” The answer was, the Great Wall.
From the beginning, the Great Wall’s purpose was to protect the nation from external and internal dangers: the barbarians of the north as well as rival states within China’s borders. This protectionism has always been a basic value for the people. An ancient Chinese saying goes, “A home is incomplete without a wall.” Swedish historian Osvald Siren similarly noted that, in China “there is no such thing as a city without a wall. It would be as inconceivable as a house without a roof.”
But the Great Wall wasn’t just a barrier for repelling invaders. It also functioned as military transportation, housing and communication. As a communications system, the Wall used exceptionally efficient smoke and fire signals to send information up and down its length. This system worked much faster than horseback messengers or even modern day Jeeps.
The Great Wall was indeed a true marvel of military and engineering genius, but this greatness came with a price. A price paid by the lives of hundreds of thousands of China’s people.
Instead of experiencing peace and security, generations saw the Great Wall as a reminder of oppression, forced labor and lost lives. Meanwhile, they witnessed the Wall’s repeated failures as the Mongols, the Manchu, the Europeans and the Japanese all successfully breached or evaded its defenses.
However, over time this negativity has shifted. Today the Great Wall proudly represents the character of the Chinese people: precise engineering, immense people power, great ambition, hard work and commitment to goals. Even the Wall’s failures were transformed by Chairman Mao in the official PRC anthem, which includes the patriotic lyrics, “Not be slaves to take our flesh and blood and build a new Great Wall!”
Foreign appreciation also helped open the eyes of locals to the Great Wall’s magnificence from as early as 1919, when the American William Geil travelled to China as the first foreigner to walk the 2,500 kilometers of the Ming Wall. Then, in 1972, American President Richard Nixon eloquently reported, “This is a Great Wall and… it had to be built by a great people.”
Perhaps the greatest foreign activist for the Great Wall is William Lindesay, who in 1987 spent 4 years running solo over nearly 2,500 kilometers of the Wall. He has since gone on to study and advocate for the Wall, working tirelessly to discover, defend and proclaim the value of the Great Wall as a treasure for all of mankind.
Today, the Great Wall stands as the top Chinese tourist attraction, with tens of millions visiting the Wall every year.
The Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BC): In 888 BC, the early Zhou Dynasty is said to have built the first sections of the Great Wall.
Warring States Period (425-221 BC): Several rival states vied for power in ancient China, including: the Chu, Qi, Wei, Yan, Zhao, Qin and Han. Many of these individual states built walls as part of their defensive strategies to defend themselves from each other as well as from the nomads of the north. These walls remained separate until the “Only First Emperor” Qin Shihuang called for the unification and fortification of each state’s existing wall sections into one great wall.
Early fortifications built among the Zhao, Qi and Zen states were frontier walls used to mark territory between them. Eventually, states began to build walls as defensive structures against each other and the threat of northern nomads. The Zhao in the north central region notably built their wall of stone along their northern border. The Yan of the northeast also built a wall along their northern frontier. The Qin of the west, interestingly built a wall that traveled primarily north-south, presumably to defend against rival states.
The Qin State eventually took control of China, unifying the disparate states into a single nation and the Wall segments into a single Great Wall.
Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.): As the victors of the Warring States Period, the Qin Emperor, Qin Shihuang, ordered the linking of pre-existing walls together to form a cohesive defensive structure. This process took over 10 years and was directed by General Meng Tan. Once finished, the Great Wall stretched from the Liaoning Province in the east to the Gansu Province in the west.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220): The Han Dynasty continued what Emperor Qin Shihuang started. They consolidated the northern border, fortifying China against enemies from the north. The Han Wall extended along half of the Silk Road and into the Yinshan Mountain. In the north and the west, this great barrier ran through the Hexi corridor, Yumenguan Pass, Yangguan Pass, Yanmenguan Pass and Niangziguan Pass.
The Interim Centuries (220–1368): Between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Ming, the Great Wall came under the control of several rulers, many of whom hailed from northern frontier tribes. Among these are the Northern Wei (386-535), Bei Qi (550-577) and Sui (581-618) Dynasties. Maintenance of the Great Wall continued until China’s northern border became blurred as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) acquired lands beyond the Wall.
The culmination of China’s blurred northern border took hold during Genghis Khan’s Yuan Dynasty rule from (1206-1368). During this time, the Mongols had no use for the Wall as a defensive structure as they themselves were the long time northern threat that the Wall was built to repel.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): In 1550, Altan Khan crossed the Great Wall at a weak point in the Gubeikou Pass forcing China to open trade relations with the Mongolians. A year later, the Ming Empire redoubled their efforts to fortify the Wall against invaders.
The Ming revamped the Wall with 60 million cubic meters of brick and stone, completing their work in 1644. The result is the contemporary vision of what many of us imagine when we hear the name, “the Great Wall of China.”
1. The Great Wall is not actually a wall. It’s a series of many walls. It’s a common misconception that the Great Wall is one continuous barrier that stretches from one end of China to the other. On the contrary, what we refer to as “the Great Wall” is actually a myriad of structures built at different times and of different materials. These segments are dispersed throughout northern China. Some have been connected, but many remain separated.
Additionally, several areas of the Great Wall have given way to natural erosion (not to mention pillaging), leaving more gaps.
The entirety of The Wall has yet to be measured, and in actuality may never be as many portions remain inaccessible and undiscovered. A 2009 survey found 180 miles of previously unknown wall, further showing that no one really knows how long the Great Wall really is.
2. The Great Wall is officially one of the “7 Wonders of the World.” Although several lists of “7 Wonders” have been created and circulated by numerous authors over time, an official designation was given to the Great Wall in 2007 by the New7Wonders Foundation.
Additionally, in 1987, UNESCO officially placed the Great Wall on their World Heritage List. The Wall meets 6 of the 10 UNESCO criteria (a minimum of only one is required for inclusion).
3. The Great Wall is the most popular tourist attraction in all of China with tens of millions of annual visitors. It’s estimated that 1,000,000 visitors have their picture taken with the Great Wall every year.
4. The Great Wall is officially 21,196 kilometers ( 13,248 miles) in length (according to Chinese government measurements and estimates as of 2009). This includes the trenches and natural barriers that make up the entire complex.
5. The Great Wall’s broadest width is 30 feet. Its highest point is 12 feet tall (not including watchtowers). The high point at the top of its watchtowers is 26 feet.
6. The towers of the Great Wall are often named after the families that worked on them as a tribute to their labor.
7. Different materials were used at different eras and locations. While much of the Great Wall is built of the impressive brick and mortar of the Ming Dynasty builders, many portions are much more humble in construction. In the west, the Wall is made of compressed earth in a process of ground pounding that is still used today.
One interesting piece of trivia: Sticky rice was used in the mortar for the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty. This process bound the bricks together so tightly that, even today, there are many sections where weeds cannot grow.
8. The Great Wall features over 20,000 watchtowers and 10,000 beacon towers. The builders placed these towers at a distance of 2 arrow-shots in order to assure that archers could defend the perimeter from invaders. These watchtowers were also used to signal impending danger via an intricate and highly effective communication system using smoke and beacons.
9. The Great Wall has many nicknames, including: The Stone Dragon, The Purple Frontier, The 10,000 Mile Wall, The Demon Barrier and The Long Wall. It only became known as the Great Wall of China at the end of the 19th century.
10. The Great Wall took over 2,000 years to complete, with the first sections of fortification believed to have been built in the 9th century BC. The Great Wall as we know it today, was officially completed in 1644 at the end of the Ming Dynasty, although ongoing work continues in the form of maintenance and renovation.
11. Several American Presidents have visited the Great Wall, including: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama. In 1972, Nixon noted that, “Only a great nation can build such a magnificent Great Wall.” Obama, upon visiting in 2009, remarked philosophically, the Great Wall “reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.”
As Seen From Outer Space!: Long before mankind achieved space travel, a common belief was circulated that the Great Wall was the only manmade structure visible from the Moon. One early claim was propagated by Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Ripley said of the Wall, “the mightiest work of man – the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the Moon!” This misnomer was so embraced that even Chinese textbooks included this detail for years. It wasn’t completely debunked until 2003, when Astronaut Yang Liwei of China’s first manned space flight admitted that he was unable to see the Great Wall from Earth’s orbit, noting that it’s narrow width and camouflaged colorations made it indistinguishable from surrounding features.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the high fiscal and human cost of wall building drove the Chinese Empire towards bankruptcy, creating an opportunity for China’s enemies to advance. In the north, the loyal General Wu Sangui manned the Wall in a standoff with the nomadic northern Manchu. Meanwhile, the rebel leader, Li Zicheng, took Beijing and demanded the General swear allegiance to the new leader of China. If he refused, Li threatened to kill General Wu’s father.
The General was stuck between two equally unappealing options: 1. Swear allegiance to the rebel leader, thus betraying his nation. Or 2. Refuse to kowtow and lose his father.
After some consideration, the general opted for a third option: he opened the Wall gates to the Manchu and allowed them to overthrow the rebel leader and take Beijing. This decision led to the Manchu takeover of China and the dawn of the Ching Dynasty (1644 – 1912).
The Left-Over Brick: Built in 1372, the Jiayuguan Pass is an example of the precise and brilliant engineering of the Ming Dynasty. According to legend, Hi Shen, the designer of this “Excellent Valley Pass,” estimated the total number of bricks required for the Pass’s construction. Hi’s exact figure was 99,999 bricks. At the insistence of a government official, Hi added one extra brick. Upon completion of the Pass, that “extra brick” was leftover and today remains unused and on display at Jiayuguan.
The Demon Barrier: The “Only First” Emperor Qin ruled with a constant eye towards the supernatural. He built the Wall to protect his Kingdom from human as well as demon enemies. These demon invaders were purportedly only able to cross the Wall from perpendicular angles. Thus, Emperor Qin ordered the Wall to be built in crooked lines in order to squelch these would-be demonic interlopers.
The Perpetual Sentence: “Perpetual Sentence” prisoners were men whose crimes were deemed heinous enough to receive more than one life sentence of hard labor at the Great Wall. These builders were required to work at the Wall until their deaths, but their debt was not yet paid at this point. Upon their demise, their children (or other family members) were conscripted to take over their duties.
The Longest Graveyard: It is estimated that 1 million men died during the construction of the Great Wall at a rate of 7 out of every 10. Most of these men toiled under force and duress, working under constant threat of death. Legend has it that any man caught sleeping while at the Wall was to be buried alive in the Wall’s cavities. Also, the crushed bones of dead workers is said to have been used as a ghoulish ingredient in the Wall’s mortar and brick production.
The Unlucky Name: Emperor Qin often consulted his soothsayers for instructions on civil and military matters. They supposedly divined that 10,000 men needed to be entombed in the Wall for it to succeed. Taking advantage of a double entendre (a common Chinese pastime), Emperor Qin found a man with the Chinese character for “10,000” in his name and had that man entombed in place of the 10,000 men required by the soothsayers.
The Widow Weng: In this tale of love and loyalty, a young couple was broken up when officials discovered that the man was an escaped worker from the Wall. Once caught, he was sent back to his work. His bride, the Lady Weng, remained true to her husband over the years even as new suitors pursued her.
Unable to recover from her grief, Meng trekked to the Great Wall on a mission to bring her husband warm clothes for the winter. Once there, she could not find him. Heartbroken, she wailed and cried until the force of her tears broke open a section of the Wall. This opening revealed her husband’s corpse, buried in the Wall, along with many, many others. In deep grief, she performed her husband’s burial rites and then flung herself from a cliff. Today, the Lady Weng is honored by a temple erected in her honor on the Wall itself.
Almost everyone who visits the Great Wall will spend some time on their feet walking along the Wall’s paths and surrounding areas. The trail between Jinshanling and Simatai offers a particularly challenging and exquisite hiking experience along the Great Wall. This stretch covers 10 kilometers and is found 89 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
For the particularly hardy and adventurous, mountain bikers have also been known trek along the Great Walls paths.
As noted by USA Today, paragliding is allowed on all areas of the Great Wall that are open to the public. Local tour operators, such as Wing China in Simatai, offer visitors guided opportunities to soar from the Wall to the valleys below.
The Badaling section of the Great Wall offers night tours from May to October. These tours feature beautifully lit towers and walkways, which stand out in stark contrast to darkness of the surrounding countryside evoking images of ancient warriors standing guard over the vast kingdom.
Several sections of the Great Wall offer cable car lifts and toboggans as means to ascending and descending the Wall. Some locations of note are Badaling, which offer cable cars and Mutianyu, which offers both cable cars and exhilarating toboggan sled rides.
Two marathon events are held annually on the Great Wall: The Great Wall Marathon and the Great Wall of China Marathon.
Beginning in 1999, Albatros Travel introduced the Great Wall Marathon, one of the most rewarding ways to experience the Wall. This 26.2-mile race starts at the Huangyaguan Fortress, taking runners along this beautiful section of the Great Wall before traversing through several surrounding villages. As of 2012, 12,965 runners have completed the marathon course. While there is no doubt this event offers world-class competition, runners also enjoy great camaraderie with their fellow athletes and local villagers. For those looking for a bit less grueling event, half-marathon and 8.5K options are available.
The Great Wall of China Marathon takes place every May 1st along the Simatai and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall. This race features 20,518 countable steps over mostly unrestored sections of the Wall. High levels of fitness and caution are required, as much of this event takes place over loose, gravelly, over-grown and crumbling sections of the Wall. It is definitely an accomplishment to finish this race, as the Great Wall of China Marathon is regarded as the significantly more strenuous of the two events, with the 2014 finisher coming in at 6:28:23. In contrast, the Great Wall Marathon winner in 2014 finished nearly twice as quickly at 3:33:56.