When I was 17 years old I put something on my bucket list that I honestly thought was impossible: walk on the Great Wall of China. I have since walked, run, camped, danced, played guitar and much more on my many trips to the Great Wall.
The Great Wall is certainly a fantastic place to visit. What you may not realize is that your experience on the Great Wall will change dramatically depending on which part of the wall you visit.
About the Great Wall
The Great Wall really should be called the Great Walls. In fact there are sometimes huge gaps between sections of the wall, because in those areas mother nature provided a sufficient barrier. The wall stretches from Shan Hai Guan in the east all the way to Lop Nur in the west. For those of you who are still new to Chinese geography that is roughly 5,500 miles. Over 200 miles of that is the “gaps” in the wall consisting of steep cliffs. To put that in perspective, mapquest says that driving from Miami Florida to Anchorage, Alaska is just under 5,000 miles and would take 90 hours to get there.
|Miami Beach to Anchorage, Alaska: 4,941 miles|
There must have been a lot of war during the time labeled in Chinese history books as “the waring states period” (战国时代) from about the 5th century BC to about 220 BC. All of the different dynasties during that time took turns building walls for protection, but it wasn’t until Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) took control of greater China and started the Qin dynasty that the various sections of the wall were connected in a way that protected against invasion from the north.
So different parts of the wall were built by different people sometimes hundreds of years apart. The sections near Beijing were built to protect the capitol, and were huge (the North Pass is 25 feet high and 16 feet wide) and have been well restored. Meanwhile other parts of the wall have already completely disintegrated into dirt and are lost.
Great Wall Myths
Two myths that I grew up believing are that the Great Wall is visible from space, and that the workers who died while building the wall were just buried inside the wall. Both of these are obviously not true. The Great Wall is barely taller than the trees that surround it, and looks kindof like regular soil. According to Norberto López-Gil, who wrote an article in the Journal of Optometry entitled “Is it really possible to see the Great Wall from space with the naked eye?,” in order to see the Great Wall from space one would have to have vision about 17,000 times better than 20/20 vision. It is the equivalent of being able to see a single hair from a distance of over two miles. Also, surely no one was intentionally buried in the Great Wall, because the decaying body would obviously weaken the stuctural integrity of the wall and it would break down very quickly if there were a million dead bodies in it (it is estimated that a total of about a million people died while laboring to put all of the pieces of the wall together).
How to Enjoy the Great Wall
Because of the great differences found in different parts of the wall, it goes without saying that you are going to have a different experience when you go to various different parts of the wall. I recommend, whenever possible, visiting at least two separate parts of the wall to get a feel for the variety. My five favorite Great Wall experiences, in no particular order are:
|Nathaniel on the Great Wall|
1) Ba Da Ling: Ba Da Ling is located just outside of Beijing. If you’ve only been to the Great Wall once, or you went with a tour guide, you probably went to Ba Da Ling. This part of the wall contains the North Pass, which is very impressive, and of all the places I have been to, this is the best restored. This is the best location to go and really imagine how great the Great Wall really was.
|North Pass at Ba Da Ling|
Getting to Ba Da Ling is also extremely simple, obviously a tour guide will take you there, usually for less than $15 USD, or you can even take the bus all the way there from Dongzhimen station.
2) Mu Tian Yu: Mutianyu is older than Badaling, but after restoration it becomes difficult to tell. Mutianyu is a little further away at about 70km from Beijing. Two fun things here, there are far more watch towers in this area, and there is a cable car to take you to the top if you are not into hiking. When I say hiking, I mean walking up thousands of stairs- outdoors.
|Camping with friends at Huanghuacheng|
3) Huanghuacheng: This is my favorite part of the wall, as evidence by the many return trips. This area of the wall has not yet been completely restored, and is currently run by local residents. It is fun because you can see a striking contrast between the restored section, and the rest. You can literally be walking on bricks and a sturdy foundation and then it just stops and you have to be careful when it turns into crumbling mounds of old rock and dirt. Generally you can plan on paying 3 yuan per person for passage, and you can stay there and hike as long as you’d like. The local residents have used the bricks from the wall to build their houses, and you just get the feeling that this is more real, because it has not been restored as much.
4) Si Ma Tai: This is the part of the wall I went to for the first time. It has not been restored (or at least hadn’t when I went in 2003) and there were literally trees and bushes growing up out of the wall. The mountains are steep in this area and it was gorgeous, but I certainly did not feel the grandeur of the wall. I would recommend this place for people who want to see what happens to a very well built structure if it is left unattended for at least 400 years.
|Jia Yu Guan|
5) Jia Yu Guan: This is the only part on this list that I have not yet been to. This part was built in 1372 and was the east gate. I think it looks beautiful and the fact that it consists of an outer wall, an inner wall, and a mote makes it pretty cool to me.
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