The emperors of China built the Great Wall for protection. It’s an ingenious structure, right across the Gobi desert, crossing muddy plains, along steep mountains and it runs all the way to the Pacific. With its length of 10,000 km, the Great Wall of China is the largest structure ever made by man.
The Great Wall really speaks to people’s imagination. It is also believed to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon. But that’s actually not true. The wall may be extremely long, but it is far too narrow to be visible from such a distance. Much to the disappointment of the Chinese, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei confirmed this in 2004. However, in 2005, American astronaut Leroy Chiao produced photographic proof that the wall is indeed visible from space: you can’t see it from the moon, but you can from the International Space Station (ISS).
The enormous structure reveals a great deal about the history of the Chinese dynasties. It tells a tale of war, flourishing economy, free trade and ‘barbaric nomads’. And it’s not actually a tale of one wall, but of some twenty walls, built over the course of 2,000 years.
The statistics are staggering. According to calculations, over one million people worked on the wall, but also more than a million people have guarded it. Through the ages, more than a thousand observation posts and towers were built. The wall averaged 7 to 8 meters in height. At the bottom, the wall was 6.5 meters wide and at the top the width was 5 meters. For each laborer working on the wall, another six were needed to provide him with materials and supplies.
Scientists assume that the work on this mega structure started around 200 BC, under the command of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty. The subsequent Han and Ming dynasties gradually extended the wall, especially the Ming dynasty built with great fervour. The majority of what is still visible today stems from the Ming dynasty.
Since its foundation, its purpose changed. Between 1211 and 1215 Genghis Khan and his dreaded Mongol army had little problems conquering the wall. After years of oppression, Ming toppled the Mongolian dynasty. He wanted absolute certainty that these ‘barbarians’ would never rule over China again.
During its construction, they paid close attention to the landscape. Steep rocks and rivers were used as natural barriers. The wall itself is made of various materials. Transportation of stones was almost impossible those days, so they used mostly local materials. The Qin Wall was the first defense line to be erected. It was mostly made of stones, stacked loosely, but sometimes complete rock formations were torn down to make room.
Parts of the wall were also constructed using a mobile timber frame. The workers would place a layer of rocks, then a layer or sand of approximately 10 centimeters, which they compacted firmly with their feet. Then came the next layer. Then the framing was removed, to be installed a little bit further down. They covered the whole wall with trick clay, which was then hardened by the sun.
At the Han Wall in the Gobi desert, the sand was too fine for this method, so twigs from red willows were used for the foundation. These were mixed into the sand with some water, which was then firmly tamped down. The wall was built in layers here as well, until it reached about six meters in height. This part in the desert is famous for its many ruins.
The Ming Wall is mostly made of bricks. These bricks (or other properly shaped stones) form the foundation up to this day. The solid bricklaying was done with limestone cement, sturdy enough that even weeds had a hard time growing on them. Where there were no stones available, they used pressed soil. This was treated in a special way so it would become as hard as rock.
By building the wall, the Chinese were way ahead of their time. Parts of the wall are still discovered to this day, for example on the border with Mongolia, where an old part of it was found beneath drifting sands in May 2007. The older parts especially are now severely damaged, tumbling down and wasting away. Nevertheless, 30 percent of the wall, covering hundreds of kilometers, is still standing, a mark of honour to the great dynasties of ancient China.
Simatai is one of the most popular places to walk the Great Wall. As a hiker you will see one fantastic view after another, but it will require some effort from you.
This famous part of the Great Wall lies at about 1,000 meters altitude and has many steep sections. It can be quite busy here, but if you depart early, you will soon come across empty sections and have the wall to yourself. You’ll be amazed at the many panoramic views, but also at the craftsmanship of the builders who first ‘conquered’ these mountains. Simatai is about 120 kilometers from Beijing.
The difference between a restored section of the Great Wall and an ‘untouched’ section is huge. At Jinshanling you can see a fully restored section. It is about a 10 kilometer walk from Simatai. And at Huanghuacheng you can clearly see how nature takes its course with the Great Wall. The roots of the grass and shrubs are making their way between the stones. At several watchtowers, you can easily see how wind and rain bring on erosion.
Great Wall Museum
If you’d like to learn more about the epic proportions of work involved in the construction of this masterpiece, you should visit the Great Wall Museum. During the various restoration works, all sorts of artifacts were found. Here you will hear stories of the people who built the Great Wall, the materials they used and how it was defended. You will understand the pride they felt when a section was completed, but you will also learn about the high price many of the laborers have paid. The museum is on the west side of the famous Badaling Pass.
If you want to see how the ‘dragon drinks from the sea’, go to Laolongtou Great Wall. This ‘old dragon’s head’ is the eastern end of the Great Wall and extends 20 meters into the sea. If you are there, you may as well pay a visit to the Chenghai Pavilion. The wood and stone construction was once visited by emperors like Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong.
Also keep an eye out for the antique stone tablet with engraved scriptures in the wall of the pavilion. According to legend, the stone was established by Xue Rengui, a famous general from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) This is the dynasty that once conquered Korea.
If you want to avoid the masses of tourists, you can explore the narrow parts of the Great Wall at Zunhua on the Jiufeng Mountain. In some places the Great Wall will only be 70 centimeters wide, because of the difficult terrain that it was constructed on. There also are a lot of temples in the region, dating back to the Tang dynasty and you will find several Buddhist temples and statues of Buddha.
Badaling is one of the most popular places to see the Great Wall. It’s particularly popular because of the great visitas of the wall ribonning through the landscape with the mountains in the background. A large part of the wall was restored in detail in 1957. Badaling is to the north-west of Beijing and is the busiest with tourists.
Dunhuang is in the Gabi desert and home to several remains of the wall, which was already. built in the Han Wudi dynasty (189–87 BC). You can find the Yangguan Pass here, a strategic point for the norther silk road. You can also see plenty of artefacts such as coins, arrowheads and shards from pottery. This city is also famous for the ancient complex of caves that were turned into Buddhist temples, known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, or the Mogoa Caves.
Mutianyu is about 100 kilometres from Beijing. Here, the wall snakes through the forest, which results in a colourful spectacle in the spring and autumn. The very first parts here were built in the Qi dynasty (550–557 AC). Large parts here were restored duing the Ming dysnasty (1368–1644 AC) by two famous generals: Tan Lun and Qi Jiguang. You can still visit these parts today.
There are also parts of the wall in place at Huanghuacheng. This is a location where scientists are conducting research on how the wall is slowly disintigration, which can be clearly witnessed here. It starts with the growth of grass on the wall, then shurbs appear whose roots separate the stones, which fall off, causing the wall to fall apart. The watch towers are mostly affected by rain and wind.
Time catches up with the Great Wall. Corno van den Berg
Go camping on the Great Wall of China
In some (restored) parts you are allowed to pitch a tent and stay overnight. For example in an old watchtower, or in the middle of a pathway. Local tour operators know where camping is allowed. They can provide you with a sturdy tent, a warm sleeping bag and a mat.
If you are lucky, you can witness a magnificent sunset and sleep under a starry sky. Please note: in winter and spring it can be very cold at night. Camping inside a watchtower will protect you against the fierce winds.
Watch the sun rise over the Great Wall
One of the best-known places to see the sun rise over the Great Wall is Badaling. This place has great panoramic views of sections of the Great Wall, with the mountains as a backdrop. The sun rises over the horizon, and it is so quiet here. The Great Wall and the surrounding scenery of trees and bushes look bright and fresh in the morning light. A large part of the Great Wall here was restored in 1957. Badaling lies north-west of Beijing and is very popular with tourists. The only time to escape the crowds is in the early hours of day.
Get away from the crowds
The Great Wall has always been a popular tourist attraction, there is a demand for alternative ways to explore this marve of construction. Local tour operators offer several active, little-known hiking trips. It’s an exciting experience. You will sleep and eat among the local population and you learn what life is like with this Great Wall in their back garden. It’s not luxurious, but you’ll get a great deal of extraordinary impressions. Try it.
Feel the magic of a full moon
The moonlight is an extraordinary source of illumination. It bathes the Great Wall in an exceptional kind of light, though you will have to get used to its dimness. However, the silhouette, the contrast and the tranquility provide the exact atmosphere that belongs with the Great Wall, according to many. So make sure you’re around at night and take a look.
Hike the Great Wall for multiple days
If you really want to experience the Great Wall, you should take on a multiple-day trek. Choose the lesser-known hikes and go by yourself, in a group or with a guide. During the hike, you will learn a lot about the Great Wall and the locals living around here. You can combine a hiking trip with camping, or staying at simple hostels.
Walk in the snow
In winter, the higher parts of the Great Wall will be covered in snow. It is an extraordinary experience and fantastic for photos and videos. It will also be quiet, because even if most tourists don’t mind hiking, they will prefer to do that in warmer, more pleasant weather conditions. December and January are perfectly suited for this.
The section at Simatai is very popular, but you can also go to other spots. The early morning is the best time, especially when there are no clouds in the sky. Be aware: it may be quite slippery because of the snow, particularly in the steeper parts.
Experience the Wall from a cable car
You will find these at locations like Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Simatai. Not everyone is happy with these modern cable cars at the Great Wall. Those argue that it is just modern entertainment that ruins the atmosphere and the landscape surrounding the Great Wall.
Byt you will have a good view of the surrounding area from a cable car. You don’t get very close to the wall, but you will be able to clearly see it and see how it snakes through the landscape.
- Winter (December, January and February)
Winter is the quietest time here. And the chances of blue skies are greatest. This is excellent for taking photos and there will even be chance of snow in the mountains, providing an extra dimension to it all.
- Spring (March until June)
In spring, the trees will get new leaves and apple- and pear trees will be blossoming. The first flowers will start to come out as well and this may present a true spectacle of colour.
- Summer (July and August)
Summer is the pinnacle for many flowers and there will be many tourists at the most popular locations.
- Autumn (September, October and November)
In autumn, the trees will change colour, providing yet another visual extravaganza.
The section of the Great Wall in the Gobi Desert has different rules. Winters will be extremely cold here, while the weather is more constant in July and August, when it can become very warm here.
It may be very busy in the sections of the Great Wall near Beijing (like Badaling), so you will have the wall to yourself, particularly in summer and autumn. Winters can be quite cold, even during the day when temperatures will remain below zero. The tourist numbers will be notably lower then.
Be sure to bring enough drinks with you in warmer times, because the sun will burn relentlessly while you walk across the Great Wall.
How do I get there?
For most travelers, Beijing is the starting point to discover the Great Wall of China. The city is a destination for many airlines coming from across the globe.
Dunhuang also has an airport with direct flights into Beijing.