In order to protect themselves, the emperors of China built the Great Wall. An ingenious structure, right across the Gobi desert, over muddy plains, along steep mountains and running all the way to the Pacific. With its length of 10,000 km, the Great Wall of China is the largest building structure ever made by man.
The immense construction greatly appeals to people’s imagination. It is also believed to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon, or outer space. This is not true, however, the Wall may be extremely long, but it is far too narrow to be visible from such a distance. Much to the disappointment of all of China, 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, be it not from the moon, but from the International Space Station, ISS.
The enormous structure tells a great deal about the history from the Chinese dynasties. It is a tale about war, flourishing economy, free trade and ‘barbaric nomads’. And not just about one wall, but about some twenty walls, built over the course of 2,000 years.
The numbers are staggering. According to calculations, over one million people worked on the wall, but also more than a million people have guarded over 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 megastructure started around 200 B.C., under the command of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty. The subsequent Han and Ming dynasties gradually expanded the wall. The majority of what is still visible today, stems from the Ming dynasty.
In the meantime, the purpose changed. Between 1211 and 1215 Genghis Khan and his dreaded Mongol hordes had little problems with the wall. After years of oppression, Ming toppled the Mongolian dynasty. He wanted absolute certainty that these ‘barbarians’ would never again rule over China.
During construction, the landscape was closely looked at. Steep rocks and rivers were used as natural barriers. The wall itself is made of various materials. Since transportation of stones, for example, was almost impossible, mostly local materials were used. The Qin Wall was the first defense line to be erected. Mostly stones were used here, set up loosely, but sometimes complete rock formations were torn down.
Parts of the wall were also constructed with movable wooden framing. The workers would put a layer of sand within, approximately 10 centimeters high, which they then pressed firmly with their feet. Then came the next layer. Following this, the framing was removed, to be installed a little bit further down. They smeared the whole with greasy 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 with the sand and some water which was then firmly tamped down. Layer upon layer was built here as well, until it reached about six meters in height. The part that is in the desert is famous for its many ruins.
The Ming Wall consists of mostly 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 rocks.
Building the wall, the Chinese were way ahead of their time. Even now, parts of the wall are being discovered, like on the border with Mongolia, where an old part of it was found beneath drifting sands in May 2007. Especially the older parts are now severely damaged, broken off or wasted away. Nevertheless, 30 percent of the wall, making up hundreds of kilometers, is still standing, as a mark of honour to the great dynasties of the olden days.
Simatai is one of the most popular places to walk the Great Wall. As a hiker you will go from one fantastic view to 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 crowded here, but if you depart early, you will soon come across empty sections and you will be able to walk all by 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 at about a 10 kilometer walk from Simatai. At Huanghuacheng you can clearly see how nature takes its course with the Great Wall. The roots of the grass and brushes 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 wish to comprehend the epic proportions of work involved in the construction of this masterpiece, you have to visit the Great Wall Museum. During the various restoration works, all sorts of artifacts were found. Here you will find the story of the people who built the Great Wall, the materials they used and the defense of it. You will understand the pride 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 starting point of the Great Wall and it lies 20 meters into the sea. Like a dragon drinking water. 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 look for the antique stone tablet with words bricked up 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 from the Tang dynasty and you will find several Buddha temples and Buddha statues.
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 set up a tent and stay overnight. In an old watchtower or in the middle of a pathway. Local tour operators know where it is allowed to camp. They can provide you with a solid tent, a warm sleeping bag and a mat to place on the hard floor.
If you are lucky, you will witness a magnificent sunset and sleep under a starry sky. Attention: in winter and spring it can be very cold at night. 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 entourage. When the sun comes over the horizon, it is still quiet here. The Great Wall and the surrounding scenery of trees and brushes still look bright and fresh in the morning light. A large part of the Great Wall here was restored in 1957. Badaling lies northwest of Beijing and is popular among tourists. The only time to escape the crowds is in the early hours of day.
Get away from the crowds
Ever since the tourists discovered the Great Wall, there has been a demand for alternative ways to explore this construction. Local tour operators offer several active, unknown hiking trips. It’s a real experience. You will sleep and eat among the local population and you will learn how they look at this Great Wall in their back garden. Nothing luxurious, but a great deal of extraordinary impressions. Try it.
Feel the magic by full moon
The moonlight is an extraordinary source of illumination. It bathes the Great Wall in an exceptional shade, though you will have to get used to the scarce light. However, the outlines, 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 go on a multiple-day hiking tour. Choose the hikes that are less popular among tourists. 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 sleeping in simple hostels.
Walk and feel 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. Attention: it may be quite slippery because of the snow, particularly in the steeper parts.
Experience the Wall from a cable car
Not everyone is happy with the cable cars at the Great Wall. You will find these at locations like Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Simatai. Those who are against it argue that it is just modern entertainment which doesn’t do the landscape surrounding the Great Wall justice.
The fact remains that from a cable car you will have a good view of the surrounding area. You don’t get real close to the Chinese Wall, but you will be able to clearly see it and see how it is draped through the landscape.
- Winter (December, January and February)
Winter is the most quiet time here. And the chances of blue skies are greatest. This will be 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 trees and pear trees will be blossoming. The first flowers will start to come out as well and this may present a true colour spectacle.
- 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 never be alone, 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, 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.
You can arrange your visit to the Great Wall of China yourself.