Great Wall of China: Things to do in Beijing, China
Mention the Great Wall of China and instantly a picture springs to mind of perhaps China’s most iconic landmark, which is no small accolade given the rich trove of cultural treasures to be found all over the country. So significant is the Great Wall that UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage site in 1987, and there would be just a tiny percentage of travelers to China who wouldn’t scale the wall while visiting Beijing.
But there is more to the Great Wall of China than myths like it is the only landmark on Earth that can be seen from space. In fact, the history of the Great Wall is as long and rich as the structure itself. Apart from being a symbol of China – visionary, enduring, and practical – the Great Wall is also a demonstration of the country’s spirit.
Before making your way to the top of the wall, it pays to understand a little of what’s behind its creation because it will make for an even more enriching adventure when you’re there.
Great Wall of China: Important facts
In typically descriptive form, the Chinese name for the Great Wall is translated as ‘10 thousand mile long wall’ (万里长城). Construction of the wall commenced during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, which occurred between 770 BC and 221 BC.
In fact, the name ‘Great Wall’ is a little deceptive, because the wall is in fact a massive defense system. It combines city walls, watch towers, passes, beacon towers, enemy forts, barriers, ramparts, fortresses, and ditches and spans a breathtaking 6,700 kilometers across 15 provinces and cities, including Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, and others. Winding through the northern and middle part of China from the Shanhai Pass in the east to Jiayu Pass in the west, there is absolutely no doubt the wall is a remarkable feat of construction. While large amounts of the wall have deteriorated or destroyed, there is no doubt as to its significance in history.
Construction of the Great Wall
Construction of the Great Wall commenced during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period, well over 2,000 years ago. Very much a defense system, it was prompted by the various warring states wanting to protect their respective land and cities. Huge walls seemed to be the obvious answer. However, the effectiveness of the individual defense systems was tested in 221 BC when the Qin states, the strongest of all seven, defeated and unified the disparate entities.
Effectively forming China’s first dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang set about bringing his grand vision to life. Among the measures he enforced was centralization of power, standardization of language across the country, and construction of connecting walls between the existing walls. We do not know how many people were involved in the construction. Numbers vary, depending on the period during which construction took place. What we do know is the workforce included soldiers, peasant laborers and convicts, and the physical hardship endured led to the death of many on site. The result of this massive exercise formed the basis of the Great Wall we know today.
That said, it is misleading to think that’s where the Great Wall started and stopped, because it doesn’t. The Great Wall extends well beyond Emperor Qin’s grand plan. Since that initial enhancement, the wall has undergone almost continuous construction. Subsequent dynasties and states have added their own unique touches to the wall. It was during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) in particular that the longest stretch was built.
In much the same way that the wall weaves throughout China, it’s development is intricately bound to the country’s evolution. Take the famous Silk Road. Around half the route of the Silk Road, which forged a commercial and cultural pathway through China, was established and ran alongside the Great Wall.
While every dynasty sought to make its mark on the wall, few were as prolific in their construction as the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), during which a massive 20 huge development projects were initiated. Incredible!
Without question, the Great Wall ranks among the world’s great construction projects. In large part, the wall was built by hundreds of thousands of people who shaped the bricks and earth that give it form. It is for this reason, the Chinese saying ‘He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man’ holds such significance among local people.
Unsurprisingly, the main parts of the Great Wall were built on top of mountains, endlessly winding over ridges, and in many ways, shaping the landscape to take on a likeness to that much revered Chinese symbol of power, the dragon.
The Great Wall today: A must-see thing to do in Beijing
Although the Great Wall covered a massive amount of territory throughout China, there are many parts of it which have fallen into disrepair. In fact, in some places, the existence of the wall isn’t recognizable, which is one very good reason to make it a must-see thing to do in Beijing.
The Great Wall we can see today was built mostly during the Ming Dynasty. Beijing, as a destination that is on the bucket list of most first time visitors to China, is perhaps the most accessible of destinations to climb the wall, however it’s not the only one. Fortunately, there are many sections of the Great Wall open to the public.
|Beijing||Best for visiting Badaling, Mutianyu, Juyongguan, Jinshanling and Simatai sections|
|Tianjin||Stay in Tianjin to see the Huangyaguan of the wall|
|Hebei||Make a stop in Hebei to experience the Shanhaiguan section of the wall|
|Gansu||Climb the wall at Jiayuguan when you visit Gansu|
If your travel time is limited, perhaps your best choice is a visit to the Mutianyu section of the wall. Favored by local and international travelers, Mutianyu is located about 70 kilometers north east of Beijing – roughly 90 minutes drive – from the heart of the city. Apart from spectacular views which make the trek totally worthwhile, Mutianyu is convenient to visit because the journey of reaching the top is greatly eased with comfortable travel made possible with modern cable cars and shuttle buses.
Commissioned during the early Ming dynasty, the Mutianyu section was built on Great Wall ruins, originally constructed during the Northern Qi dynasty (550 – 577). Because the emperor of the Ming Dynasty was concerned about the danger and threats from the Northern minorities, he ordered a stronger rebuild of the Great Wall in many sections to improve defense against the enemy Northern tribes.