The Great Wall of China is the world's longest wall. Estimates of its length vary from 1,500 miles to 31,250 miles, with most sources saying it is between 3,900 miles and 4,500 miles long. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it main line length is 2,150 miles, with an additional 2,195 miles of branches and spurs. According to the Chinese government, the Great Wall embraces a 2,150-mile-long main wall, occasionally broken up by mountains and other obstacles, and 1,780 miles of spurs and additions. [Sources: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2003, The New Yorker, May 21, 2007]

The Great Wall of China stretches across five northern Chinese provinces and five autonomous provinces from Bohai Bay on the Yellow Sea in the east to Jiayu Pass, 1,500 miles away, in the Gobi Desert, in the west. It ranges in height from 15 feet to 40 feet, and is up to 32 feet thick.

The Great Wall of China is as long as the Nile River (six Great Walls could stretch around the entire earth) and contains an estimated 400 million cubic yards of material, enough to build 120 pyramids equal in size to the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and enough to build all the buildings in Scotland and England in 1793.

The most comprehensive and technologically advanced survey to date---a two-year mapping project finished in 2009, using GPS and infrared technology---determined the wall stretches for 8,851.8 kilometers and includes 6,259.6 kilometers of actual wall, 359.7 kilometers of trenches and 2,322.5 kilometers of natural barriers such as mountains and rivers.

Books: The Great Wall, China Against the World by Julia Lovell, a professor at Cambridge Cambridge (University Press (2006); The Great Wall of China from History to Myth by Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania professor (Cambridge University Press, 1992); The Great Wall of China by Daniel Schwartz.

Names and Claims and the Great Wall of China

The Chinese word for the Great Wall of China has traditionally been changcheng, which literally means “long wall” or “long walls.” When it was being built the walls were known by at least ten different names The Ming usually called them bianquing (“border walls”).

The term Great Wall was coined by Europeans and began to be widely used towards the end of the 19th century. Before that it was referred to by foreigners mostly as the “Chinese Wall.” Only in the 20th century after Westerners began calling it the Great Wall did the Chinese start calling it something similar: Wanli Changcheng (literally “10,000 li long wall”).

Many of the claims made about the Great Wall are untrue. It is not a single wall. It did not halt the Mongol invasion. And, it cannot be seen from the moon. "Although we can see things as small as airport runways," space shuttle astronaut Jay Apt wrote in National Geographic, "the Great Wall seems to made largely of materials that have the same color as the surrounding soil. Despite persistent stories that it can be seen from the moon, the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up!"

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NASA radar image of the Great Wall

The source of the claim that the Great Wall can be seen from the moon is a 1925 National Geographic article which began. “According to astronomers, the only work of man’s hands which could be visible from the moon is the Great Wall of China.” Some also attribute the claim to a letter written in 1874 by English antiquarian William Stukely. In it he stated that Hadrian’s Wall is exceeded in length only "by the Chinese wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may discerned be at the moon.”

Composition of the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall is many different walls built at different times by different dynasties. Most sections are composites of fortifications built by several dynasties, with most of the work done during the Ming dynasty. Through much of its history---and even today---many Chinese had little interest in or affection for the Great Wall..

Some sections are made of stone and have crenelated watchtowers with vaulted ceilings and arched windows.. Others are little more than crumbling piles of mud brick with animal shelters carved in them. Most sections are made of tamped earth. Long sections run across the tops of mountains and ridge tops, incorporating natural barriers such as cliffs and steep slopes. The Great Wall has outlived its usefulness for several centuries now and until fairly recently had been left to crumble into dust. Its only real use today is as a tourist attraction.

There are two main sections: the stone walls built as lines of defense around Beijing and the walls made mostly of tamped earth further to the west. The concept that the Great Wall is a continuous wall made of stone is derived largely by marrying the stone Ming walls that one sees north of Beijing, built between the 14th and 17th century, with descriptions of a 3.000 mile built in the 3rd century B.C. under Emperor Qin Shihuang.

Even today its is not clear what qualifies as a section of the Great Wall and what doesn’t. Some say that a section has to be a part of a 100 kilometer long chain to qualify. Other say any border fortification can be included. A satellite survey determined there were 390 miles of walls just in the Beijing area. Field work has determined that there is much more than that.

Military Importance of the Great Wall of China

In his book The Great Wall of China , the Sinologist Arthur Waldron, the the Wall was one of three defensive strategies that successive dynasties used to deal with Manchurians. Mongolians and other northern barbarians: 1. Intermarriage and diplomacy; 2. Scorched earth military campaigns into the barbarians own territory; and 3. Defensive wall building. Waldron suggests that the third strategy was the weakest, and that it was only in the more paranoid later Ming Dynasty that the strategy really took hold. Alastair Johnston and Julia Lovell promote the same reasoning. [Source: Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn,, October 6, 2009]

On the military importance of the Great Wall, Spindler told, “First, there are several important examples of the Chinese using the Great Wall to fend off raids of several thousand Mongols, mostly in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. There are many more examples of the Chinese successfully using the Great Wall to defend against smaller raids in a much longer span of time.” [Ibid]

“Where I depart from Waldron is that he sees individual officials as advocating one of these strategies to the exclusion of the others and wall-building as a compromise policy when advocates of the first two cannot agree.” Spindler said. “All three of these strategies coexisted throughout nearly the entire Ming dynasty and were simply applied in different mixtures, at different times and in different places. There was no such thing as an advocate of wall-building at the exclusion of all other strategies, or someone who believed that diplomacy or pre-emptive strikes were the only way to make China strong on its northern border. In my opinion, wall-building wasn’t a compromise policy but an important strategy in its own right.” [Ibid]

Uses of the Great Wall of China

Fortifications and walls were solidified into the Great Wall of China to keep invaders from the north out. But keeping the barbarians out of China was not the only reason for the wall. It was also built for land grabbing purposes. According to historian Julia Lovell, author of a book about the Great Wall, it extended “hundreds of kilometers from the farmable land” in order to “police people” and “control lucrative trade routes.” 20080320-Great-Wall-steps Nolls.jpg
Great Wall tower

At one time more than 40,000 watchtowers were strung along the Great Wall. Messages were relayed back and forth between northern China and Beijing using signals made from gunpowder blast at the watchtowers. The Mongols by contrast used smoke signals made from burning animal dung to send messages.

The Chinese also used the wall as an elevated highway to move troops and equipment through rugged terrain. Some sections of the wall are wide enough to accommodate five horsemen or 12 armed soldiers walking abreast. Emperors sometimes led entire armies along the top of the wall.

Many people live near the wall and continue to use it today. Some have their houses built into it. One family with a house with 20-foot-thick walls told National Geographic it is “very warm in the winter, cool in the summer.” Some villages are entirely enclosed in high-walled forts and have the characters for “fort,” “barracks” or “checkpoint” in their name. In other places holes have been pinched in the wall to allow sheep to pass and stones have been cannibalized as construction material and even sold to tourists at a price of $10 for one 10 kilogram stone.

Early History of the Great Wall of China

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Early Great Wall

The first sections of the Great Wall were built between 770 and 450 B.C. by small independent, often warring, kingdoms. It was first thought that the fortifications were built by small Chinese kingdoms to protect their irrigated lands along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers from steppe nomads to the north because the first walls were built roughly on a line originally thought to separate the fertile river valleys of the south from the steppe to the north. This was not always true, however. Sections of wall rose and fell with provincial states and were defined by a number of factors.

Beginning in 221 B.C., existing walls were linked together and reinforced under orders from Emperor Qin, the first emperor of unified China. Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the project and perhaps tens of thousands of them died. Many were political prisoners who were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. The wall itself was made mostly from compacted earth. The 180 million cubic meters of material used now lies at core of many sections of the wall.

As invaders from the north became stronger the fortifications of the Great Wall of China were built up to keep them out. If the Great Wall was breached, the Chinese believed, the invaders would assimilate themselves into the Chinese way of life once they realized its "superior attractions." For over a thousand years this strategy worked. After a period of disruption, invaders usually married Chinese women and were in fact absorbed. The dynasties that ruled China for the most part took over after power struggles within the empire.

The main threat in the early years of the Great Wall came from the Hu, a horse-riding nomadic people from Central Asia. They were mentioned in records relating to the Warring States period (303-221 B.C.) and the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.). The Hu had no interest in assimilation and easily skirted the wall.

Subsequent dynasties continued to rebuild and restore the walls, and occasionally criminals and political prisoners were thrown threw the gates and left to survive on their own in the north. During the Han dynasty so many trees were felled for scaffolding an ecological disaster occurred. The Tang dynasty kept the barbarians at bay by encouraging trade and cultural exchanges rather than building walls. In the 13th century, the walls failed to stop Genghis Khan, who reportedly said, "the strength of the wall depends on the courage of those who defend it." He reportedly breached it by bribing a sentry.

Great Wall of China Under the Ming Dynasty

The most famous and impressive sections of the Great Wall were built from mud, brick and stone during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming emperors devoted a huge amount of resources and manpower to the project. Stones weighing over a ton were shaped, moved and heaved on top of each other. Over 60 million tons of bricks and stone slabs were used.

The Ming built their walls as lines of defense with as many as four rows of fortifications in strategic areas. They used durable materials and construction methods, intending to make something that lasted. Stone was quarried in the Beijing area. The mud bricks were made of soil, straw, tamarisk, egg yolk and rice paste. The earth was tamped with large chunks of rock and special tools.

The project took over a 100 years to complete. At one time, nearly one in every three males in China was conscripted to help build it. Towns along the wall became industrial areas for firing bricks, blasting rocks to make fill and sharpening stones. Army units were put to work on a rotating basis so no one unit would be overworked and rebel.

The towers and walls were often made separately with the towers being made first from brick that was carried in. Wall sections were built between the towers, first with local stone, and later with materials that were carried in. Construction was usually done in the spring when the weather was good but the Mongols were not active (they usually raided and attacked in the fall after their horses had been fattened up on summer grass). In some places tablets identify when a given wall section was built and name the officials involved in building it.

Hundreds of thousand of people died from severe weather, starvation and exhaustion while building the Great Wall of China. Many women were widowed and children left without fathers. A popular Ming era song went: "If a son is born, mind you don't raise him! If a girl is born, don’t feed her dried meat. Don't you just see below the Long Wall, dead men's skeletons prop each other up.”

Great Wall of China Under Attack While many scholars say that the Great Wall was no better than the Maginot line which failed to stop the Nazis from entering France, others say it served its purpose well. In the early years of the Ming dynasty the Chinese military often went on the offensive and pushed Mongol settlements away from the walls. Later the Chinese bribed Mongol leaders or set up lucrative trade opportunities to keep them from attacking. Many sections of the wall were built in the late Ming era when the Ming army was too weak to fight and the emperors were too proud to negotiate.

In a typical defense the Chinese used crude cannons, arrows cudgels and stones to defend against Mongol attacks. There were regulations about how many stones could used in a defense and how they would be carried to the wall. In some sections you can still see piles of stones ready to be used in the next attack.

The Mongols liked to approach the walls at night on horseback, in small groups. They followed ridge lines because they were concerned about ambushes. They were not interested in occupying land. They were raiders, who penetrated into Chinese territory and returned as quickly as possible. Often their objective was to steal livestock, valuables and Chinese people, who were forced into families, with the men trained to be spies behind Chinese lines while their wives and children stayed in Mongolia as hostages.

A major attack occurred in 1550 when the Mongols breached a crude section of stone wall and pillaged for two weeks, killing and capturing thousands of Chinese. After that more sturdy walls made with mortar were built. In 1576 there was another major Mongol attack. This time they penetrated through an area so rugged and remote building a wall was not considered necessary. During this raid the Mongols killed an estimated 20,000 Chinese. Another major campaign of wall building followed. After that the Chinese for the most were able to hold back the Mongols. At Shuitou, the Chinese withstood an attack by thousands of Mongols.

Only about a third of the Ming Dynasty wall remains intact. Because of the high quality of the construction, some wall sections today look pretty much as it did in the Ming Dynasty.

Later History of the Great Wall of China

The Qing Dynasty let the walls deteriorate, in part because they were Manchu horsemen which the walls had been designed to keep out, plus they controlled territory far north of the wall. Into the 20th century the Great Wall was held in relatively low regard and was only given a boost when China needed a dose of nationalism to raise its esteem during bad times. Both Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong used the wall as symbols of Chinese strength, pride, hard work and greatness. During the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s large parts of the wall were torn down by crowds chanting, "Down with the Four Olds" to make barracks and houses.

Although large sections of the Great Wall have been restored for tourism, much of it is has collapsed, been claimed by weather or been carted off as building materials for peasant huts, pigpens, roads, buildings and reservoirs. When asked what happened to missing sections many villagers will tell you they were dismantled to keep the Japanese from using them as observation posts and machine gun nests.

The mud sections have largely disintegrated. Some sections have been covered by desert sands or have collapsed due to the coninuous freezing and thawing of the wall's foundations. Other sections have been fouled with graffiti or Communist party slogans. There are sections that been torn to make way for construction and had stones removed to build roads. Other sections have been developed and fixed up for tourists in nightmarish ways.

After the Cultural Revolution ended some sections were reportedly rebuilt by the same people who tore them down. A Deng Xiaoping era slogan went: "Let us love our China and restore our Great Wall!" In recent years the Great Wall has become quite popular. There are Great Wall tires, Great Wall wine, Great Wall cigarettes, Great Wall rockets and Great Wall computers.

China Says Great Wall Is Twice as Long as Previously Thought

China now believes the Great Wall is 21,198 kilometers (13,171 miles) long, more than twice the previous estimation. The new measure elicits skepticism amid territorial disputes. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Great Wall of China may be one of the most recognizable structures on Earth, but it is still in the process of revealing new layers of itself - to cries of disbelief and fury in some quarters. At a time when Beijing is asserting its territorial borders in the South China Sea, the discoveries are not universally applauded. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2012]

In early June, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that it now believes the Great Wall is a stunning 13,171 miles long, if you put all of the discovered portions end to end. That's more than half the circumference of the globe, four times the span of the United States coast to coast and nearly 2 1/2 times the estimated length in a preliminary report released in 2009, two years into a project that saw the Chinese measure it for the first time. [Ibid]

To the extent that the Great Wall is a symbol of China, a bigger wall means, well, a bigger China, if only symbolically. "I'm very suspicious. China wants to rewrite history to make sure history conforms with the borders of today's China," said Stephane Mot, a former French diplomat and a blogger based in Seoul, who has accused the Chinese archaeologists of obliterating Korean culture. [Ibid]

Traditionally, the Great Wall was thought to extend from Jiayuguan, a desert oasis 1,000 miles west of Beijing, to Shanhaiguan, 190 miles east of the capital, on the Bohai Sea. In 2001, Chinese archaeologists announced that the wall extended deep into Xinjiang, the northwestern region claimed by the minority Uighurs as their homeland. Last month's announcement brought the eastern bounds of the wall to the North Korean border. That has outraged Koreans, who say the relics were built by ancient Koreans of the Koguryo kingdom, which occupied much of modern-day Manchuria from 37 BC to AD 688. "This is a distortion. The Chinese are using the wall to wipe out the Korean legacy, the same as they are doing with the Uighurs and Tibetans," said Seo Sang-mun, a military historian with Seoul-based Chung-Ang University. [Ibid]

Chinese defend the new measurements. "I would say that these are not necessarily 'new discoveries.' Rather, we are looking more carefully at what is on the ground and trying to clarify whether it is the Great Wall or not," Yan Jianmin, office director of the China Great Wall Society, a nongovernmental organization of scholars and wall enthusiasts. [Ibid]

The survey of the Great Wall's length involved thousands of people, with 15 provinces and regions submitting the results of their research to Beijing. In all, the State Administration certified 43,721 known sites of Great Wall remains, up from 18,344 before the survey. (Portions of the list were published on the agency's website, although it did not include the locations in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces that are contested by the Koreans. Maps will not be released because they are considered a state secret.) [Ibid]

The difficulty is in defining what is "the Great Wall" and what is merely, well, an old wall. Describing the “discovery” of one purported wall section Demnick wrote: Zhang Lingmian was collecting walnuts in the countryside north of Beijing last autumn when a friend from a nearby village mentioned a mysterious structure in the mountains that had stumped locals. The retired cultural heritage official and his friend scampered uphill for two hours, whacking their way through the brambles after the path ran out. At the top of a 2,700-foot-high ridge, they reached a long trail of haphazardly placed rocks. Zhang says he immediately recognized what villagers called "the strange stones.""I knew right away it had to be part of the Great Wall of China," Zhang recalled on a recent hike to show off his discovery, about 50 miles from central Beijing. Although most of the rocks had tumbled down, a few piles reached up to Zhang's chest. "The walls just had to be high enough to keep the barbarians from crossing with their horses," explained Zhang, who says he has been studying the wall for 33 years. [Ibid]

What most people recognize as the Great Wall is the crenelated brick wall with watch towers and archer slits, the symbol of China from countless postcards and guide books. But there are many older walls dating from the 7th century that served the common purpose of defending China from invasion from the north. The late Luo Zhewen, who was considered the top Chinese authority on the subject, once wrote that nothing should be considered the Great Wall unless it was at least 30 miles long, clearly defensive in nature and not circular, as opposed to a wall to keep your sheep from wandering. [Ibid]

Mapping the Great Wall of China

In April 2009, China’s national mapping agency said The Great Wall of China is even greater than once thought, after a two-year government mapping study uncovered new sections totaling about 180 miles. Using infrared range finders and GPS devices, experts discovered portions of the wall concealed by hills, trenches and rivers that stretch from Hu Shan mountain in northern Liaoning province to Jiayu Pass in western Gansu province, the official China Daily reported. [Source: AP The Guardian, April 20, 2009]

The additional parts mean the Great Wall spans about 3,900 miles through the northern part of the country. The newly mapped parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to protect China against northern invaders and were submerged over time by sandstorms that moved across the arid region, the study said.

The latest mapping project, a joint venture by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, will continue for another year in order to map sections of the wall built during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-9 AD), the China Daily reported. Recent studies by Chinese archaeologists have shown that sandstorms are reducing sections of the wall in Gansu to “mounds of dirt” and that they may disappear entirely in 20 years. These studies mainly blame the erosion on destructive farming methods used in the 1950s that turned large areas of northern China into desert. In addition, portions of the wall in Gansu were made of packed earth, which is less resilient than the brick and stone used elsewhere in much of the wall's construction.

Great Wall of China Today

Most of the sections visited by tourists were built in the Ming Dynasty and have been restored in the 20th century. Entire army units have been put to work rebuilding sections. Kilns have been set up to bake bricks. Rock faces have been dynamited to produce material for fill. Many sections have been rebuilt using ancient techniques and mortar according to ancient recipes. Laborers that do the rebuilding are paid about $3 a day.

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Great Wall map

Peasants continue to carry away stones and bricks from the wall in remote locations and use them to build houses and shelters. The problem is serious enough that the World Monument Fund added the wall to its list of “most endangered sites.” Organizations like the International Friends of the Great Wall have been established to help preserve it.

Sandstorms in northwest China are blamed for reducing sections of the Great Wall of China to dust and dirt in remarkably short periods of time. The problem is particularly severe in Gansu Province where many sections are made of from mud and mud brick rather than brick and stone. One three mile section in Minqiin County in Gansu that was built in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.0 A.D. 220) is “rapidly disappearing” and may be gone in 20 years.

The modern world has caught up with some sections of the Great Wall. One seven-mile section in Gansu that was unbroken when it was photographed by the archeologist Aurel Stein in 1910 is now crossed, according to Great Wall expert William Lindesay, by “two rail lines, 17 power lines, the west-to-east gas line, 15 dirt roads, one main road, an abandoned main road and the G-312 expressway which is actually routed under the Wall.”

In December 2006, a the first nationwide law was enacted to protect the Great Wall from practices such as removing bricks to build homes and pigsties, carving one’s name into the wall and holding all night parties that leave the walls smelling of urine and littered with garbage. A construction company in Inner Mongolia was fined $64,000 for removing a section that was in its way.

Some people have tried to hike the entire Great Wall. The American missionary and explorer William Edgar Geil traversed the length of the Great Wall between 1907 and 1908. William Lindesay, a British geologist and marathoner, ran and hiked 2,470 kilometers of the wall in 1987 and would have done more but was deported. He later moved to Beijing, wrote four books about the wall and founded Friends of the Great Wall, a small organization oriented primarily towards conservation.

With the Great Wall as famous as it is it is surprising how little it has been studied. David Spindler, a 6-foot-7 American independent scholar, is regarded by some as the premier expert of the wall. He has hiked much its length, often bushwhacking through brambles and thorns with a special outfit that includes a face mask made from the leg of a pair of sweat pants. Dong Yaoshi, a former utility worker, hiked thousands of miles of the wall beginning in 1984 and founded the Great Wall Society of China. Dong Feg, a policeman at Beijing University, is regarded a the most active Chinese researcher today. He runs and discovered that breaks in the wall are there because they lie along dragon lines, important for the feng shui of Beijing.

Web Sites: Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Map (click at the bottom: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Great Wall . Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site International Friends of the Great Wall Maps : China Map Guide

Tourism and the Great Wall of China

Tourism and the Great Wall of China By some measures the Great Wall of China is China’s most-visited tourist attraction. About 10 million tourists visit the Great Wall every year with the majority of them going to the Badaling section which has received 119,000 people n a single day.

The Great Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In recent years the government has been taking a more activist role in preserving it, banning hiking on unrestored section and rebuilding parts that have been crumbling. In 2005 the entrance fees to the Great Wall sections near Beijing were substantially raised to as high as 80 yuan ($9.60). The money is supposed be used for upkeep and restoration.

Many dignitaries and celebrities including Richard Nixon, George Michael have been photographed at the wall. On his only visit to China in 1982, Andy Warhol wrote: “I went to the Great Wall. You know, you read about ir for years. An actually, it was rally great. It was really, really, really great.”

A number of events have been held there. In 2004, a rock concert headlined by Cyndi Lauper was held on a revolving stage set on a watch tower. In 2006, the Johnnie Walker Golf Classic teed off from the wall at Juyongguan Pass. In 2007, the wall was used as a catwalk for a Fendi and Karl Lagerfield fashion show.

All-night raves have been held o the wall. Every spring the Great Wall Marathon is staged at a section of the wall 130 kilometers from Beijing. In some of the steeper sections many participants walk. In 2002, a stunt cyclist died trying to jump the Great Wall. In 2007 a skateboarder successfully leapt over it.

There are special places near the Great Wall where celebrities and rich people can stay. Commune of the Great Wall (at the foot of the Great Wall near Badaling) is collection of fanciful homes, each designed by a respected Asian architect. The one designed by Californian-trained Yung Ho Chang is made of packed earth. The one designed by Shigeru Ban is made of laminated bamboo. Originally called Architectural Gallery, it was designed to be a weekend escape. The houses were put on the market for $1 million each, There were few buyers and it new serves as a convention center and tourist attraction as well as a place for the rich and famous.

A number of resorts have sprung up at differing sport along the wall accessible to Beijing. There are also backpacking tours that follow sections of the wall by day and stay in traditional courtyard houses at night. One of these starts at Sun Cha village near Mutianyu that embraces a lot of walking though countryside with views of the wall rather than walks along the wall itself,

Some sections of the Great Wall are very commercialized (See Badaling and Mutianyu Below). Thes days authorities are also trying to cut down on commercialism. There are now rules that ban business activity within 100 meters of the wall. But the drive to make money is even stronger. In 2006, a fight broke on border of Hebei and Beijing, with punches thrown, over who could charge tourist fees. Five people were injured.

Great Wall at Badaling

Great Wall at Badaling (70 kilometers northwest of Beijing) is where 75 percent of tourists who come to see the Great Wall of China actually see it. Richard Nixon and the United States Ping Pong team were photographed here when China began opening up to the West in 1970s. When U.S. President Richard Nixon visited he said, “This is a Great Wall and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.”

Badaling was built at a strategic pass north of Beijing and opened as a tourist sight in 1957. It is well-maintained and has relatively gradual steps.. Over the years countless other leaders and VIPs have been given the red carpet treatment while ordinary tourists are cleared away. It is even possible to rent out sections of the wall here to host parties. A number of foreign corporations doing business in China have done this.

Badaling is a good place to see the Great Wall because it sits high on a mountain pass, where miles of the wall can be seen. The dimensions of the Great Wall at Badaling are typical of those found at other sections. The wall is 26 feet high, 22 feet wide at the bottom and 19 feet wide at the top---wide enough to accommodate five horseman riding side by side or ten soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder.

The guard towers, set up at regular intervals, were used as sentry posts and living quarters for the soldiers. The guard towers perched on the higher hills communicated with one another using smoke signals made with wolf dung during the day and fire signals at night. Some sections of the wall have stairs and are quite steep. There are modern hand rails.

The main drawback with Badaling that it is often chock a block with tourists (if you arrive early enough you can usually avoid them) and souvenir hawkers, selling everything from ancient artifacts to “Extra Special Water.” On the wall itself at the height of the tourist season it is often so crowded it is hard to take a step without interfering with someone’s picture. If you keep walking the crowds start to thin out after about a kilometer as one approaches the unrestored sections.

Around 4.5 to 5 million people visit Great Wall at Badaling each year and they spend an estimated $100 million on souvenirs, entrance fees, restaurant food, Kentucky fried chicken, and pay toilets. The site draws up to 55,000 visitors a day.

Badaling is very commercialized. The road to Badaling is often swollen with traffic. It has amusement rides, a run-down zoo, cheesy museums, antique shops and the Great Wall Circle-Vision theater. Tourists can have their picture taken on the back of a camel, or dressed in the robes of Manchu prince. There is also an auditorium that shows films about the Great Wall. At Badaling Wildlife World safari park visitors can pay $3.60 to watch a live chicken thrown to the lions. The price for a sheep is $36.

Kiosks sell "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirts, Deng Xiaoping cigarette lighters, talking panda dolls, cuckoo clocks that play "The East is Red," reclining plastic Buddhas with light bulbs in their mouths, Deng Xiaoping pocket watches with the character for long life printed 100 times on the back, and alarm clocks with a Red Guard waiving her Little Red Book, green stone Buddhas, Great Wall baseball caps and parchment documents that certify your visit to the wall was authentic.

For people who don’t want to make the 3,000-foot climb to the wall’s highest point there are sedan chairs carried by young men in Machu-era costumes and a cable car that plays loud Chinese pop music. There is bluish-green canopy that winds up to the wall. It covers a kind of amusement park ride that pulls visitors up to the wall. In March 2009 a man was killed by a tiger when he climbed into the tiger enclosure in the safari park, thinking he had fund a shortcut down from the Great Wall. Getting There: Buses to Badaling depart hourly from the entrance of the Beijing zoo. A round trip taxi from Beijing costs around $30. Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Great Wall at Mutianyu

Great Wall at Mutianyu (90 kilometers northeast of Beijing) is less crowded than the section at Badaling but has become more crowded and commercialized in recent years. Opened in 1986 and connecting the Gubuikou Gateway to the east and the Juyongguan Pass to the west, it is much narrower (10 feet wide) than the section at Badaling. It was renovated beginning in 1983, and designated by the Beijing Government in 1987 as one of the 16 most scenic spots in China.

Mutianyu is known for its fine architecture and forested landscape. It was begun in A.D. 600 and reconstructed 1,000 years later. The main section stretches for 2.5 kilometers, and is punctuated by 22 watchtowers, including three connected bastions to the lowest part of the pass.

Robert Hillard wrote in the New York Times, the wall at Mutianyu "winds through the mountains as far as the eye can see, curving, rising and descending with the contours of the valley and the hills...Only a short section of the wall is open to the west, toward Badaling but several miles are open to the east...Along the way are small towered enclosures, some connecting to the next part of the wall, others jutting out over the valley. Some parts of the wall are high above the ground level and other parts are so low that you can reach over the side and almost touch the ground."

Ski lifts, with blaring Chinese pop music, cross the Mutianyu valley to the wall ramparts at the top of the mountain. In 1998 a toboggan ride was opened it. It features sled-like cars that zoom down a mile-long, bobsled-like aluminum track. Adults may not like these new additions but kids getting dragged from sight to sight by their parents love them. More and more souvenir stands are popping up all the time. If you have the money you can rent the Great Wall for a dinner party here. There is a guesthouse on one of the towers.

Getting There: Mutianyu can reached by buses that depart from the entrance of the Worker's Stadium or tour buses and private minibuses that originate from hotels in Beijing. A round trip taxi from Beijing costs around $35 and $60. Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Great Wall at Simatai

Great Wall at Simatai (110 kilometers northeast of Beijing) is one of the best places to climb around on the walls on your own and enjoy the wall in a relatively unspoiled state as its winds spectacularly through rocky crags and cliffs. Sections have fanciful names like the Fairy Tower and Heavenly Ladder. Some sections are extremely steep and are not recommended for those scared of heights. There are steep drops offs and cliffs to the side of the wall and some sections of the wall haven’t been restored and are bit crumbly.

Simatai has been developed for day trippers. There are souvenir stands set up in the parking lot where the buses arrive, a tourist office, a few restaurants and a scary ride in which people zoom down a cable on flimsy-looking little harnesses high above the ground over a lake. A ski lift leads to one of the tower. The walls themselves are reached after a half hour walk from the visitors center. To the right the walls climbs steeply along a rugged, dizzying ridge. The further one gooes the more crumbly and dangerous the wall gets.

To the left a trail follows along sections on top of the wall that lead to Jinshanling about 10 kilometers away. Many people hike this section, usually starting in Jinshanling and finishing in Simatai, (See Below). Hikers are periodically accosted by peasants selling postcards and souvenirs. Sometimes they act as guides and expect tourists to buy something at the end of their stint. Most are subsistence farmers, who can earn four or five dollars selling stuff on a good day. There is a snack bar on one section of the wall. Primitive guesthouse have been set up in watch towers for those who want to stay the night. Getting There: Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Great Wall at Jinshanling(115 kilometers from Beijing) is an in impressive section of the Great Wall with 158 towers and terraces. Built in 1567 under the supervision of one of China's most famous generals, the wall zigzags it way across a series of green mountains. Among the well-preserved structures are square sentry turrets, battlements, and beacon towers. Among its unique features are warehouses, shops with columns made of ground brick and towers with window frames made granite and carved marble. Many of have been restored in recent years. Getting There: Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Great Wall Hike Between Simatai and Jinshanling is one of the better outing that one can do will staying in Beijing. The ten kilometer hike is almost completely on the wall itself. There are some steep ups and downs but nothing that is too difficult or too scary for vertigo sufferers. The hike can be done either way but most people start in Jinshanling and finish in Simatai, with their tour bus dropping them off and picking them up.

The walls are mostly ruins, especially on the Simatai side. Around Jinshanling sections of the wall and towers have been carefully restored. There is even a souvenir shop and guesthouse in one of the towers. There are many peasant farmer touts. Some are quite persistent and won’t leave you alone until you buy something. Those that sell cold drinks on hot days offer some welcome releif.

Getting There: You can reach Simitai and Jinshanling by catching a minibus at Dongzhimen stadium. Many of those who do this hike do so as part of a tour organized by the hostels in Beijing, with a bus picking everybody up in the morning and drops them at Jinshanling after a drive of three hours or so. The hikers hiker to Simatai, where they are picked up and taken back to Beijing and dropped around dinner time.

Great Wall East of Beijing

Great Wall at Huanghuacheng (60 kilometers north of Beijing) is one ofr the more spectacular sections of the Great Wall. It is completely unrestored. One 500-year-old watchtower houses a soft drink stand. There is no entrance fee and hikers can hike around as much as they like. There is some discussion of preventing visitors from walking around to protect the wall.

Bai Yangyu contains a section of the Great Wall. There is a giant golden laughing Buddha and a hiking trail decorated with plastic deer. In some section original stones have been taken out and replaced with brand new limestone blocks. Some “restored” sections look like walls found around gardens in suburban communities.

Qinhuangdao (two hours northeast of Beijing) is a seacoast city of 2.8 million people that hosted a couple 2008 Olympic women’s soccer games. Tourist Office : tel. Web Sites: Maps : Travel China Guide Hotel Web Sites : Sinohotel Budget Accommodation : Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There : Qinhuangdao is accessible by air and bus from Beijing and well-connected to Beijing and other Chinese cities by train.Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Shanhai Pass (16 kilometers from Qinhuangdao) is a strategic pass located at the eastern terminus of the Great Wall between the Yanshan Mountains and the Bohai Sea. Linking northern China to Manchuria, the pass had strategic and military importance and was the site of many battles.

Hanging from one tower is a huge plaque with five Chinese characters that reads "Number One Pass under Heaven." The magnificent city tower, the inaccessible terrain and the inscriptions found on many of the towers are regarded as the "three uniques" of Shanhai Pass. A few kilometers north, at a section known as Jiaosha, it is possible hike along the wall a considerable distance into the mountains.

Shanhaiguan (near Shanhai Pass) is the town built at Shanhai Pass. It contains the runs of old an fort and towers set among modern buildings, The tallest structure a gatehouse comprised of an arch topped by a two-story tower. Dong Daije is a fortress with 30 meter thick walls. It is now a museum with weapons. The Great Wall Museum is housed in a modern copy of a Qing building. None of the captions are in English. The Great Wall at Shanhai also features giant maze decked out with flags.

Laolongtou (four kilometers south of Shanhai Pass) is a national tourist attraction that is located at the eastern end of the Great Wall. Its name means "Old Dragon Head." Jutting out into the Bohai Sea is the Ninghai Stone City (1381) which is a half-kilometer in diameter. Destroyed during the many wars which racked the region, it was restored in 1985 as part of a campaign to restore the Great Wall. Situated on top of the old city wall is the city's most beautiful building, Chenghai Tower.

The Dragon’s Head section that roses from the sea is almost entirely a reconstruction made in the 1980s. The original was destroyed by a European expeditionary force in 1900. The whole area is a bit touristy. There are amusement park rides and aggressive hawkers. The beaches are dirty and crowded.

Great Wall at Huangya Pass (45 kilometers north of Jixian County) was first built is 556 A.D. and was overhauled during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This section of the wall is so beautifully restored it almost looks fake. The battlements are narrower, the bricks are smaller, and the wall itself is higher and narrower than the wall at Badaling. The wall snakes along a ridge of jagged green mountains and is punctuated at regular intervals by rectangular sentry towers. Below the wall in some places are terraces, strongholds and water barriers. The Great Wall Museum is located here. It houses a collection of modern stelaes with inscriptions about the Great Wall.

Image Sources: 1) Great Wall, Nolls China website; 2) NASA; 3) Great Wall tower, Nolls China website ; 4) Early Great Wall, Ohio State University; 5) Wall attack, University of Washington; 6) Wall-mounting ladder, University of Washington; 7) Great Wall map, Dr. Robert Perrins; 8) Grand Canal.

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2012

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