Reaching the longest man-made structure on the planet

I used to say of China’s Great Wall that I’d been there a thousand times, but never closer than half a world away. That’s because my mother visited the wall decades ago, and I’d seen a picture of her taken there every day during my childhood, but I’d never been there.

The above gave special meaning to the trip I eventually made to China’s Great Wall, one I believe every traveller should eventually take. After all, this monumental feature was built over centuries: to prevent invasion by outsiders, to preserve China’s identity and its people, to control trade. It has been extended and modified by many leaders over the generations, in segments spanning mostly an East-West direction.

Retracing Steps

The specific section of the wall I wanted to visit – known as The Simatai Great Wall and the same section my mother had seen – had been closed off to visitors for years, and only re-opened in January 2014, after more than three years of restoration.

Like many of our planet’s great natural and man-made attractions, the wall is sadly disintegrating, from both natural and man-made effects. Only 30 percent of it remains in good condition, and much of the structure is virtually dust – definitely time to go see it.

Capital Treasure

I decided to visit the sections within easy traveling distance of Beijing, as my mother had done. Most tourists do this because you can also take in the country’s cultural and political capital. Thanks to its great length, of course, sections of the wall can also be reached from many other Chinese cities – and also from many other locations outside the country.

After a long flight extended by lines increased for health checks, I decided to make a brief survey of Beijing. Like the rest of the trip, time was too short, but I wanted to taste the food and get a feel of this ancient yet thoroughly modern city.

Like Bangkok and other Asian cities I’ve been in, times merge in a wondrous way in Beijing. You can wander through the narrow alleyways, known as hutongs, and see residents admiring their caged birds, gossiping and buying fresh vegetables at local markets much as they have done for centuries. However, the courtyard homes known as siheyuan that once covered the city have largely been replaced by skyscrapers.

Food Fascination

Street stalls in Beijing offer endless exciting and strange dishes, quickly cooked in woks right in front of you. Hot and spicy shrimps caught my tastebuds’ attention, as did baozi, steamed stuffed buns with pork, brown sugar or other stuffings – now my all-time favorite street food.

Following on for main course, I took a friend’s advice and caught a train to Tiandi Yijia, near the Forbidden City, to savor the wonderful Kung Pao Chicken and Steamed Pork Dumplings. You can enjoy all the great Cantonese flavors there, with a central pond full of fish adding to the atmosphere.

Waiting for the Wall

Despite being close by, I decided to hold off visiting the Forbidden City. That gem of Chinese history deserved its own trip, which I had already planned for the future, so instead I opted to get some rest and prepare for the first experience of the Great Wall in Beijing, which waited for me in the morning.

Of course, I listened to “The Wall” by Pink Floyd as I walked through the streets, recalling some of the facts I’d learned online. The 373 miles (600km) of the nearby section has 827 city wall platforms, 71 passes and numerous towers. Sections most well-known are the Badaling, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Gubeikou, Simatai and Jinshaling, all built during the Ming Dynasty, from 1368-1644.

I kept envisioning my mother’s smile at the satisfaction of having visited this man-made wonder, and my own joy at finally visiting it was clear for all to see. Tired from the trip, the excitement faded quickly after getting to my sublimely decorated accommodations, and I fell asleep with visions of history filling my dreams.

Winding North

The next day brought a trip to Badaling Wall, which is only a 37-mile (60 km) drive from Beijing, so it is always crowded with tourists and day-trippers. Fortunately, I’d joined a private group riding in taxi (up to four per group), and we had agreed to see both the Badaling and Mutianyu segments in one day. Since most locals opt for tour buses, and we headed out at earliest light, we had a jump on the crowds, but not for long.

Badaling is the least steep section of all and therefore easy and for children and older people to manage, which means more crowds. It does, however, boast superb views due to the mountain setting. With mist drifting around in the morning light and at an advanced stage of restoration, it was the first section open to commercialization. In fact, this section was the site of the famous 1971 visit by the US Table Tennis team, and has since welcomed Presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Obama.

Top Photo Opps

Both Badaling and Mutianyu offer a “cable car” system that takes visitors to the peak of the wall. This is advisable in hot summer months, as it can get a bit much with heated stone surfaces. Mutianyu, at 55 miles (90 km) from Beijing, draws slightly smaller crowds, so it’s easier to avoid the masses. It is another stunning site, well worth the trip with plenty of spots to stop and capture the moment on film. Though less strewn with sellers, however, Mutianyu still sports a lot of commercial action.

I, of course, had partly made the trip to Mutianyu so that I could pose in the same spots that my mother had. The driver helped out and actually said he recognized my mother, but I think he was only looking for a bigger tip.

Hike to Heaven

The next day – after an evening of wine tasting and multi-ethnic dishes at a local eatery that was only cut short by exhaustion, I hiked the recently re-opened Simatai Wall in all its splendour as part of the very popular 6 mile (10 km) Jinshaling-to-Simatai hike.

My companions had heard that this part of the wall was closed and had crumbled, so they were thrilled to find such great hiking. With varied size and shapes, the 67 towers, perched on corners for heightened visibility, are perfect for photo-crazy tourists. The pleasure was only exceeded in quality by the amazing views at every step.

One out-sized tower, the “Storehouse Tower,” was once the headquarters for troops during Ming times, and has a large storehouse on one side with extra long walls and stone protection barriers. Definitely a nice addition to the photo album.

New Additions

An extra treat lay below the Simatai Wall, where part of the restoration includes a “Gubei Water Town” for visitors. With lovingly recreated shops, restaurants and exhibit areas, amid caressing courtyards, this new addition is a pleasing reproduction of times past. There are hotels, and guesthouses to stay overnight. For us, it was a perfect ending to our hiking adventure, and was fun to talk about, even on the ride back.

I recommend everyone makes the effort to see the Great Wall of China, especially with father time outpacing its restoration. Maybe you too can leave pictures for a relative to follow in your footsteps and experience one of human kind’s greatest achievements.


Great Wall Trip Tips

A visit to the Great Wall requires a bit of planning to make sure you see the best sections and enjoy the experience to the full. Here are some tips and suggestions.

  • Wear good walking shoes or tennis shoes for Great Wall walking. Hiking boots are best on unrestored, rougher sections such as Jiankou – where the structure can be dangerous and only for climbers – also on any wall walks during winter or wet weather.
  • Once you’re in Badaling, you can head in either direction along the wall from the main entrance. We found that we saw fewer people when we took the northern (left) direction. You’ll hike a longer distance if you’re looking to photograph or walk any unrestored sections.
  • For those less constrained by budget, consider upscale digs at wall locations with quality views.
  • For a special addition to your Great Wall hiking, explore some of China’s many lovely parks. Fragrant Hills Park is a favorite stop in Autumn when the leaves are brilliantly hued. Taoranting Park has impressive architectural displays, both ancient and contemporary. Stone Flower Cave contains karsts that make for an excellent photography backdrop and beautiful Jingshan Park overlooks the Forbidden City – it was used as a royal garden in olden times.
  • The Great Wall cannot be seen from the moon or outer space, despite persistent myths of this reappearing in the media over time. Even from great heights above the earth, pilots typically mistake rivers for the wall.

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.