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The Great Wall (Wanli Changcheng)

Even after you dispense with the myths that it is a single continuous structure and that it can be seen from space (it can't, any more than a fishing line can be seen from the other side of a river), China's best-known attraction is still mind-boggling. The world's largest historical site is referred to in Mandarin as Wanli Changcheng ("10,000-Li Long Wall" or simply "Very Long Wall"). The Great Wall begins at Shanhaiguan on the Bo Hai Sea and snakes west to a fort at Jiayu Guan in the Gobi Desert. Its origins date back to the Warring States Period (453-221 B.C.), when rival kingdoms began building defensive walls to thwart each other's armies. The king of Qin, who eventually conquered the other states to become the first emperor of a unified China, engaged in large-scale wall building toward the end of his reign, although tales of 300,000 conscripted laborers are embellishments of subsequent dynasties. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Wall was extended west, and additions were made in completely different locations, according to the military needs of the day.

Although many tour guides will try to persuade you otherwise, the Ming Wall you see today is unrelated to the Qin Wall, which lies far to the north. The Ming even went to the trouble of calling their wall Bian Qiang (Frontier Wall) to avoid comparisons with the tyrannical first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi. The original Wall was built almost entirely from tamped earth, and often crumbled away within decades of being constructed. Talk of satellite-mapping the current Wall is fanciful -- for most of its length, the structure is barely visible from the ground. This, and the fact that there is no single "Great Wall," makes it impossible to pin down the Wall's precise length.

Those with an interest in exaggerating Chinese xenophobia portray Wall building as an essential part of the national psyche, but after the Han, few dynasties bothered with Wall construction, and relied mostly on trade, diplomacy, and the odd punitive expedition to keep the peace. Even during the inward-looking Ming dynasty, the Wall was viewed by many at court as an ancient version of the Star Wars missile-defense idea -- ineffective, absurdly expensive, and successful only in antagonizing China's neighbors. With the Ming wracked by internal rebellion, the Qing armies simply bribed the demoralized sentries. The Qing left the Wall as a monument to folly, and while early Western visitors were awed, it became a source of national pride only recently. Dr. Sun Yat-sen was among the first to view it as a symbol of national strength, an idea the Communists adopted, including it in the National Anthem.

The Wall's most easily visited sections are Ba Da Ling and Juyong Guan, while Mutianyu, Jin Shan Ling, and the vertiginous Simatai require a full day's outing. Appealing options for overnight stays are The Red Capital Ranch at Mutianyu and the more basic Simatai YHA.

On the Wild Wall -- Travelers with time and the inclination to explore beyond the typical tourist haunts are strongly encouraged to join a trip to the crumbling "unofficial" sections of the Wall that snake through more remote areas north of Beijing. Great Wall researcher and conservationist William Lindesay, a Briton who has been walking along and writing about the Great Wall since the mid-1980s, organizes excursions for the company Wild Wall. Joining one of his tours is the best way to learn about the Wall's construction and destruction, by both human and natural forces, from a knowledgeable source.

Wild Wall is based out of two modernized farmhouses, the first and more fully outfitted just north of Beijing, and the second somewhat more primitive (but still comfortable) in Hebei. Wild Wall's most common weekend trips run 3 days (Fri-Sun) and cost $450 (prices are quoted in U.S. dollars), including guided hikes, 2 nights' accommodations in a farmhouse, six meals, drinks and snacks, research and conservation contribution, and book. Although pricey, these weekend trips are highly recommended and typically take place two or three times a month. Day hikes and strenuous "Extreme Treks" are also available. For details see www.wildwall.com.

The Great Wall at Juyong Guan

59km (37 miles) NW of Beijing

Just before you get to the madness of Ba Da Ling, the most touristed and tacky section (we don't recommend it), lies this relatively peaceful stretch of the Wall. The most conveniently accessed section of the Wall is also the most historically significant. Guarding one of the two crucial passes to Beijing (the other is to the northeast, at Gu Bei Kou) and the vast North China Plain, Juyong Guan (Dwelling in Harmony Pass) was the site of pitched battles, involving Jurchen, Mongol, and, more recently, Japanese invaders. There may have been fortifications here as early as the 6th century, before Beijing existed. Climbing the steep section to the left offers marvelous views of Ba Da Ling, snaking up the mountains to the north, and south toward Beijing (in the event of a clear day). Restorations from 1993 to 1997 created over 4km (2 1/2 miles) of wall, but railings mar the effect; there's little feeling of antiquity. All the construction must have eaten into the advertising budget, as crowds are thinner here than at Ba Da Ling.

It's worth stopping at Juyong Guan to view the ancient and remarkable Yun Tai (Cloud Platform), which once stood astride the old road running northwest into Mongol territories. Dating from 1342, it was the base for three Tibetan-style stupas, which were toppled by an earthquake and replaced during the Ming dynasty by a Chinese-style Buddhist temple, also destroyed (by fire) during the early Qing. The central tunnel is carved with elephants, Buddha figures demonstrating different mudra (hand positions), the four heavenly kings, and six different scripts. Facing north, the languages on the right-hand wall are Chinese, Xi Xia (the script of a vanished Tibetan race, decimated by Genghis Khan's armies during the 14th c.), Uighur, and Mongolian. The top script is Sanskrit, with Tibetan below.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- The ticket office at Juyong Guan (tel. 010/6977-1665) is open daily from 7:30am to 5pm. Admission is ¥45, ¥25 for students.

Getting There -- A round-trip taxi should cost less than ¥400, driver's fee for waiting included.

Where to Stay -- Giving the Red Capital Ranch a run for its money is The Commune (tel. 010/8118-1888; www.commune.com.cn). This hotel's stunning architecture and location near the Great Wall make it a perfect place to retreat from the city. The 12 original villas designed by international architects are often rented for lavish parties while copies of the homes have been subdivided into more affordable hotel rooms. Some guests have complained about service, but overall, it's still a pleasant experience. A large kids' club offers free babysitting and an outdoor wading pool. Doubles run for ¥1,700 to ¥2,500 plus a 15% service charge and include breakfast. Exit at Shuiguan, Ba Da Ling Highway.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

90km (56 miles) NE of Beijing

The Great Wall at Ba Da Ling proved so popular that authorities restored a second section of the Wall to the east in 1986. Mutianyu is slightly less crowded than Ba Da Ling, but it does have its own traffic jams in summer. Located in a heavily forested area, it's especially photogenic in rainy, misty weather. You can hop over a fence to see more tempting, unrestored sections, but those planning to survey the entire length of restored wall will find themselves with little energy remaining. There is a cable car to help those who need it.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- The ticket office (tel. 010/6162-6505) is open from 7:30am to 5:30pm. Admission is ¥40; the cable car costs ¥50 round-trip.

Getting There -- Most hotels can arrange guided group tours for around ¥250. The tourist (you) bus no. 6 combines a trip to Mutianyu with visits to a temple and a lake; it leaves from the northeast side of the Xuanwu Men metro stop (Sat-Sun 6:30-8am, every 30 min.; ¥50). The bus stops at Mutianyu for about 3 hours. A taxi will cost around ¥500, driver's fee for waiting included.

Where to Stay -- In a quiet river valley close to Mutianyu and similar to the Red Capital Residence, is the Red Capital Ranch (tel. 010/8401-8886; ¥1,415-¥1,500 including breakfast, plus 15% service charge; Apr-Nov). All 10 rooms are thoughtfully decorated with antique furnishings. The oddly shaped Yan'an room has considerable charm and a very firm bed. The Ranch sits next to a dramatic section of the wall that is good for a challenge; there's a steep drop toward the end to the last tower that should be attempted only by advanced hikers. (Tip: You may also choose to hike this section of the wall without staying at the Ranch -- arrange your own driver [see Jiankou, below] and grab a post-hike tea in the Ranch's lodge.) Fishing, biking, and even a Tibetan essential oil massage are offered. A twice-daily shuttle bus connects with the Red Capital Residence.

Travelers with Disabilities -- Exploring the Great Wall is tough enough for people in good shape. For those with disabilities, the Wall is a nightmare. At Mutianyu a cable car provides access, but there are still steps to negotiate up to the cable car, and steep steps up to the Wall. There are no elevators or wheelchair assists at any of the sections.

The Great Wall at Jin Shan Ling

130km (81 miles) NE of Beijing, 90km (56 miles) SW of Chengde

Located in Hebei Province, this is the least visited and least spoiled of the Wall sections listed in this section. Jin Shan Ling is 10km (6 1/4 miles) east of Gu Bei Kou (Old Northern Pass), through which Qing royalty passed on the way to their summer retreat at Chengde (Jehol). The Wall here is in good condition, as it was a recent (after 1570) rebuild of an existing Ming wall, and construction was overseen by the outstanding general, Qi Jiguang. The defensible pass, whose heart lies to the west at Gu Bei Kou, was 27km (17 miles), stretching all the way to Simatai in the east. Bricks are smaller, reflecting advances in wall-building technique. The Wall features unusual circular towers and elaborate defensive walls leading up to towers. Management dreams of tourist hordes -- a cable car has been built, along with gradually rusting amusements -- but the remoteness of the site makes large-scale tourism unlikely. The walk to Simatai is reason enough to visit.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- The ticket office (tel. 010/8402-4628) is open from 8am to 5pm. Admission is ¥50.

Getting There -- The easiest way to get to Jin Shan Ling is to hire a taxi for the day, which will cost ¥600, driver's fee for wait time included. A cheaper alternative is to take the 980 express bus from Dong Zhi Men to Miyun for ¥15 (buses run 6am-8pm), and then transfer to a local taxi for the remaining trip, which should cost ¥100 each way. Jin Shan Ling can also be reached by train from the Beijing Bei Zhan (North Railway Station), just north of the Xi Zhi Men metro stop. A special tourist train for Gu Bei Kou, the L671, departs daily from mid-April to October at 7:25am (2 1/2-hr. trip). The rest of the year, the slower L815, departing at 8am, will take you there (4-hr. trip; ¥10). Returning trains depart at 3:05 and 4:15pm, respectively. Walking down from the station, you can either find lodgings in Gu Bei Kou Hexi Cun village, or take a minivan directly to the Wall (25-min. trip, ¥20). From Xi Zhi Men bus station, some buses to Chengde (daily 6am-5:30pm, about every 20 min.; 2 1/2-hr. trip; ¥46 for an Iveco or similar) also pass the turnoff, where you face either a 6km (3 3/4-mile) hike or haggling for a minivan (¥10).

Where to Stay -- Standard rooms start at ¥140 in the dull but clean Jin Shan Ling Binguan, to the right just inside the entrance of the wall. Staying at one of the simple courtyard houses in Gu Bei Kou Hexi Cun, just below the railway station, is a cheaper and more appealing option; accommodations are usually ¥10 per person, and home-cooked meals are similarly priced.

The Great Wall at Simatai

124km (77 miles) NE of Beijing

Somewhat tamed after a series of deaths led to the closing of its most dangerous stretch, Simatai nevertheless remains one of the best options for those who want more of a challenge from the Great Wall. The most harrowing portion, steep and unrestored, is on the east (right) side of the Miyun Reservoir. Several gravel-strewn spots require all four limbs to navigate. The endpoint is the Wangjing Ta, the 12th watchtower. Beyond this is the appropriately named Tian Qiao (Heavenly Bridge), a thin, tilted ridge where the Wall narrows to only a few feet -- the section that is now off-limits. Despite the danger, Simatai can get rather crowded on weekends, especially since a cable car was installed, and souvenir vendors can be a nuisance. Those who speak Chinese would do well to pretend otherwise, or risk listening to hard-luck stories ("I've walked all the way from Mongolia"). The round-trip hike to Tian Qiao takes 3 hours at a moderate pace. The section of Simatai west of the reservoir is initially better restored and connects to Jin Shan Ling, in Hebei Province.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- The ticket office (tel. 010/6903-1051), a 10-minute walk away in a village south of the reservoir, is open 8am to 5pm. Admission is ¥40. The cable car runs from 8am to 4:30pm, April to November; a round-trip ride to the no. 8 Tower costs ¥50, or ¥30 one-way. Those walking west to Jin Shan Ling will be charged ¥5 to cross a bridge.

Getting There -- The best no-hassle option is to visit with one of the Youth Hostelling International tours (tel. 010/6551-5362), from the Beijing City Central Youth Hostel at Beijing railway station. The van leaves once a day and costs ¥220 from May to October and ¥200 from November to April. The tourist (you) bus no. 12 travels to Simatai from northeast of the Xuanwu Men metro stop (Apr to mid-Oct Sat-Sun 6:30-8:30am, every 30 min; ¥70); you get about 3 hours at the site. A round-trip taxi ride should cost ¥600, driver's fee for wait time included.

Where to Stay -- Responding to the popularity of the Jin Shan Ling to Simatai hike, Simatai YHA (tel. 010/8188-9323; dorm bed ¥70; standard room ¥320) opened in 2004. Courtyard-style rooms are basic, but the coffee is world-class, and the view of the Wall from the patio is wonderful.

The Great Wall at Jiankou

70km (43 miles) NE of Beijing

This is our favorite part of the Wall. Few tourist buses make the journey here, and there is no cable car shuttling out-of-shape tourists to the top. Even more amazing, there are no touts selling knickknacks. We've spent plenty of time near here, since we rent a house in the nearby countryside. This section is for serious hikers only. Start at Xin Zhai Zi Cun where the road dead-ends into a parking lot, following the trail up to the Wall. Turn left once you reach the wall, and prepare yourself for an intense 5-hour hike. The tallest watchtower in the distance is Jiankou, and just before you reach it, there is a turnoff point that is marked by a flat, paved section of the Wall that leads you back down to the road. From the road, it's a 20-minute walk back to the parking lot.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- Admission is ¥20. Villagers charge ¥5 for parking. Open 24 hours. Bring your own lunch. Bottled water is usually available at the parking lot -- bring plenty of water for the hike.

Getting There -- Since it's a remote location, you'll have to arrange a private car. Have your hotel concierge arrange a driver, or have them call one of two drivers: Mr. Liu (tel. 0/13661162308) or Mr. Zhang (tel. 0/13501189730) (neither speaks English, so you may need your concierge to help ring them up). The return trip takes 4 hours (plus figure in 5 hr. of wait time for your hike) and will cost ¥500, more if arranged by your hotel.

Where to Stay -- Many small peasant homes at the base of the mountain (near the parking lot) offer accommodations, but we don't recommend any in particular as the area is rather rustic. If you'd like to overnight, your best bet is to head to Mountain Bar Lodge (Hong Zun Yu Yi Tiao Gou; tel. 010/6162-7396; www.ourshanba.com), 30 minutes away from Jiankou, on the return trip to Beijing. The Chinese resort offers small chalets perched on a hill and excellent fare at its massive, meandering restaurant that serves up to 1,000 people per night. Try the excellent barbecued pork ribs (kao zhupai) and the mixed eggplant, potato, and green peppers (disanxian).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.