The Ming dynasty's rebuilt section of the Great Wall is still most people's image of China, and this final outpost, surrounded by desert and backed by snowcapped mountains, is the best-preserved and most spectacular of the lot. First built in 1372, then expanded and reinforced in 1539, it was the final project of the Ming rebuilding. Entering from the east, you first come to the Wenchang Pavilion, restored in the late Qing dynasty, where intellectuals were said to compose poems, lamenting their rotten luck in being sent to live with the barbarians beyond the Wall. Before leaving, they could enjoy performances at the open-air theater opposite. After passing through Guanghua Men, the first of the three main 17m (56-ft.) towers, they would hurl a stone against the Wall to find out whether they would ever return to civilization. If the stone bounced back, all was well, but if it slithered quietly down the Wall, hope was lost.
Another legend associated with the Wall shows that obsession with quantification started long before 1949. The project's supervisor demanded an exact estimate of the number of bricks to be used in the construction of the fort; if the number was off by one brick, the death penalty awaited one Engineer Yi. When the fort was completed, Yi found that there was one brick left over. Faced with evidence of his failure, Yi declared it "the brick to balance the fort" (ding cheng zhuan) and walked away unscathed. The brick sits on the side of Hui Ji Men, and locals joke about tripping on it. The second main tower, Rou Yuan Men, represents the Ming policy of peaceful coexistence with the ethnic minorities beyond the Wall, a policy that ended in the Qing dynasty, when Xinjiang was dragged back into the Chinese empire. Inside the main courtyard is the Youji Yamen, where the unfortunate generals were stationed with their families. The building is unremarkable but for an antiques shop on the east side. Most items are copies, and all are overpriced, but there are genuine pieces left over from the relocation of the museum from Jiayu Guan to the fort.
Continuing west, you face the massive outer Wall, over 10m (33 ft.) high, and pass through Jiayu Guan Gate. Chinese tour groups joke about forgetting their passport, ride camels, and dress up in funny minority costumes, but in the past it was no joke. Locals called it the Gate of Sighs, and the walls were scrawled with hastily composed poems by unfortunate exiles.
The Great Wall Museum (admission included in the price of the ticket; located near the fort's exit; July-Oct 8:30am-8pm, Nov-June 8:30am-6pm) is worth a visit for its well-curated exhibition of photos and models of various spots along the Great Wall.