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Hebei Province, on the Bo Hai coast, 439km (274 miles) E of Beijing

Eventually the Great Wall gives up its mad zigzagging from high point to high point and plunges spectacularly down a mountainside to run across a small plain and into the sea. On its way it briefly doubles as the eastern city wall of the garrison town of Shanhaiguan (Pass between Mountains and Sea), built during the Ming dynasty to prevent the easy passage of mounted invaders from the Northeast.

The Wall was never an effective defense mechanism, and Shanhaiguan became irrelevant after 1644 when, following the overthrow of the Ming dynasty by peasant rebellions, the dismayed defenders here allowed Qing forces through. Once the enemy was within the gates, the Wall became pointless, lying as it did within Qing territory, and it was allowed to fall into ruin until the imperatives of tourism rebuilt parts of it.

Each year large quantities of material are still carted away for incorporation in domestic buildings, and local governments breach the Wall when it suits them. At Shanhaiguan a local vegetable wholesaler was made to rebuild a section of the Wall when he pulled it down to expand his warehouse. The local government then plowed a new expressway straight through it and permitted the display of advertising on its side, to " . . . rejuvenate the national industry that will face increased competition after China's entry into the World Trade Organization," according to China Daily.

Entrance prices to attractions in Shanhaiguan are in constant flux, and off season may be as low as half the high-season rates quoted here, although that fact isn't often posted. Whatever the season, always ask for a discount.