It is almost impossible to envision a trip to China without visiting its most iconic structure, the Great Wall, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Constructed, extended, repaired and rebuilt over centuries from its origins in the Qin Dynasty during the 3rd century BC overlaying and unifying several even earlier pre-existing bastions created between the 8th and 5th centuries BC by the rulers of the then various independent states, the fusion of these components reflected the new unified China.

Not actually a single structure from end to end, the Great Wall is a complex series of fortified chains spreading in several directions, utilising many different materials, designed to keep out various regional threats from surrounding peoples. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD), the wall was extensively reworked and many of the most revered classic structures associated with the Great Wall date from that period.

Undoubtedly, the vast and punishing efforts to build such defences was worthwhile in keeping out many raiders and invaders, but when it came to the real test, Genghis Khan and his mighty Mongol armies were still able to flood into China, imposing foreign rule upon the Chinese for almost 90 years, from 1279 AD.

The walls stretch mainly from west to east along China’s northern frontiers, and there are many places where, if you are in the area, you can see structurally different versions of the wall, in various states of repair, but one of the best and easiest places to appreciate the wall is from Beijing, with several stretches of well preserved and repaired sections lying to the north of the Capital.

If true authenticity is your thing, the nearest section of wall to Beijing is the unrepaired section at Zhuangdaokou, though because of its precarious condition, which can be dangerous in places, caution is needed when exploring its crumbling remains. There are many other stretches of unrestored wall in the region, the best example of which can be found at Jiankou.

The wall at Badaling is the nearest of the restored sections of wall, and for that reason the most visited, with tourist oriented paraphernalia typically dominating the scene on arrival. However, with cable car access, this is an easy option and a very picturesque one for your camera, with the wall winding seductively around the surrounding hillsides.

Perhaps the best of the restored sites is that of Mutianyu, a little further away and consequently less busy than Badaling. Likewise serviced with a cable car and chairlift, it is very suitable for families or for visitors requiring easy mobility, though for energetic people the climb up to the wall via several pathways is a rewarding option. Unlike Badaling, the tourist infrastructure is focused mostly at the lower levels, leaving you free to explore the twenty six Ming dynasty watchtowers and superb views unhindered along this three kilometre stretch.

The proximity of these stretches of wall to the nearby Ming Tombs often merit an additional visit to this impressive UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the journey. Of thirteen tombs, three are publicly accessible, the grandest of which is that of Emperor Chang Ling, his wife and sixteen concubines. The path to the tombs is known as the ‘Spirit Way’ and is flanked by draping trees and beautiful stone carvings of animals.