Travel guide to visiting the Great Wall in China

An unprecedented system of fortifications



Great Wall of China, China

GPS: 40.433336021302, 116.57170850192

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The Great Wall of China is the largest man-made fortification ever built in terms of length, mass and surface area. It embodies the military power of Imperial China. This extraordinary defence system was erected from the 3rd century BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. At the beginning of the unification of the Chinese empire, the sovereign entrusted the responsibility of the construction site to his general and military architect, Meng Tian. The foundations of the Great Wall China rest on the first defensive lines 5,000 kilometres long. They mark the northern border of the country against the nomadic peoples from the Mongolian Steppe (including the Xiongnu).

To protect themselves against external invasions, the dynasties that succeeded each other at the head of the empire continued this considerable construction project and improved the techniques. These were developed in particular during the reign of the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Yongle Emperor, at the beginning of the 15th century. The fortifications of the Great Wall China were enlarged, solidified and raised to make them indestructible and impassable. They were equipped with bastions, watchtowers and fortified outposts to accommodate garrisons of soldiers responsible for keeping a permanent watch on the area and warning the capital in case of an attack. The extension of the Great Wall of China continued to the north and west of Beijing until the 17th century, stretching from the Gobi Desert to the Yellow Sea. In the end, the wall stretches over 21,000 kilometres in length. It traverses inhospitable terrain and covers a total of 15 Chinese provinces. This military structure, of extraordinary dimensions, also serves to secure the transport of goods and protect parts of the Silk Road.

The Great Wall China has been destroyed several times over the centuries by the Mongols (including Genghis Khan and his troops who managed to bypass it in the 13th century) and the Manchus in the 17th century (who brought the Qing dynasty to power). Internal events such as political unrest, civil wars and popular revolts affected successive empires, but the fortification system was rebuilt in various places until its completion. Made of earth, wood, stone, cement, and then standardized brick, the singular architecture of the Great Wall of China is revealed to the public from Shanhai Pass (Shanhaiguan) in its eastern part to Jiayu Pass (Jiayuguan City) in its western end. Its imposing walls are dotted with fortresses and follow a zigzag silhouette of the mountainous terrain. A symbol of Chinese civilisation, the Great Wall China winds its way through varied and spectacular landscapes along the border with Mongolia: mountain passes and grasslands, deserts and rivers, cliffs and forests as far as the eye can see.

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  • The largest human fortification and the biggest architectural project ever built; the landscape integration of this pharaonic construction
  • A unique defence, transport and communication system that has spanned more than 2,200 years of history; the effort required to produce and transport the amount of building materials needed
  • The thickness of the walls of certain parts of the Great Wall (5 to 7 metres) combined with their height (7 to 17 metres); the two-storey watchtowers placed every 150 metres according to the ancient principles of feng shui (an ancestral art of living, rooted in Chinese culture, which seeks to live in harmony with the environment); the smoke towers built according to the relief to warn troops and populations in case of danger
  • The cable car and giant slide in the Mutianyu Great Wall
  • The ancient defensive lines that predate the Great Wall (built in adobe, they can be seen on the edge of the Gobi desert)
  • Xifeng Pass (Xifengkou gateway fortress); Juyong Pass (Cloud Platform) and Shanhai Pass (where the Great Wall of China meets the ocean); ancient bridle paths
  • The myths, tales and popular legends surrounding this emblematic place; a monument that guarantees the living memory of the nation and still influences the culture, customs and traditional festivals of the Chinese people today
  • The ease of access to several sections from Beijing; the wild and uncrowded stretches outside Beijing; the numerous hiking possibilities
  • The Lantern Festival celebrating the end of Chinese New Year (February or March); the Great Wall Marathon (May)
  • In Chinese mythology, the Great Wall represents a dragon, a symbol of life and power, supposed to protect the nation from potential invaders. It is nicknamed the “Long Dragon” (Shanhai Pass is supposed to be the “Old Dragon’s Head” where the Great Wall of China meets the sea) or the “long graveyard” (in reference to the large number of workers condemned to die during its construction). It is estimated that at least one million Chinese died during the reconstruction phases and that one third of the population was requisitioned to support the erection.
  • Contrary to what one may hear or read, this human construction is not visible from space. Human bodies or bones of workers who died during the construction were not used in the building of the wall (no human remains have been revealed to date).
  • Legend has it that sauerkraut is a Chinese dish that was served to thousands of workers on the construction site of the Great Wall of China. At the time, this economical preparation, rich in vitamin C, took the form of fermented cabbage preserved in brine. This dish would later have crossed borders to land in Central Europe in the Middle Ages with the military conquests of the Huns, the Tatars and then under the aegis of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the 12th and 13th centuries.
  • During his reign in the 15th century, Yongle Emperor initiated the transfer of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing (originally named Beiping and later Beijing) to protect the northern border of his empire. He built the palaces and the fortification system of the Forbidden City.
  • The Great Wall fortifications can be seen today over a distance of more than 8,800 kilometres, of which 6,250 kilometres are walls (the rest are remnants that are hardly recognisable to the naked eye or consist of trenches and natural barriers). This staggering length of construction is five times the width of the United States and exceeds the distance between the North and South Poles. The actual size of the route is 21,196 kilometres or half the circumference of the planet. A total of 40,000 sections of ramparts from different periods and in several layers have been identified on the Great Wall of China (some portions have recently been discovered in the Gobi Desert). In comparison, more than a hundred Great Pyramid of Giza could be built with the same amount of material used for the Great Wall of China (the equivalent of 4 billion bricks).
  • The structure is so extensive that the sun rises 1 hour and 20 minutes later at the western end of the wall than at its eastern end. It is estimated that it takes two years to walk the entire route from one end of the fortifications to the other, 8 hours a day. In 1984, three Chinese walked the 8,800 kilometres of Ming Dynasty wall in 17 months.
  • The oldest part of the wall, covering 10,000 kilometres, is an adobe formation. It is composed of sand, compacted earth, dried reed and small shells. This simple and easy to shape alloy produces a material of great strength comparable to modern reinforced concrete.
  • The more recent walls (16th century) are based on bricks four times as massive as traditional bricks. Weighing an average of 10 kilograms each, they enabled the Chinese to build 8,500 kilometres of walls in just 70 years. These bricks, composed mostly of clay, were made in the immediate vicinity of the Great Wall construction site, in round kilns several metres below ground. Each brick required at least 48 hours of firing and 2 weeks of drying in the sun. A quasi-industrial process enabled the builders to complete this huge project in record time. Mortar bound the bricks together with sand, rock, lime and a more surprising ingredient, namely an organic molecule corresponding to starch. Archaeologists have recently discovered that this starch is derived from glutinous rice, which was widely used as a mortar binder to solidify the bricks of the Great Wall of China. It is this component that explains the monument’s incredible longevity and resilience over time.
  • In the 1930s, the fortifications of the Great Wall of China were the scene of military fighting during the Second Sino-Japanese War (bullet holes can be seen at the eastern end of the Chinese mega-structure). It was not until 1957 that the monument was protected and began to be restored in the modern era.
  • Avoid the more touristy area of Badaling, close to Beijing, opting for the well-preserved sections of Mutianyu (family-friendly), Gubeikou (historic part as it has not been restored since the 17th century), Jiankou (set in steep landscapes along a mountain ridge), Huanghuacheng (by a lake), Zhuangdaokou (one of the least visited areas), Yanmenguan (mountain pass), Simatai (one of the wildest parts), Jinshanling (suitable for long walks), Shanhaiguan (at the eastern end of the wall) and Jiayuguan (at the western end of the wall).
  • Jiankou is considered one of the wildest and most photogenic sections of the Great Wall of China. It is located just 70 kilometres north of Beijing and connects the Mutianyu and Moshikou sections. Long left in its original state since its last restoration in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Jiankou section of the wall is currently undergoing rehabilitation.
  • The sections of wall located in Inner Mongolia, Gansu Province and the Gobi Desert are among the oldest parts of the site.
  • In winter, most of the fortifications of the Great Wall of China are covered with snow. The months of April, May, June and September, outside the Chinese school holidays, offer the best conditions for visiting (the beginning of October should be avoided as it corresponds to a national celebration and holiday period for many Chinese).
  • Good walking shoes and a supply of water should be brought along before going for a hike.

Where to eat

  • Bao Hua Xin
    (close to Mutianyu)
  • Dayali Roast Duck
    (specialist in Peking duck)
  • The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu
    (local cuisine)

Where to go

  • Jinshanling-Simatai Trekking
    (trail with breathtaking views)
  • Hongluo Temple
    (sacred and impressive site)
  • Jiayu Pass
    (defensive complex)

Where to stay

  • Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu
    (calm and rejuvenating)
  • The Red Door
    (close to Mutianyu)
  • Sunrise Kempinski Hotel
    (with futuristic architecture)