Monday, September 18, 2006

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall is the ultimate symbol of China. It’s mentioned in the National Anthem, it’s on bank notes, and it’s used to sell anything from red wine to automobiles. The Chinese refer to the wall as Chángchéng (长城), or as the 10,000 Li Great Wall (万里长城-Wàn Lĭ Chángchéng), a li being a measure of distance equal to 500m.

It stretches East to West from Shanhaiguan on the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert’s Jiayuguan, a fortress traditionally viewed as the last outpost of civilisation, a distance of over 6000km. The wall was begun in the Qin Dynasty (221-207BC) when China was first united under one flag. Later dynasties expanded and repaired what they inherited. The Ming dynasty saw the most building work, and it was during this time that the wall first came to be faced with bricks and stone. Most of the wall visible today dates from this era. Up to one million workers may have died in the wall’s construction, many of whom were convicts or forced labourers, hence the wall acquired another nickname, ‘the longest graveyard in the world’. The construction used an estimated 180million cubic metres of earth.

The Wall was built in order to protect China from the marauding barbarians to the North, but it never really lived up to its repair bills. Both the Mongols (who established the Yuan dynasty) and the Manchus (who established the Qing dynasty) bribed and tricked their way through the wall on the way to invading China.

Many people from China and elsewhere believe fervently that the Wall is the only man made object visible from space, but this has yet to be corroborated by Astronauts, Cosmonauts or Taikonauts. The idea appears to date from a book published by Robert Halliburton, where he claims that it is the only man-made object visible from the moon... The book was published in 1938, almost thirty years before anyone had been to the moon to find out. Unfortunately, most of us will never get to go to the moon to settle the argument, but if you’re in Beijing, there are plenty of places you can see the wall from.

Some areas of the wall have been totally renovated, and cater so well to tourists that they acquire something of a theme park atmosphere. Other areas are so barren and desolate that getting there at all can be a challenge. Stray unkempt bits of wall litter the countryside north of Beijing, but unless you have weeks to spend on trial and error, it’s best to try one of the places below. As Mao Zedong said ‘Bù dào Chángchéng fēi hăo hàn’- if you don’t go to the Great Wall you’re not a real man (不到长城非好汉)

There are various options for getting to the wall. If you’re really counting the Yuan and fēn, then the cheapest option is usually local public buses. This is also usually the most difficult way. The other choices are officially recognised Tourist Buses, hiring out a taxi, or any of the myriad private tour buses. For tour buses, the best thing will probably be to ask at your hotel, they should know the most convenient option from where you are. For a taxi, you’ll need to agree a price before you go, and the driver will probably insist on this too. Taxi prices quoted below are a rough estimate for the return trip, including having the driver sit in the car park waiting for you for a few hours.**

Mùtiányù 慕田峪

On a good day, the views at Mutianyu are stunning. The wall winds over green hillside (yellow at the wrong time of year) with guard towers dotted along its length. It can get very crowded when the tour buses turn up, other days, if you’re lucky, you’ll have it virtually to yourself. The entrance fee is 85Y. You have the option of a cable car or a steep climb from the car park to the wall. Take bus 916 from Dōngzhímén (东直门) bus station, get off at Huáiróu (怀柔), and jump onto one of the minibuses (~30Yuan is reasonable). Alternatively, there is tour bus no. 6 from Xuānwǔmén (宣武门). Taxis cost ~400 Yuan.

Sīmătái 司马台

Simatai is home to some of the most jawdropping wall-views. The wall runs along sheer cliffs and plunges hundreds of metres down mountainsides. There is a cable car to one of the highest points, the alternative if you want to reach this part is a lot of steep climbs. If you plan to do it on foot, equip yourself so that you can have both hands free if necessary. Entry is 30Y, the cable car a further 50Y. Tour bus no.12 from Xuānwǔmén (宣武门) (70Y) is one of the best options, a taxi is around 400. Public transport to Simatai is not straightforward, and will not significantly undercut the Tour Bus. If you really want to do it, you’d need to take a bus to Mìyún (密云) first, from either Dōngzhímén (东直门) or Xīzhímén (西直门), (one possibility is no. 970 from Dōngzhímén, there are others). Then you have to hop onto one of the minibuses to Sīmătái Chángchéng (司马台长城).

Bādálĭng 八达岭

This is one of the easiest parts of the wall to get to, and possibly the most renovated part. This is where world leaders are brought. The sights are smashing, but the drawback is that it’s also the most crowded and the most commercial. Entry costs 40/45Y, which also buys you entry to the Great Wall Museum located here. To get here by public transport, take bus no. 919 from Déshèngmén (德胜门). Various tour buses are available: No.1 from Qiánmén (前门) No. 2 from Beijing Railway Station (Bĕijīng huǒchēzhàn-北京火车站), No.3 from Xīzhímén (西直门) or Beijing Zoo (Bĕijīng Dòngwùyuán-北京动物园)

Jūyōngguān 居庸关

Juyongguan is much the same story as Badaling, the views are great and it’s easy to get to, but you might find it a little more crowded than it was in the days of marauding Huns. To get here just follow the instructions for Badaling, but tell the bus drivers you want to get off at Juyong guan. (Nĭhăo, wǒ xiăng zài Jūyōngguān Chángchéng xià chē, xièxiè! – 你好,我想在居庸关长城下车 – Hello, I want to get off at Juyongguan Great Wall, thanks!) Admission 45Y.

Jīnshānlĭng 金山岭

Jinshanling is a very charming, unrepaired section of wall with crumbling watchtowers and pretty vistas. It can be start of a walk towards the even more impressive, but slightly more touristed, Simatai. The hike is about ten kilometres, but it’s very tough going. To get here, it’s a bus to Mìyún (密云) first, from either Dōngzhímén (东直门) or Xīzhímén (西直门), (one possibility is no. 970 from Dōngzhímén, there are others), then a minibus to Bākèshíyíng (巴克什营). If there are no direct ones, the bus to Gǔbĕikǒu (古北口) stops here. Admission 30Y


Gu3bĕikou3 古北口

Gubeikou itself is home to another very wild section of wall, and there’s a temple too. To get here, take the bus to Miyun then the bus to Gǔbĕikǒu as explained in the Jinshanling section.

Huánghuā 黄花

This is one of the wildest accessible sections of the wall. A few years ago there was no tourist infrastructure whatever here, apart from a man demanding 1Y for tickets. Inflation has driven this up to 15Y, and the government has been restoring some areas of the wall to make them safer. To get here, take bus 916 from Dōngzhímén (东直门) to Huáiróu, (怀柔) then a minibus direct to the wall Huánghuāchángchéng 黄花长城.

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