The Great Wall of China is the longest fortification ever built. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): At the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, guests can opt to ride a cable car up and slide down the wall. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
During my last visit to China, I stood on the Great Wall twice. But, much like falling in love, the first time will be tough to forget. Like many other U.S. travelers, my first trip to the Great Wall was at Mutianyu, which is about 40 miles outside of Beijing and dates back to the Northern Qi Dynasty, around 550 AD.
Home to a collection of stout guard towers, regularly punctuating the line of stone snaking along ridgelines of the surrounding green mountains, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall certainly offered a collection of dramatic photo ops. This section of the wall was rebuilt by General Xu Da during the early Ming Dynasty). Much of what’s available to visitors today has since been renovated, providing a sturdy recreation of what the Great Wall of that area was like in the 14th century.
Visitors eager to see a non-renovated Great Wall can, however, hike up to a stretch of the Mutianyu segment where they will find plants and even trees growing up through the structure’s walkway. While I had originally planned to hurry all the way up there, I got bogged down taking too many photographs and admiring the seemingly endless stretch of stone as it traveled, rising regularly before descending again, out to a distant and hazy horizon.
There, on a G Adventures China tour, I was happy I’d paid extra for the cable car transport up to the Mutianyu wall, but, in hindsight, I probably should’ve purchased a ride down the metallic slide — available to visitors for the trip back to the tour bus parking lot. My calf muscles were screaming after tackling the countless steps on the surprisingly steep pathway back to the ticket booth.
Happily, there wasn’t any strenuous hiking involved on my second Great Wall experience, which happened a couple days later and nearly 500 miles west of Mutianyu on a section of piled stone dating back around 2,200 years. Located in Guyang County of Inner Mongolia, this segment of the massive structure was only waist-high in some places and didn’t feature any illustrious guard towers. And unlike the carefully hewn stone buildings and walkways of Mutianyu, the Guyang wall appeared only to be a stack of carefully chosen and well-placed shale.
Still, the Guyang section was imposing in its own way, again snaking along a rising and falling ridgeline over the relatively empty landscape of dry grass and low-lying bushes. To imagine the two sections of wall as a connected length of defense took some effort, but it wasn’t hard to picture the extraordinary amount of work required or the workers likely buried around me as part of the foundation.
In 2012, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage completed a five-year effort to measure the Great Wall’s actual length and reported that the structure was more than 13,000 miles long — more than twice the distance of previous estimates. Standing on the Guyang site in Inner Mongolia, you get a better sense of what a massive and complex task calculating the actual span of the entire wall would truly be.
For photos and that iconic Great Wall experience, Mutianyu certainly delivers what I think most U.S. travelers are expecting when they imagine the legendary Chinese attraction in their minds. But, getting a second look at a very different version of the wall at Guyang provided a better feel for the many faces the enormous edifice wears as it travels over such a tremendous distance. And honestly, the two experiences really had me hoping I would be fortunate to see more Great Wall locations in the future.