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To visit Beijing and not experience the Great Wall would be like going to Delhi and not venturing on to the Taj Mahal. Built principally to defend the Chinese Empire from Mongolian and Manchu adversaries to the north, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is China’s biggest and most popular tourist attraction.
Known in Mandarin as Wanli Changcheng (10,000-Li Long Wall), the world’s largest historical site begins at Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Sea and wends its way to the Gobi Desert in the west. Its estimated length of 5,500 miles includes sections of trenches and natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. It reached its greatest extent during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
The Manchus were finally able to cross the Great Wall in 1644, ushering in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Since under Qing rule, China’s borders extended well beyond the Great Wall and Mongolia was annexed into the empire. There was, therefore, little need to maintain the wall as a defensive position.
In the middle of the last century an effort was made to revive the Great Wall, this time for its historical significance. In 1957, the Great Wall at Badaling became the first section to be open for tourism. This portion of the wall was built in 1505 during the Ming Dynasty, and has gone under significant restoration in recent years. Made of stone and brick and averaging 16 feet in width and 26 feet in height, the wall was heavily garrisoned reflecting the location’s strategic importance. In 1972, President Richard Nixon and his wife Patricia, accompanied by Chinese Vice Premier Li Xiannian, visited the Great Wall in Badaling, capping off the “ping-pong diplomacy efforts” that led to the normalization of relations between the two superpowers. Because of its proximity to Beijing, 50 miles northwest of China’s capital, the part of the Great Wall is the most visited section. With millions of visitors annually, the area now has modern hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores and a cable car.
One-day tours are easy to arrange for those with limited time, either from North America or up to a day before from any major Beijing hotel. My day trip was arranged through the tour desk at the Shangri-La’s China World Hotel. China Highlights (www.chinahighlights.com) is a tour operator that offers day trips to various areas of the Great Wall. Weekday visits are suggested to avoid the weekend throngs.
The history of the Great Wall continues to be uncovered, literally. In 2009, an additional 180 miles of the wall was discovered between the Hushan Mountains in the northern Liaoning province and Jiayuguan in the western Gansu province. Over the centuries these sections had been eroded and then covered by sandstorms.
For travelers with time and the inclination to explore the crumbling “unofficial” sections of the Great Wall in the more remote areas north of Beijing, tour operator Wild Wall can organize more off-the-beaten-path treks.
Even a basic historical knowledge of a given location can greatly enhance the experience of a visit. If the Great Wall could talk, its stories would fill the largest of libraries.
Shangri-La’s China World Hotelwww.shangri-la.com/en/beijing/chinaworld
China Highlights/CITS Guilinwww.chinahighlights.com