The Great Wall is now a symbol of pride for the nation of China, but the world had all but forgotten it until fairly recently. Mao Zedong had been in power for years when he began to promote the Great Wall as a symbol of Chinese ingenuity. The ancient ruin, forgotten for centuries, began to stand for hope in the country that had torn apart by war and famine.
By that time, though, much of the wall had crumpled into the dirt, and other portions were in poor repair. The problem continues into the present, and though some of the Wall is in good shape, other portions are expected to disappear soon, victims of erosion from the sandstorms that sweep the region. The older sections of the Wall, made of clay and packed dirt, are more vulnerable to erosion than the later additions; the sections that are in good condition are those that were built at a later date with bricks.
The Great Wall was not just a wall; a road ran along the top of it, wide enough for ten soldiers to march side-by-side. Guardhouses were placed along the top, and when the Wall was manned with armed soldiers, it was a formidable barrier.
Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, conquered and consolidated nearby states and formed the Qin (pronounced ‘chin’) dynasty in 221 B.C.E. He knew that he had to fortify his kingdom against the roving bands of Manchurians that often attacked from the north, so he ordered the construction of a long barrier wall. This wall incorporated parts of earlier walls, but used cutting-edge construction techniques. The manpower needed for a project of this scope was staggering, and historians speculate that between 1 and 3 million people were involved in the construction.
History and time aren’t kind, and most of the Great Wall has disappeared. Portions remain, and they’re impressive enough. Unfortunately, there is no way to know exactly how long the Great Wall was, or the exact route it took. We do know that it performed its job admirably, keeping raiding parties from invading China.
It worked so well, in fact, that later dynasties went to considerable expense to repair and extend the Great Wall. The Ming dynasty outdid them all in the 1400’s, using stone and brick to construct a barrier that was more durable than the earlier rammed-earth versions.
How To Get There:
There are several portions of the Great Wall that are currently open to the public, but the four most popular are within an hour’s driving distance of Beijing. The Bandaling portion of the Wall is restored and offers great scenery—but it’s often very crowded. The MuTienYu pass has been restored, too, and is in better condition than any other portion of the Wall. It passes through heavy forests, so the scenery is particularly beautiful; but there are many hills, so walking this portion of the Wall is more difficult. The ShiGuan and JuYongGuan passes are also convenient to Beijing.
Fly into the sophisticated Beijing Capitol International Airport, and if you’re spending the night in Beijing and don’t mind spending an extra $20, the airport’s pick-up service will take you directly to your hotel.
Several sections of the Wall are less than an hour’s bus ride from the airport, although you may want to rent a car if you’re going directly to the Wall.
Where to Stay:
If you want a hotel near the Great Wall, consider trying Commune by the Great Wall. This private facility offers breath-taking views of the Wall—and modern amenities. Commune welcomes children effusively, offering perks and amenities geared specially for the younger crowd. You can leave your children at the Kid’s Club, a villa furnished with lots of kid-friendly activities, while you catch a movie at Commune’s private cinema. It’s expensive, though; prices start at $250 a night.
The China Guide, a tour company, offers the other end of the spectrum, giving tourists a chance to sleep on the Great Wall. Sleeping bags are provided for the night, and an English-speaking guide stays with you. A full two-day package costs between $200-300, depending on the number of adults on the tour.