Legend has it that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. That might be incorrect, but it is safe to say that when you see the scale of even a section of the wall in person, it is easy to see why the myth came about.
When I visited Beijing, top of my list was a visit to the Great Wall as I had been long inspired by its mythic status and incredible history. I wasn’t disappointed when I went on a day trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.
About two hours northeast of Beijing in Huairou County, this section of the wall crosses the mountain ridges that connect Juyongguan Pass and Gubeikou to create a barrier that defended the capital and Imperial Tombs from invaders from the north.
If you are looking for somewhere a little quieter to explore the famous wall, then Mutianyu is the section for you. The more famous Badaling and Juyongguaan sections are considerably busier, as fans of my favourite idiot abroad, Karl Pilkington, might have seen on TV!
Snaking along the top of the mountains, like someone has carefully draped it there, is the 2.5km long restored stretch. Originally built in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577AD), it was restored in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With it being built largely from granite, this has made this section of the wall uniquely strong.
Mutianyu is also unusual in having 22 watch towers. These were built at almost 100 metre intervals – far more than usually seen on the wall – due to the section’s high strategic importance. As well as providing somewhere to store weapons and for officers to sleep, eat and rest, the signalling platforms in the watchtowers enabled anyone spotting invaders approaching to light a fire and signal adjacent towers of the impending danger, starting a chain reaction.
When I visited, we got there for 8 in the morning after a typically Chinese, hair-raising, horn honking minibus ride. Upon arrival, getting up to the Wall itself is possible by one of two options – more than 600 odd steep, large steps vs. the far easier but less authentic cable car. I took the steps option, but soon regretted it as the heat picked up quickly and hayfever kicked in.
All of this is forgotten though once you step onto the Wall itself and realise you are finally there. It is a magical experience, with the surrounding wooded mountain scenery and the wall snaking off into the distance breathtaking.
The hard work soon starts again once you start to explore as you move. I for one never realised how quite how many steps there would be, from whopping great big steps you have to physically climb like a wall, to those tiny steps that take a seemingly excessive amount of energy to get up. My advice would be to make sure you wear comfortable shoes with good grip. Even this physical challenge though pales into insignificance as you get to explore the wonder of the Wall and its watch towers for yourself.
With an experienced guide, like us, you are also able to explore the unrestored part of the Wall. The difference is fascinating, with locals over the years encouraged to remove stone and essentially dismantle the wall to build homes and villages. This does mean that in parts, you can also see the basic construction method: two strong outer walls, packed densely with rubble and then paved over.
Once you have finished exploring, kids of all ages are bound to enjoy the novel toboggan back down from the mountain top which was well worth the £7 to feel the breeze in your hair!
Before you leave, if you like a souvenir or two, don’t do why I did and say no thank you to the incredibly cheap ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ t-shirts that thrust under your nose back in the car park. You might regret it when you later change your mind and realise that the only place you can get one is on eBay for about £30. If anyone is heading to the Great Wall soon and fancies bringing one back for me, give me a shout…
To make the most of your day and have a better understanding of the wall and its history, I thoroughly recommend the brilliant Great Wall tour from Urban Adventures. As well as the wall, we were treated to lunch with a local farming couple on our way back to Beijing. They didn’t speak a word of English, yet communicating with them and enjoying their delicious home grown, home cooked food, added up to the whole day being the highlight of our trip to China.
Facts I learned about the Great Wall:
- The Great Wall’s Mandarin name is ‘Wanli Changcheng’, or ‘Very Long Wall’
- It has never actually a been a complete wall due to being built at different times over different centuries by different people
- The complete length of the wall cannot be measured therefore, but estimates put it at around 5,500km long
- The oldest parts of the Wall date back more than 2000 years
- Construction reportedly cost the lives of more than a million people, seeing it called ‘the longest cemetery’
- Unfortunately, after all that, with the gaps in the wall, Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan simply went between the sections and subsequently conquered most of northern China
- Feeling active? The annual Great Wall Marathon is known as one of the hardest in the world and takes place every May with competitors from all over the world