There are tourist attractions and there is the Great Wall of China. The longest structure ever built, it defined China’s borders for centuries and continues to serve as a symbol of national identity. Images of the wall, which passes through 10 provinces and cities, appear on postage stamps and wine labels; banknotes and travel visas. The cultural relic featured in the men’s cycling road race in the 2008 Summer Olympics and will provide the backdrop for the ski jumping, biathlon and cross-country events at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The “Ten-Thousand Mile Long Wall” (it’s actually 13,170 miles, or 21,195km) begins amid the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert and climbs the mountains north of Beijing before tumbling down into the Yellow Sea. Another section extends to the North Korean border. A hiker could spend years exploring the Great Wall in its entirety. Strictly speaking, however, the World Heritage site should be called the Great Walls of China, as there are at least 16 sections; built over a period of 2,400 years, dating back to the 3rd century BC. The earliest defences were probably constructed in an attempt to keep hostile Xiongnu horsemen at bay and were reinforced and extended during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) as a defence against marauding Mongol hordes.
The wall is at its most accessible and tourist-friendly at Badaling and Mutianyu. With favourable traffic conditions, you’ll be clambering up the steep steps a couple of hours after leaving Beijing. Snaking over distant hills and punctuated by blockish fortifications, the crenellated battlements have long provided an iconic photo op for politicians and pop stars; not to mention millions of more humble visitors. Badaling and Mutianyu are popular with tour groups and can get crowded but keep walking; there’s plenty of wall for everyone and you don’t need to stray far off the beaten track to leave the crowds behind.
For a truly authentic experience, consider flying to Jiayuguan, the western starting point of the wall. Surrounded by desert hills to the north and towering mountains to the south, this is the legendary monument minus cable cars, coaches and crowds. The industrial city is 2,400km from Beijing by rail and so Jiayuguan is best visited as part of a Silk Road tour. Alternatively, head to Nanchang, in southeastern Jiangxi province, where a newly built 4km replica of the Great Wall is proving popular.
“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man,” wrote Mao Zedong. He didn’t stipulate which wall, though.
Let’s begin by clearing up the most famous myth. Claims that the Great Wall is visible from the moon were made a quarter of a century before anyone had even been into orbit. In 2003, China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, announced that the Earth looked beautiful from space but he couldn’t see the wall. The replica in Nanchang can’t be seen from space either but there have been reports the doppelgänger is so realistic, tourists have been confusing it with the real wall despite it being 1,500km away.
Badaling and Mutianyu are a convenient day trip from the capital but as one TripAdvisor reviewer puts it: “The tourist traffic at Badaling can be a test of your love for humanity.” Another contributor, who won’t be going back to Badaling in a hurry, is less diplomatic: “Generally speaking no one had any respect for the Great Wall or surroundings. We saw people throwing litter, spitting and even writing graffiti. If you want a Great Wall experience, don’t go to Badaling.”
Vandalism of the wall is nothing new. For generations, villagers have stolen bricks and engraved slabs to use as building materials or to sell to tourists. No one seemed to mind in the 1970s, when the crumbling barricade was a symbol of tyranny, but today, given the wall’s Unesco status, authorities are trying to clamp down on the practice. Random checks and inspections are undertaken to ensure local municipalities are following national protection guidelines.
It’s not just villagers who are guilty of disrespectful behaviour. Tourists scratching their names into the stones became so widespread that a section of wall at Mutianyu has been set aside as a “graffiti area”, where sightseers can scribble away without fear of reprimand. The graffiti is only defacing a relatively modern version of the wall, though.
After undergoing significant restoration work in the 1950s and 80s, the structure we see today is of dubious archaeological integrity. In her 2006 book Great Wall of China: Beijing & Northern China, Thammy Evans argues that tourists are “no longer really experiencing the original Great Wall but a folly and a cheap façade”. To save time and money, metal girders and pre-formed concrete are used, with grey plaster applied to look like real bricks. Even visitors to remote Jiayuguan have been disappointed to discover clumsy reconstructions with waxwork figures, costumed re-enactments and plastic camels.
It’s true that if you keep walking at Badaling and Mutianyu, the crowds gradually thin out but, in the winter months, snow and ice make progress along the steep sections a slippery business. However, it’s a lack of snow and ice that’s likely to cause problems during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics; particularly by the time the Paralympic Games take place, in March. Bid rivals Kazakhstan went so far as to mock Chinese plans to use artificial snow with their slogan: “Keeping it real.”
Repairs to the Great Wall are essential to counter the erosive effects of wind, rain and snow; as well as wear and tear due to tourist footfall. Nevertheless, there was an outcry in 2014, when authorities blanketed a stretch of the wall in Liaoning province with a layer of cement. The botched renovation, described as “vandalism in the name of preservation”, was ridiculed by locals, historians and social media commentators. The Culture Relics Bureau, which approved the quick-fix concrete solution to a nine kilometre 9km section built in 1381, has since conceded that the work “wasn’t pretty”.