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If you’re agonising over where to see the Great Wall of China, the first thing you must understand is that it isn’t one – a single wall, that is.
Though many imagine it to be one great partition unfurling endlessly across China, it is in fact dozens of separate walls, dating from the 5th century BC to the sixteenth century AD. Some sections stretch over a thousand miles, others far less; altogether, we lucky things have almost four thousand miles of Great Wall to stroll along.
With sections of wall ranging from immaculate to ruined, from crowded to desolate, the key question is: Which bit should you visit?
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Best choice for tight schedules
Kicking us off is the section known as Mutianyu, the only part of the wall doable as a half-day trip from Beijing (the rest are at least whole-day affairs). Built in the year 1368AD, Mutianyu is famous for its backdrop of lush green hills in the summer months and rolling snow-capped peaks in the winter. Several large watchtowers populate the ramparts, and the overall condition of the segment is exquisite, despite its age. For those with impaired mobility, Mutianyu is a sound choice – there’s a regular cable car to help visitors reach the wall, and the walk along the top is less intense than in other sections.
Best choice for perfectionists
The best-preserved section of the Great Wall, Jinshanling is a full day trip out of Beijing. As it’s a two and a half hour jaunt each way, it’s not a bad shout to consider staying the night here – there are some excellent hotels locally. Jinshanling stretches on for around 10 kilometres, with dozens of regal guard towers peppering it at intervals. With nothing of modern origin in sight from the battlements, it’s easy to slip into the childlike practice of gazing across the landscape and pretending you’re a brooding warrior princess protecting the realm.
Just me? Oh.
Originally built from 1570 during the Ming dynasty, the majority of the wall is in top condition. If you decide to hike to the western end, however, you’ll find an unrestored ‘wilderness’ stretch. It’s worth the trip – from here you’ll have astonishing views of the wall as it unwinds over the hills like (nerdy reference incoming, I’m sorry) one of the giant worms from Dune.
Best choice for adventurers
The purpose of Huanghuacheng’s creation, which took place between 1404 and 1592, was to act as an inner defensive wall during the Ming dynasty, helping keep northern China safe from potential invaders. It’s an uncrowded Great Wall segment, and a superb choice for the more adventurous sight-seers due to its rugged surroundings. It’s a stunning spot, with views from the battlements encompassing sweeping mountains (which are, to be fair, rather par for the course when it comes to the Great Wall) and a glittering blue lake – Huanghuacheng offers the chance to view the wall by boat, an experience unavailable anywhere else in China.
A cool quirk of this section is that at three separate points, the structure is completely submerged in water. No, 15th century China wasn’t at risk from an aquatic Mongol regiment – a dam was added to the valley years later, flooding it and creating the lake. Today, you can spend an afternoon sailing on it; it’s the only spot in China you can view the Great Wall from a boat. Spoiler: it’s very pretty.
This section is the closest to Beijing, and for this reason, the busiest part. It’s in a good state of repair and easily accessible, but we don’t recommend a visit here, to be honest. There are often huge crowds, and nothing takes the wonder away from an ancient monument quite like disgruntled tourists jostling for the best views, interspersed with the occasional eruption of selfie-stick sword fights.
Still not quite decided on where to see the Great Wall of China? No problem. Just give us a call and we’ll talk it through!