Great Wall of China: A Fascinating Journey Through History and Engineering Marvels

The Great Wall is the best example of the potential for Chinese ambition and unity. Amazingly, construction on this enormous engineering achievement began as early as the 7th century BC, and it continues to stand as a magnificent architectural achievement. The Great Wall is a collection of buildings totaling around 21,000 km that have been repaired and preserved over centuries, with most of the existing wall coming from the Ming Dynasty. Unquestionably one of humankind’s greatest architectural feats, it was built to monitor and impose taxes on the Silk Road trade and safeguard the northern frontier from invading Mongols. The best way to tour it is on foot.

Architecture of the Great Wall of China

The length of the Great Wall of China is never mentioned. You often hear about its length and age, but what about the stark vertical drop? Usually, when people discuss it, they use terms like majestic. But for me, as I begin my 6-day trek with an active travel outfitter and look up from the bottom of a 4000-foot stairway. The only aim of those 4000 steps is to get me to the lowest entry point for my six-day trip around the Great Wall. A gondola and the 13 hikers in my party may transport me to one of Mutianyus’ 22 square guard towers with fortifications. Where a lot of days, trippers start and end their journeys.

But since we can’t coast pleasantly atop the wall, we came all this way to walk as much of it on our own two feet. As a result, we take our first stride, then our second, and so on until I find myself in a heart-pumping rhythm.

There isn’t much to see at first. Along the route to the major attraction, I only pass other tourists and old buskers peddling amazing wall trinkets on the wide stone stairs heavily shaded by greenery. I bend about three-quarters of the way up and get my first close-up view of the wall.

Historical Border

It’s an incredible thing. The historical border between China and Mongolia is marked by an ancient rough and rent-free structure resembling a gigantic mythological dragon built of stone and brick. It extends endlessly into the misty distance as it clings to the high, green peak of the borderland at jaw-dropping angles. As you might expect, given that it is vertical, some well-used steps rise 80 degrees above the ground. When you see it in person, its size renders everything else irrelevant.

Strolling the Great Wall of China

Each section of the wall is unique. Some are completely repaired and crowded with visitors. Others are decaying ruins completely engulfed by a forest, blissfully free of tourists and shady traders. I was driven to this route by coincidence to see a section of the Great Wall of China that many tourists never get to visit, so it’s not unexpected that those days are my favorites.

On certain days, as we go through maize and cotton fields, huge expanses of farmland are dotted with improvised scarecrows built to scare away mountain fowl. At times, we may stroll for miles on top of the wall at the eagle-eye level. Sometimes we return on foot. Other times, we return under its shade, occasionally peeking up to assure ourselves that we’ll soon be back on it. We traveled past abandoned farmhouses, swaths of wildflowers, and tall mountain ridges where a wall and forest had grown.  

Places to Live

Most nights, we stay in basic cottages in communities where farmers have existed in the walls’ shadow for as long as anyone can remember. We never use chairlifts or gonadals to bypass the trail when strong hiking boots can do the trick. Each day demands an arduous climb to reach the wall, sometimes on stone stairs like at Mutianyu but more frequently on straightforward dirt trails dug out of the dense forest growth.

The journey to the Great Wall from downtown Beijing typically takes two hours. An overnight stay close to the Great Wall is strongly advised if you don’t mind switching hotels for the night because you can

Avoid standing in lines at the ticket gate and traffic bottlenecks. Enjoy the Great Wall when it is quiet and early in the day. Enjoy the Great Wall’s sunset and nighttime sights.

What it feels like to Explore it?

On certain days, neither handrails nor street vendors are present. The only sign of civilization we encounter occasionally is one telling us that the region is off-limits to the public. The hiking is different on the parts of the wall that are the most deteriorated. The ground is harsher, the huge walls are falling, and the entire building looks like it may topple down. The Great Wall of China is presented in all its untainted beauty in these uninhabited and unrestored places.

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