Monday, October 5, 2015

Dissecting the Great Wall

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The Great Wall of China is 13,171 miles long, is ancient and enormous; some sections date to the seventh century BCE. It’s been alleged that you can see the Great Wall from outer space, but this has been debunked. Our Family Travel Concierge Great Wall day tour visits the Jinshanling section of the wall, but there are a few others that are open to the public. Here, we break down where they are and what they offer.

 Our Great Wall day tour takes place on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, whose name means “Gold Mountain Ridge”. While it takes almost two hours to drive here from Beijing, it’s worth it: Jinshanling is wild, rambling, and untouched. Built in the late 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and standing 2,300 ft. above sea level, the Jinshanling section runs 6.5 miles and has a whipping 67 towers. Though Jinshanling has undergone some restoration to make it safe for visitors, it’s still quite crumbly, and sections get quite steep; from the highest watch towers, the view is striking and expansive. There is, of course, a cable car to haul you up to the wall’s highest point, and from here it’s a more leisurely walk, just you, your docent, and the sounds of your camera clicking away.

 This section of the Great Wall, 50 miles outside Beijing was, in the late 1950s, the first to be opened to the public. Badaling was built in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and runs 7.5 miles long, its highest point a cool 3,330 ft. above sea level. It has been entirely restored and is the showpiece of the Great Wall, but it makes Spring Break at Disney World look like a yoga retreat. Tour buses clog the parking lot here, disgorging their massive tour groups. Vendors hawk souvenirs like Great Wall T-shirts and panda hats. There’s a cable car going up and down and a bobsled going down. It’s slightly chaotic to say the least.

 Roughly the same distance from Beijing as Badaling, Mutianyu is a better option for those without much time. It’s still a bit crazy here, with lots of vendors, but tour groups stick to Badaling so you won’t need to elbow for space. Mutianyu is older than Badaling, dating back to the mid sixth century, but it was rebuilt in the mid 16th century, and that’s what you see today. This section stretches 7,380 ft. and has 22 watch towers. It’s surrounded by forest and it’s not unusual in the winter to see deer and other creatures come right up to the wall. There is a chairlift, a gondola lift, and a toboggan run. For lunch, we recommend The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, housed in the former classrooms of the then-village primary school.

 After being closed for ages due to ongoing restoration work, this section was re-opened in 2014. Simatai, about two hours from Beijing, was originally built during the Northern Qing Dynasty (550–577) and then rebuilt in the late 14th century during the Ming dynasty. This section of the wall runs just 3.3 miles, but it has 17 watch towers from which the views are fantastic. You can hike up or take an open-air gondola. It’s also possible to hike between Simitati West and Jinshanling; this is about 5 miles and will take several hours, and you should be sure to pack food and drink.


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