China in your hand

Follow the route of the Great Wall, and you'll see a whole country in miniature. From the tourist traps to the remote wild west, Simon Calder explores one of the world's most remarkable structures

Scenery from space: the subject has been much discussed lately, with the travel world talking optimistically about new views of the planet from outer space. But if you are a prospective cosmo-tourist, allow me to manage your expectations: don't set your sights on the Wall.

Scenery from space: the subject has been much discussed lately, with the travel world talking optimistically about new views of the planet from outer space. But if you are a prospective cosmo-tourist, allow me to manage your expectations: don't set your sights on the Wall.

I haven't ventured into orbit to check personally, but I believe the widely held assertion that the Great Wall of China is the only human structure visible from outer space to be nonsense. In comparison with the Forbidden Palace, Beijing airport and even the new six-lane highway from the Chinese capital to the most accessible tranche of the Great Wall, the structure is slender and peripheral.

Peripheral: that was the idea of the Great Wall, or rather Great Wall s. Through the centuries, successive dynasties sought to draw rather more than a line in the sand along the border between China and the Manchurian and Mongolian hordes. Over the course of two millennia, a succession of walls was constructed to keep out the invaders. For the last five centuries, the story of the Great Wall(s) has been one of decline. Road-constructors have arbitrarily sliced through it, while house-builders have seen it as a ready source of material. The Trans-Mongolian Railway (another scenic non-event from space, by the way), cuts right through it without passengers noticing. In parts of China's wild west, you can barely discern the bump in the landscape that marks its course from 100 feet, let alone 100 miles. It is as though a mighty fortress has unravelled and its fortifications pillaged and plundered and worn away by the centuries: magnificence grown old and feeble.

For the 21st-century traveller, though, the Great Wall is no longer a barrier - it is an ancient thread through the world's most populous nation. The Great Wall was never a single barrier stretching right across the north of the nation, in the manner of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for 40 years. But it is fair to describe it as the greatest structure ever built, if not the most coherent.

To witness the strength of the original (or at least one incarnation), visit Simatai. The terrain in this hard-to-reach corner of north-west China would be spectacular enough without man-made modifications: mountains rampage across the horizon, lacerated by rivers and gorges. Get closer, though, and you can make out a structure snaking along the highest ridge, punctuated by towers. Getting closer still is made easier by a cable-car that has been installed to bring conveyor-belt tourism to the Great Wall. But you need not walk too far to shake off the crowds - which is just as well, because beyond Tower 13 hiking is banned because of the dangers posed by this crumbling relic of a wall. The tower itself has dwindled, and these days resembles more a Turner Prize entry than a sensible fortification. The brickwork that remains, however, blends with the artfully decrepit wall that marches towards infinity.

The finite nature of the Great Wall becomes clear at the eastern extreme. Like the Iron Curtain at the Baltic, the Great Wall had to project into the sea in order to form a credible barrier. At Old Dragon's Head, the start (or end) is a frenzy of flashing cameras, whirring camcorders and piercing loudhailers. The Great Wall is the birthright of the Chinese, and understandably they wish to celebrate it. So a kind of Wall-O-Rama has been created, with T-shirt vendors and folkloric troupes sharing a Disney-esque reconstruction of the wall with tens of thousands of tourists. This is resort territory for many million Beijingers, who can swim in the morning and swarm around their heritage in the afternoon, just as Mao instructed. The founder of the People's Republic came up with a double-negative to encourage tourism: "If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are no heroes". These days, heroism is rife.

A few miles inland, the Great Wall is just getting into its stride - and so are the side industries. The First Pass Under Heaven has been restored with a touch too much enthusiasm, and now hosts an Imperial-grade attraction - the chance to see the wall like an emperor, from the comfort of your sedan chair carried by self-styled courtiers. Even from this wobbly vantage point, you cannot fail to be impressed by the ambition and achievement of the wall's builders: a wide, high and fortified barrier to defend the empire and aid communications.

The closer you get to Beijing, the further you get from the original. At Badaling, destination for that new six-lane highway, the tourism authorities have taken lessons from theme parks about people-processing. Every single second during opening hours, another new arrival tries to find his or her place on a wall that looks remarkably factory-fresh. This is tourism on an industrial scale, and it is fittingly run with industrial precision: Badaling is officially one of the Forty Topping Tourist Attractions of China, and is rated AAAA by the national tourism authorities. The long and winding wall is at its most crowded and tacky here. The wall was restored here in 1957 with guard rails and, in places, a one-way system for tourists. Halfway to the tower at the top, you are invited to have your photograph taken with a camel.

Even at Badaling, though, the wall adds drama to an already spectacular landscape. If you decline the invitation to take the roller-coaster down to ground level, you can find a little-used path that parallels the wall. It is difficult enough to walk through this corrugated landscape, let alone to contemplate building a barrier wide enough for five horses riding abreast. The only thing worse than guarding the Great Wall through a bitter winter must have been trying to attack it.

If your definition of civilisation is somewhere you can get a decent cappuccino, welcome to Badaling. If, however, you prefer to understand the scale and power of the Great Wall, go west to a part of China where a decent coffee is as rare as a tourist.

The old walled city of Zhongwei is a day and a night by train from Beijing (though you can accelerate the journey with the help of a low-cost flight for part of the way). The railway, the Yellow River and the Great Wall weave west across a region that becomes gradually more arid - partly because of the hand of man. This is border country between the densely populated core of the People's Republic and the alien landscapes beyond. If you like no-smoking signs to be obeyed, and your hotel's plumbing to be 100 per cent reliable, this part of China is possibly not yet ready for you.

Zhongwei, it is said, was built without a north gate because it was thought nothing worthwhile was to be found north of the city. But just a few miles from this frontier town, you find a stretch of the Great Wall. Here, popular images of the structure dissolve into the desert just as much of the wall has. I have been on golf courses in Dubai with more features than the bumpy ridge that was once China's final frontier - today, it looks as though a giant mole has burrowed beneath the sand. But among the weatherworn villages and sun-baked hillsides of northern China, the sheer loneliness of the long-distance endeavour becomes clear. One thousand miles from Imperial HQ, farmers were instructed to abandon their fields to build and police a barrier against real or imaginary foes.

Chinese history has been rewritten more times than I've eaten Peking duck, but the Great Wall marches on forever. Or does it? The 21st-century version of a long march is to take the express bound for Urumqi. This train ride takes you across forlorn plains and potent rivers, and brushes against towering mountains - nature's own impenetrable Great Wall. The vast fort at Jiayuguan, though, is entirely penetrable to anyone in possession of a few pounds. It marks the traditional western extreme of the Chinese empire with even more bizarre activities than the eastern end: the top tourist treat is to fire arrows from the ramparts at scarecrows wearing Mongolian battle dress, at 20 pence a time.

One brick in the fort is officially deemed to be the last one laid, 400 years ago - conveniently out of reach for anyone intent on carving their initials on it. But there is, in fact, a much more satisfying conclusion to the Great Wall, for anyone who takes the road west out of town towards a river gorge crossed only by a rickety bridge.

Beyond here, today's People's Republic continues for another thousand mountainous miles. But once this place was the outer limit of the known universe. One final fragment of the Great Wall reaches a rocky conclusion just where the land plummets into the ravine. From space, you could not see the tail end of the wall - though you might make out the gorge. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency had to publish an embarrassing retraction after wrongly captioning a satellite photograph of northern China: "The feature that was claimed to be the Great Wall is actually a river".

Time for your close up.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: THE GREAT WALL

GETTING THERE

The easiest place to start is Beijing, served from Heathrow by Air China (020-7630 0919; www.air-china.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). The lowest fares are likely to be available via third countries; Lufthansa has a deal for travel in the next six weeks for as little as £360 return from a range of UK airports through discount agents - though you must book by tomorrow.

VISAS

The People's Republic puts the "red" in red tape. British passport holders need a Chinese visa to get any further than Hong Kong. You can apply through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane WC2H 9DL (020-7836 3688); this agency charges £50, plus £5 for special delivery. Supply your passport, a completed application form and one photograph. Allow a week for processing. If you are travelling on an organised tour, the operator will probably take care of the bureaucracy.

ORGANISED TOURS

Specialists include CTS Horizons (020-7836 9911; www.ctshorizons.com); Explore (01252 760000; www.exploreworldwide.com); Travelsphere (0800 191 418; www.travelsphere.co.uk).

GETTING AROUND

The most pleasant way to reach Old Dragon's Head from Beijing is by train to the seaside resort of Beidaihe (about four hours, £5) and then by minibus (30 minutes, 50p). Simatai is tricky to reach from almost anywhere, but plenty of agencies in Beijing offer organised trips by bus. You can reach the Great Wall at Badaling under your own steam; it is 40 miles north-west of the capital, accessible by local bus. Arrive no later than 9am to avoid crowds. The main railway line west from Beijing loosely parallels the Great Wall. The fare for the whole stretch to Jiayuguan via Yinchuan and Zhongwei is around £60, including a sleeping berth.

MONEY

The Chinese Yuan is currently trading at a rate of around Y15 = £1. US or Hong Kong dollars are more acceptable in China than pounds or euros, but your bank card will almost certainly work in the many ATMs in every Chinese city.

MORE INFORMATION

China National Tourist Office: 020-7373 0888; www.cnta.gov.cn. Lonely Planet's China and the Rough Guide to China are both excellent.

The first part of Simon Calder's three-part journey along the Great Wall of China will be shown on BBC1's 'Holiday' on Monday, 1 November at 7pm

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