Lonely Planet journey: The Great Wall of China

No barrier to a truly dazzling experience

The Great Wall of China, or at least sections of it, stretches from Xinjiang in the far west to the border with North Korea in the east of China. Aside from its obvious awe-inspiring, aesthetic qualities, the wall is also a potent and visible reminder of China's turbulent history.

The ancient Chinese always fortified their cities and states with enormous walls, and by 290BC China's northern frontier was riddled with defensive structures. In 224BC, when Mongolian nomads came knocking on China's door, some of these structures were linked together to form one huge megastructure.

Thousands of workers were put to the task, ensuring China had the mightiest military barrier in the world. After falling into disrepair by the time of the Sui dynasty (AD589-618), the wall was rebuilt, although it failed to repel the Mongols as they swept into China. While it didn't stop invading forces, its role as a signal post was beyond compare. Sentries on the watchtower warned the capital about enemy movements with the aid of smoke signals produced by burning – as you do – wolf dung.

Today, much of the wall is again in disrepair. Lengthy sections have disappeared altogether and the entire structure might have gone the same way were it not for tourism. Several important sections have been rebuilt and are open to the public, coming complete with souvenir shops, restaurants and amusement-park rides. The most touristy area is at Badaling. Also renovated, but less visited, are Simatai and Jinshanling. Despite the government's attempts to implement conservation programmes, in remote areas sections of the wall are plundered by farmers, who pillage its earthen core for use on the fields. Meanwhile developers strip the wall's bountiful supply of shaped stone from the ramparts for use in road and building construction.

The journey today

Your first encounter with the Great Wall is north-west of Beijing. You're at Badaling, the most photographed manifestation of this most famous artefact.

You were told that Badaling was commercialised, but still you went, after reading that it has much to offer the traveller hungry for experience. You are not disappointed: the raw scenery is amazing, and you are impressed by the archetypal views of the wall snaking into the distance over undulating hills.

That's what it's all about, but all the same, it's a deeply strange experience as you realise that Badaling has been heavily renovated and consequently overrun with hawkers, vendors and snack stands, a massive disjunction between present and past. On the other hand, the repairs have made it one of the wall's best sections for older travellers, children and anyone else put off by the crumbling stonework and sheer drops found elsewhere. Good for them, you think, and an interesting experience all round, but the next day you're ready for something different again, so you travel to Simatai, 110km north-west of Beijing. Less packaged and more dramatic, you find Simatai totally exhilarating, befitting its status as one of the wall's steepest points. Partially renovated, some parts of the 19km section are rough and rocky with startling dips and rises, and you find the eastern section the most treacherous, with its 16 watchtowers and dizzying ascents. You concentrate with all your might. Before setting off, you stuffed all your belongings into a daypack for maximum manoeuvrability, and this proves to be mightily effective. What a relief to have your arms free of distractions while you scramble up and down Simatai's precipitous length!

You made it.

You're staring into the mist-shrouded valley way, way down below, and one thing's certain: all your physical exertion has been more than worthwhile, because right there is the view of a lifetime.

The shortcut

Suitable for a more condensed experience, the 3km-long section of the wall at Mutianyu, 90km northeast of Beijing, is renowned for its Ming dynasty guard towers and rousing views. With 26 watchtowers, it's manageable for most travellers, and hawking is kept to the lower levels. If time is pressing, take the cable car up and walk down.

This is an extract from 'Great Journeys', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25, including UK P&P, by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT

Essential experiences

Escape the crowds and visit Mutianyu, the 2,250m granite section of wall 90km north-east of Beijing. There are Ming dynasty guard towers and stirring views as well as a breathtaking cable-car journey.

Go with the flow at Badaling, the most popular section of wall.

Test your mettle with the rugged Simatai section of wall.

Detour to the Ming tombs for yet another memorable experience.

Take a break from the Wall to visit the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Buddhist magnificence of the Yungang Caves and the Longmen Caves, as well as the Army of Terracotta Warriors.

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