21.196,18 km: that is an incredibly long distance and the official length of the Great Wall of China. In 2009 the Chinese government measured the Great Wall and came to the conclusion that it is more than 21.000 km long. The Chinese name of the Great Wall, which is actually not one single wall, but a conglomerate of different fortresses and walls, is Wànlǐ Chángchéng. This name can be understood as the “unimaginably long wall”. And considering that it is more than half of the length of the equator this seems an appropriate description.
To be fair, when we talk about the Great Wall today, we usually refer to that part of the Wall that has been built in the Ming Dynasty and is 8.851 km long.
History of the Great Wall
Originally, the Great Wall was built for defence purposes. The Chinese sought to protect themselves from enemies north of China. Therefore, they started to build fortification structures along the historical northern borders of China. The first walls were build in the 7th century BC already. Various dynasties have added to these first structures. They added watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, and also signalling capacities so that it was possible to inform other border posts in case of an attack. However, defence against enemies from the north was not the only purpose of the Great Wall. Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor. It also served as border control posts. In this way, the Chinese were able to collect duties on imported goods that came into China over the Silk Road. Over time the Wall extended further and further so that it stretched over nine provinces: Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Ningxia, Gansu.
Visiting the Great Wall
Most parts of the Great Wall are destroyed today. With the defeat of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, construction on the Wall stopped and it started to slowly fall apart. However, in 1957 reconstruction of the Great Wall for touristic purposes started. That is why it is possible today to visit some parts of the Wall. The most well-restored parts can be found close to Beijing. Hence, many tourists, but also locals take the opportunity to take a trip to the past and take a walk on top of this magnificent historic monument. The most popular spot is Badaling and on sunny summer days, it can get very crowded. At the same time, the restoration looks almost artificial, although rebuild true to historic records.
Another popular spot for visiting the Great Wall is Mutianyu. It is still very touristy, but less crowded than Badaling – and the best thing: you can descend the wall riding a toggoban! However, the best experience for me was to go on a little more “wild” adventure and experience the not so well-restored parts of the Great Wall. We started from Jiankou walking all the way through the still historic parts of the Wall to the restored parts of Mutinanyu. We had to make our way up the Wall through the woods behind the village of Xizhazi – and I don’t think we would have found it without a guide. The path is winding through narrow standing trees and bushes and is quite steep. But after a walk of about one hour, you get rewarded with the most beautiful views of the Wall and the surrounding wilderness of the Jiankou basin from the top of Zhengbeilou tower. We left very early in the morning and arrived there for sunrise, which was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had. From there it is an easy hike along the Great Wall East towards Mutinanyu. You pass several watchtowers and the ox horn (and can even take a little detour to walk all the way up there for even more beautiful views). Once you reach the restored section, the hike gets less strenuous – and the easiest part is getting down from the Wall (which in that area is up to 14 metres high): you can either take a lift or walk a few kilometres further until you reach the toggoban. Sliding down the wall at high speed is definitely a fun adventure, too!
Fun fact: There are many stories and legends surrounding the Wall. A famous one refers to the conditions under which it was constructed: The Great Wall of China was built by soldiers, farmers and other people from the surrounding areas – many of them were slaves or forced to work there. The Job was tough and many lost their lives there. The story goes, that one woman lost her husband on the construction site. She was devastated over the loss of her beloved husband. Her grief was so strong that the part of the Wall where the terrible accident had happened collapsed. The tumbling stones set free the bones of the husband so that he could be buried in his home village.