From the 5th century BC, small walls were built by local noblemen to protect themselves from raids by Mongolian or Manchurian pillagers. It wasn’t until the 3rd century BC that the first Emperor of China, Ch’in Shih huang-ti, decided to protect all of his empire by a gigantic line of fortifications including 15,000 towers and 25,000 small forts. The project mobilised thousands of soldiers, peasants and convicts. Unable to hold back the hordes of Genghis Khan, followed by Kublai Khan, the wall was restored by the Ming dynasty between the 14th and 16th centuries. This is the wall that is visited today.
Starting from Beijing, several places along the wall have been restored and adapted for tourism, including Badaling (70 km/43 miles from Beijing), Mutianyu (100 km/62 miles away) and Simatai (110 km/68 miles away). Most hotels in Beijing offer tours, often to Badaling, which is the most convenient section if you don’t have much time. It actually offers one of the finest views of the Great Wall, whose watchtowers and flights of steps line up on the surrounding hills: the place is superb, especially in winter when snow covers the structures and vegetation.
For those wishing to venture off the beaten track, far from the tourist shops and fake restorations, Simatai offers a striking setting. On this part of the wall, perched on the crest of the mountains, you occasionally need to use your arms to make your way up the steps, which sometimes exceed a sixty-degree gradient. Less energetic visitors can take the cable car to the top, whilst thrill seekers can make the descent over the lake, strapped to a cable by a harness!
Tours generally leave in the morning, include lunch on-site and return in the early afternoon. You can also ask your hotel to book you a taxi, which will wait for you for several hours (allow at least 200 yuans for Badaling).