17 Secrets of the Great Wall of China

Like a writhing dragon’s tail, the Great Wall of China snakes its way across China’s northern border. As its name suggests, the Great Wall is an imposing architectural marvel, and it’s often hailed as one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China’s history stretches back more than 2,000 years, to a time before China was even a unified country. But the Great Wall of China isn’t really a single great wall. “The first thing to note,” travel expert Stan Godwyn told Travel + Leisure, “is that it’s actually a series of walls and fortifications.” Godwyn typically arranges for clients to visit one of four main sections — Badaling (the most well-known and accessible for travelers of varying mobility), Mutianyu (well-restored but much less crowded), Simatai (a crumbling, rugged stretch of wall), and Jinshanling (for serious hikers). Despite its cultural and historic importance, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Great Wall of China was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Want to discover more Great Wall of China facts and bits of history? Read on for our definitive guide to this bucket list attraction and ancient marvel.

01 of 17

Where is the Great Wall of China?

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The Great Wall of China is easily accessible from Beijing, though the massive structure stretches from Hushan, Liaoning in the east all the way to the city of Jiayuguan, in the country’s northwest. Generally speaking, the Great Wall of China defends the country’s northernmost border. A 2012 archeological survey estimated that the wall (taking into account all the dynasties that had worked on the structure) crosses 15 provinces and extends from Xinjiang, in the northwest, to the border of Korea in the east.

02 of 17

How Long is the Great Wall of China?

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If you were to measure all the sections ever built, a new reports suggest the Great Wall of China could be a staggering 13,170.7 miles long. The most popular (and arguably the most beautiful) section was erected during the Ming Dynasty, and runs for 5,500.3 miles between Hushan to the Jiayuguan Pass. Even if you only take into consideration the main-line length of the wall (about 2,150 miles) it’s still the record-holding longest wall in the world.

For those wondering how tall the Great Wall of China is, the general answer is that the structure’s height varies considerably, from 15 feet all the way to 39 feet. At its widest point, the wall is 32-feet-thick.

03 of 17

When Was the Great Wall of China Built?

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It’s hard to say precisely when the Great Wall of China was built, as so many dynasties and rulers contributed to its construction. It’s thought that the first lengths of the wall were built as early as 770 B.C., though official work didn’t begin until 221 B.C., during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Most of what remains today — that 5,500-mile stretch — was built during the Ming dynasty, between 1368 and 1644.

According to the Travel China Guide, some 20 states and dynasties contributed to the construction of the Great Wall of China over the course of many millennia.

04 of 17

Why Was the Great Wall of China Built?

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Originally built as a wartime defense, the Great Wall of China features many towers and passes. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang first proposed the so-called Long Wall, it was meant to defend the Chinese states against nomadic tribes from the north.

During the Han Dynasty, (between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D.) the Great Wall was extended to protect the Silk Road trade. The Ming Dynasty, which “took a largely defensive stance,” according to History.com, is known for not only extending the Great Wall, but also repairing and reinforcing existing structures.

05 of 17

How Was the Great Wall of China Built?

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Despite its name, the Great Wall is actually a collection of fortifications, some of which run parallel to one another, while others are circular or side walls. There are even portions of the Great Wall that are natural barriers, like rivers or high mountains.

Hundreds of years before any official construction on the Great Wall began, individual Chinese states built fortifications against one another, using mostly earth, wood, and stones. Construction during the Ming Dynasty made use of bricks rather than cut stone, which appears largely in the foundation and gateways.

According to History.com, Qin Shi Huang had a labor force of nearly 300,000 soldiers, commoners, and prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of men died while working on the wall, which required them to carry heavy materials on their backs up to the top of the ridgelines.

Much of the work on the oldest sections of the Great Wall were built by hand, though primitive technology — wheel barrows, ropes, basket-and-pulley-systems, and horse or oxen-drawn carts — was also used.

06 of 17

When is the Best Time to Visit?

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The most popular times to visit the Great Wall of China are the first weeks of May and October — but travelers should expect massive crowds during these periods. “These are major holidays, and everyone travels,” explained Godwyn.

During the winter, the Great Wall of China is blanketed in snow — and the number of tourists will drop dramatically. But be prepared for a slippery, windy walk, and pack accordingly.

Autumn is arguably one of the most beautiful times to visit the Great Wall of China. Weather is comfortable and dry, and the mountains’ foliage is a kaleidoscopic array of hues.

We also recommend booking a trip to the Great Wall of China in June. There aren’t any domestic holidays, and it’s Beijing’s shoulder season. You’ll avoid holiday-related crowds and also enjoy serious deals and discounts on hotel rooms and tours.

07 of 17

Can You See the Great Wall of China From Space?

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Contrary to popular rumors, you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space with the naked eye. As NASA reported, however, photographs taken from the International Space Station have depicted sections of the wall under ideal conditions. The wall can be clearly photographed from space using radar imagery.

08 of 17

How Many People Visit the Great Wall of China?

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Every year, more than 10 million people flock to the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. In 2013, 10,720,000 tourists visited the Badaling and Mutianyu areas of the wall.

In 2013, some 10,720,000 tourists visited the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.

09 of 17

How to Plan Your Visit

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The Great Wall of China is a perfect day trip for travelers based in Beijing. “Most clients do one day at the Great Wall as part of a visit to Beijing,” explained Godwyn. “Typically, we have a day of sightseeing in Beijing — then the second day is an excursion to the wall.”

Pick the part of the wall that best suits your needs and interests. Active, confident hikers should venture to Jinshanling, while families may want to stick with the more accessible Mutianyu section. (There’s an unforgettable, three-minute-long toboggan ride from the top of the eastern end to the bottom.)

Check specific fees in advance, but expect to pay approximately 45 yuan ($7) for general admission to the Great Wall.

But don’t rush it. Whether you’re visiting the Great Wall of China on a layover or during a longer trip, we recommend spending at least two or three hours exploring the ancient structure.

10 of 17

Getting to the Great Wall From Beijing

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The beautiful, Ming Dynasty portion of the Great Wall is just 70 miles from Beijing. But getting there can be a bit tricky for travelers making the trek solo.

Visitors sticking with public transportation will first need to get to Dongzhimen Station, where you can take an hour-long express bus ride to Huairou Station. Here, you’ll need to transfer to a bus stopping at the Mutianyu Roundabout.

Subway lines also transfer to Dongzhimen Station from the Beijing West Railway Station, Beijing South Railway Station, and the Beijing Railway Station. The Airport Express connects directly from the Capital International Airport to Dongzhimen Station.

Most experts on travel to the Great Wall will recommend skipping the train and opting for a hired car and a guide. They’ll be able to take you to less popular sections of the wall and can help navigate unexpected hiccups, such as road closures. A car is also the best way to maximize your time.

This could, however, be quickly changing. By 2019 — in time for the Winter Olympics in 2022 — China plans to open the world’s deepest, largest high-speed railway station beneath the Great Wall’s Badaling section.

11 of 17

Great Wall of China Tour Groups

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For a private, luxury tour of the Great Wall, book an itinerary with Guy Rubin at Imperial Tours. A Beijing day trip with stops at the Forbidden City and less-touristy sections of the Great Wall start at $875 per person.

If you’d like to hike, but would prefer not to go at it alone, consider the four-day Great Wall Hiking Tour with China Odyssey Tours. After a day exploring the highlights of Beijing (Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven) you’ll begin a moderate hike from the Jiankou section to Mutianyu. China Odyssey Tours also offers one-day, private tours of the Great Wall’s Mutianyu section.

Contact Godwyn, at TravelStore, for a personalized trip to the Great Wall of China, which might include a customized Silk Road itinerary with stops in Jiayuguan — a northern Chinese city with restored wall sections and the last fortress of the Great Wall.

Most hotels in the area offer day tours to guests. It’s a simple, affordable route, and typically includes min-bus transportation and an English-speaking guide. After a visit to the wall, you’ll stop by the Jade Gallery and the Chang Tomb. Tours start at $165 per person.

Even if you’re only in China for a layover, there’s still plenty of time to see the Great Wall. Every single day, Beijing Layover Tour offers private and small group tours of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, ranging from four to five hours in length. You’ll be picked up at arrivals by a tour guide, and transferred back to the airport. These tours start at $90 for a group visit to the wall.

12 of 17

Hiking the Great Wall

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One of the wildest hikes along the Great Wall snakes from the Jiankou section to the Ox Horn at Mutianyu. Here, unrestored sections of wall switch back and forth along steep mountain passes. Hikers should expect to spend up to three hours each way.

Another popular hike covers the section from Jinshanling to Simatai West — a challenging route that covers four miles each way, and passes more than 20 towers.

Start at the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall in Gubeikou Town — approximately 75 miles northeast of Beijing. From these quiet, never-repaired stretches of wall, visitors will find unobstructed views of the Yanshan Mountains.

13 of 17

The Great Wall of China Dos and Don’ts

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Don’t visit the Great Wall during a holiday. The attraction is popular with tourists, but locals love the site as well. Tomb Sweeping Day in April, for example, sends claustrophobia-inducing crowds to the country’s most famous sites.

Do consider waiting until the late afternoon to visit the Great Wall, when insiders say many of the early morning and afternoon crowds begin to clear out.

Do pack comfortable walking shoes, and plenty of water.

14 of 17

Erosion Concerns

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After centuries defending dynasties, China’s Great Wall has begun to crumble. Entire sections of the wall have been swallowed by weather and time — and that’s to say nothing of the many wars and man-made afflictions. According to a 2012 study, only 8.2 percent of the wall is in good condition. It’s not just slow-moving erosion wreaking havoc on the wall. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has succumbed to earthquakes and torrential storms.

15 of 17

The Best Restaurant Near the Great Wall of China

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One of the most popular places to eat near the Great Wall is Commune by the Great Wall — a collection of ultra-modern villas, restaurants, and amenities. At the Commune’s Courtyard Restaurant, diners hungry from a day of sightseeing can enjoy regional Chinese cuisine.

At the Terrace Lounge — also part of Commune by the Great Wall — diners can eat al fresco while admiring the view of the Shuiguan Mountains.

Generally speaking, however, food near the Great Wall is quite expensive and not particularly notable. Travelers should consider venturing into the nearby towns for affordable, authentic meals — or waiting until they’ve returned to Beijing for a seat at a top table.

16 of 17

Laws Protecting the Great Wall

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It’s not just the immutable forces of weather and time that have destroyed the Great Wall of China. Alarmingly, 30 percent of the original structure has disappeared, largely because of mankind’s endless meddling.

In 2006, China passed the Great Wall Protection Ordinance, though the country has struggled to enforce any rules or regulations.

Travelers should note that there are fines for taking bricks or other sections of the wall, and that it’s inadvisable to pay locals for access to less-traveled sections, as this puts even more, unregulated parts of the wall at risk of destruction.

17 of 17

Famous People at the Great Wall

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In November of 2009, President Barack Obama visited the Great Wall. He famously said the imposing structure puts life in perspective: “Our time here on Earth is not that long, and we better make the best of it.”

President Obama isn’t the only notable world leader or celebrity to visit the Great Wall. Queen Elizabeth II spent time there in the 80s, while famous athletes Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal made recent visits. Celebrities like Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lawrence have also been seen sightseeing at the Great Wall.

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