The Great Wall of China is one of the best known structures in the world and a must-see attraction for any tourist visiting China. Although it does not form a single, compact fortification, its sections stretch for thousands of kilometres across hills, deserts and plains. On one hand it symbolises the feeling of threat and isolationism of the Middle Kingdom, on the other - the unbreakable spirit of the Chinese people.
The Great Wall is the longest fortification in the world. Its main section begins in Jiayuguan in Qilian Shan mountains in the West and stretches to Shanhaiguan watch tower by Bo Hai Bay in the east of the country. Its current length is about 2,400 km. It has been enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the construction of the Great wall, natural defensive barriers such as mountain ridges were utilised, this is why the Great Wall offers breathtaking views.
The history of the Great Wall
The structure has for a few dozens centuries witnessed the changing fate of the Chinese borders. Its history began around the 7th century BC, when China was divided into several states. Each of them, looking to protect its borders from invaders, built extensive fortifications. Initially, the Great Wall was comprised many different fortifications made of rammed earth and gravel. They were joined together in the 3rd century BC by the first emperor of unified China - Qin Shi Huang. After the unification, he ordered a renovation and expansion of each of the existing walls and joining them into one single structure.
In those days, the Wall was 5,000 km long and stretched from Lintao (western China) to Liaodong (in the East). Unfortunately, the Wall despite the power of its fortifications, did not manage to defend China from invasion by the Mongolian tribes in the 12th century, or the Manchus in the 17th century. The Great Wall was enhanced, rebuilt and expanded on several occasions by succeeding ruling dynasties. Each adjusted it to the changing defensive needs of the country. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) built the majority of the existing Wall. During its rule, the Wall spanned across 6,350 km, the defences were also enhanced. It finally became a complete, complex military asset comprising not only of walls, but also towns, castles troop barracks and garrison stations.
Basic facts about the Great Wall
The Great Wall is a military structure made of several layers: stone slabs, bricks, earth, rubble and large stones from local quarries. At the highest point, it is 7 metres wide and 8 metres high. Before the Ming Dynasty times, the Wall was made mainly of clay and stones. In contrast the Ming Wall was built of large stones and bricks. A greater deal of attention was also paid then to architectural and defensive solutions.
The construction of the Wall allowed quick movements of army units along the border of the country. Watch towers were located between specific sections of the Wall. They were built two bowshots apart, in order not to leave any part of the Wall defenceless. Communication between different sections of the Wall was possible thanks to warning towers that used smoke signalling. Other forms of communication included drums, bells and fires. Currently, large parts of the Wall that have not been renovated are falling into ruin or are are being intentionally removed due to new investments. Only a portion of the Wall has been restored. On the other hand it is those unrestored section provide a good glimpse at how it was originally built.
Tips for visitors
The Chinese say: ”A man who has never been to the Great Wall shall not be considered as a hero”. Unsurprisingly, each year the Great Wall is visited by hundreds of thousands Chinese and foreign tourists. When selecting the route, it is worth checking what attractions may await us along the way. A real tourist treat are visits to workshops with e.g. Cloisonne enamel, nephrite and silk artwork. It is also worth checking out the Chinese medicine centres. The weather can be changeable, and one should be prepared for that. The best months to visit are May, September and October. When travelling in the summer, one should be prepared for high temperatures, in turn early spring may surprise with dust storms.
Fans of the original preserved structure from the era, should visit Simatai - 110 km northeast from Beijing. Although the Wall is half-ruined here, one can feel the ancient climate as well as see the original Wall from the Ming Dynasty time.