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Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is a popular tourist destination.

The Great Wall of China is expansive. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The Great Wall of China is expansive.

Great Wall of China

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Wall of China is one of that country's most intriguing, popular and enduring tourist destinations. In fact, for many tourists, a trip to China simply is not complete without a day spent meandering along the wall's high brick pavement, taking in views of the local countryside and surrounding mountains. With the recent boom in Chinese tourism, visiting the Great Wall is easier than ever, and there are a number of different ways for travelers to enjoy the experience.

Basic Facts About the Great Wall of China

Stretching nearly 5,500 miles from the Yellow Sea to the Tibetan Plateau, the Great Wall of China is truly a marvel of engineering. The east end of the wall runs through Shanhaiguan (Chinese for the pass between the mountains and the sea), a beautiful area speckled with ancient fortresses, monuments and temples. After winding through some of China's most rugged geography and historic sites, including the capital city of Beijing, the wall comes to an end at Jiayu Pass, a 14th century fort set in a desert south of the Mongolian Border.

Physically, the Great Wall of China is imposing: according to the History Channel, the wall is about 25 feet high and 20 feet wide at its base, on average. It is also dotted with 40-foot-high watchtowers, spaced evenly along the wall at 200-yard intervals, which were used to house lookouts and troops. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Great Wall is not visible from space: Scientific American, along with numerous other anecdotal reports, confirms that it is harder to see than many other manmade structures, including desert roads and airport runways.

History of the Great Wall of China

Construction of the Great Wall began around 200 BC under the guidance of Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin dynasty. The emperor ordered the wall to be built so that China could strengthen and protect its expansive frontier from invaders.

Interestingly, little evidence of Shihuangdi's wall remains today. In fact, most of the existing Great Wall was built during the Ming dynasty between the late 1400s and early 1600s, when the government sought to protect the people and especially Beijing from the Huns. Although many portions of the wall have been lost over time, the Chinese have made many recent efforts to renovate its most visited portions.

Touring the Great Wall of China

Because the wall is divided into sections, some of which are in better shape than others, tourists have a number of options when deciding where to go. Forty three miles north of Beijing, the Badaling section is probably the most popular section for travelers to visit. Unlike some of the more rural sections, Badaling features brick-faced walls, a wide walkway and structurally intact military buildings. It was also the first section of the wall open to tourists.

Also close to Beijing, the Mutianyu section offers much of the same spectacle and cultural heritage as the Badaling section, but without the crowds. Visitors can stay in the village of Mutianyu itself, which was built by the workers who originally built the Great Wall, where there are a variety of restaurants, shops and other attractions to keep families busy.

Further away from Beijing are the Simatai and Haunhuacheng sections of the Great Wall. Although they are somewhat rundown, both sections retain their original 17th-century appearance, evoking the mystery and grandeur of the late Ming Dynasty. Huanhuacheng in particular has great natural beauty: the wall, which snakes along forested ridgelines, is surrounded by clear lakes and seas of bright-yellow wildflowers that bloom during the summer.

Applying for a China Visa

In addition to a valid passport, American citizens traveling to the Great Wall must also have a Chinese travel visa. To apply, travelers must submit the visa application, which is downloadable from the website of the Chinese Embassy, along with a recent passport-sized (2-inch) photo. In the application, they must also specify whether they are traveling for business, study or tourism, since the embassy requires different documents for each.

Travelers should also consider having vaccinations for diseases such as malaria, rabies and hepatitis (both A and B), which may be prevalent in certain areas of the country. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publishes up-to-date travel health information that includes vaccine recommendations on its website.

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