The Great Wall snakes its way across northern China, from the Yellow Sea and past the GobiDesertfor some 6,000km. While it’s not visible from the moon as has been claimed, it’s still a remarkable piece of engineering and is the most famous symbol of China.
The genesis of the Great Wall dates to the Warring States period from 475to 221 BC, when Chinese feudal kingdoms built earthen ramparts to defend against nomadic invaders. It was under the fierce emperor Qin Shihuang, who unified
China in 221 BC that the Great Wall really began to take shape. He conscripted some 300,000 laborers to work for then years on joining the various pre-existing sections into a single fortified wall. The suffering of the workers who toiled in freezing winters and scorching summers became legendary. As dynasty came into being and passed into history, the Great Wall was continuously repaired and extended.
The sections of the Great Wall near Beijing were renovated during the Ming dynasty, whose leaders spent a century strengthening and extending the Wall to the Yellow Sea. The previous ramparts, which were made of stones, packed earth and wood, were covered by Ming builders with bricks. They built crenellations to protect archers, widened the Wall so it could accommodate five horses abreast, and added many watchtowers. A system of beacons lit from tower to tower ensured that enemy troop movements were swiftly relayed to headquarters.
Despite such defensive features, the Great Wall failed in its purpose of keeping out invaders. It was breached several times, notably by the armies of Genghis Khan in 1215 and by Manchu troops in 1644. Conversely, the Great Wall was a tremendous success in forgoing a sense of nationhood since it marked the physical boundary between Chinaand abroad, and the psychological boundary between civilization and chaos. Scaling forbidding landscapes of mountains and deserts, the Great Wall was also a triumph of the emperor’s will over nature.
There are three major sections of the Great Wall open to tourists near Beijing: Badaling, Mutianyu and Simatai. All three are built on steep terrain so it’s a good idea to wear comfortable shoes and bring water. This advice holds especially true when going to the Simatai SECTION OR TO THE “Wild Wall” sections that haven’t been restored. Many ex-pats enjoy hiking along the “Wild Wall” but it’s not for the faint of heart: climbing conditions can be arduous and there are no signposts, so hikers will need a good map or a guide.
Only 70km away by superhighway, Badaling is the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing and can be visited in half a day. Moreover, its proximity to the Ming Tombs means both sites can be seen in a single outing. Badaling was completely restored after 1957. It has a chairlift and fast food restaurants and can be very crowded with hawkers and tourists, but all that fades away once you leave the parking area and begin to walk along the Wall.
Mutianyu is located some 90kmnorth of Beijing, and like Badaling, is a recently renovated section that’s very popular. Mutianyu lied in rugged territory and reaching the Wall from the main gate involves a strenuous climb up a steep stairway, but fortunately there’s a chairlift. Once on top, the views of the Wall undulating down wooded canyons and up mountain ridges are breathtaking.
The Simutai section is a dramatic testimony to Ming engineering skills with one section as steep as 85 degrees. Only partially restored, Simatai allows athletic visitors who climb past the first watchtowers to see the Wall in its wild, crumbling state. Less intrepid visitors can take a gondola. Simutai is 110kmnorthwest of Beijing.
The tombs of 13 Ming dynasty emperors and their consorts are scattered in a gorgeous valley 45kmnorthwest of Beijing. All but three of the Ming emperors are buried here. The first Ming emperor lies in Nanjing, the tomb of the second emperor remains unknown as he had his throne usurped by his uncle and another emperor was considered illegitimate and wasn’t given the honor of an imperial tomb.
Templeof Heaven. Once a year, sitting emperors would come here to perform extravagant rituals for their ancestors in order to keep their spirits placated.
The site for the Ming Tombs was carefully chosen as the imperial cemetery by fengshui masters after careful examination of the indefatigable Emperor Yongle, who also commissioned the Forbidden City and For the history conscious and family centered Chinese, filial piety, in life and in death was of utter importance-to show disrespect to your father was a capital crime. Entrenched by Confucian values and the belief that ancestors require the occasional sign of deference, lest they cause trouble in the living world, ancestor worship became one of the central tenets of Chinese religious practices.
The Ming Tombs is an example of the importance laid upon showing proper filial piety and the self-grandeur of the emperors, many of whom begun construction of their tombs as soon as they ascended the throne, with construction ending only when they moved in.