The Great Wall is one of those sights that you’ve seen and heard so much about that you know reality is going to have a tough time living up to the hype. But having made it all the way to Beijing, it seems perverse to ignore this overblown landmark, so arm yourself with a thermos of tea and catch a bus north from the capital to Simatai, one of several sections of this 4800-kilometre-long structure which has been restored.
It’s easy to find bad things to say about the Great Wall. The work of China’s megalomaniac first emperor Qin Shi Huang, over a million forced labourers are said to have died building the original around 250 BC, and this seven-metre-high, seven-metre-thick barrier didn’t even work. History is littered with “barbarian” invaders who proved sophisticated enough to fight or bribe their way around the wall’s 25,000 watchtowers, most notably the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and the Manchus – who went on to become China’s final dynasty – in 1644. Indeed, the Manchus were so unimpressed with the wall that they let the entire thing fall into ruin.
And yet, you’ll be blown away. Not even swarms of hawkers and crowds of tourists can ruin the sight of this blue-grey ribbon snaking across the dusty, shattered hills into the hazy distance, beyond which one end finally runs into the sea, while the other simply stops in northwestern China’s deserts. You can spend hours walking between battlements along the top – in places, following the contours of the hills up amazingly steep inclines – until restorations give way to rubble, and even then you can’t quite believe that such a solid, organic part of the scenery is only an artefact, built by simple human endeavour. If ever proof were needed of Chinese determination, this is it.
Many sections of the Great Wall are accessible as day-trips from Beijing: regular tourist buses run to Badaling (daily 9am–4.30pm), Mutianyu (daily 8am–4pm) and Simatai (daily 8am–4pm).