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Beijing and the Great Wall of China

Kieran Meeke / 31 January 2017

The capital of China is famous for its Forbidden City and its proximity to the Great Wall, two of the world’s greatest tourist attractions. As well as millions from abroad, both also bring countless numbers from inside China itself.

bronze lion in front of the hall of supreme harmony in beijing forbidden city, China
The former home of the Emperor, the Forbidden City is the world’s biggest ancient palace and the most popular visitor attraction in China.

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People were living in what is now Beijing some 250,000 years ago but the first walled city dates to around the tenth century BCE. It became the capital of the Jin Dynasty in 1153.

Subsequent emperors built a new city but it was the Ming dynasty that began construction in 1407 of the Forbidden City, a palace complex that was the seat of the emperors until 1911.

In 1449, a Mongol invasion swept across China and captured the emperor. A new emperor started major reconstruction of the Great Wall that lasted for a century but ultimately bankrupted the empire.

After all that, the walls proved useless when a disloyal general opened the gates to allow an invading Manchu army into Beijing in 1644. The last Ming emperor hung himself on a tree.

The subsequent Qing Empire ruled for nearly three centuries before its fate was sealed by a failure to modernise, particularly militarily. 

The British won the First Opium War in 1838, gaining Hong Kong, and the Second Opium War in 1854, again forcing China to trade on Britain’s terms.

The destruction of the Forbidden City was discussed during the Second Opium War but Anglo-French force contented themselves with burning the two Summer Palaces and stealing large quantities of treasure.

The rise of a republican movement saw the overthrow of the emperor but this disruption also allowed the westernised Japanese Army to invade in 1937 and then occupy Beijing until 1945. 

Following a period of civil war, Mao Zedong declared the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in Tiananmen Square in 1949.

Beijing now has a population of more than 20 million people and its efficient modern airport is one of the world’s busiest. 

A building program has also swept away many of the city’s traditional houses, as well as the Soviet-era apartment blocks, leaving a modern skyline that is a striking contrast to China’s past.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall is actually a series of walls and forts, built from the 7th century BC to the late 1800s. Its purpose was to act as a frontier marker and show the power of the emperor.

It stretches from Shanhaiguan on the northeast coast to the Gobi Desert, roughly following China’s northern border with Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire.

Despite the threat from the Mongol and their later descendants, the wall was always a failure militarily. It was never continuous nor heavily garrisoned enough to act as a real deterrent to invasion.

It’s also a myth that it can be seen from space. Any two-lane road is wider and the US Highway system is longer but no one claims it is visible from orbit.

The Chinese name, which translates as “Long Wall”, gives a better idea of what makes it great; its length of more than 13,000 miles.

Built by forced labour, with a million workers of whom countless numbers died, it was long associated with the feudal past. Mao Zedong’s Red Guards destroyed large sections in the 1960s and it was only relatively recently that it became symbolic of China’s unity.

One third of the wall has disappeared and the first preservation order was not signed until 2006. 

The most popular sections such as Badaling and Mutianyu near Beijing are heavily restored and relatively new (around 500 years old).

Getting Around

Driving in Beijing is not recommended. Traffic is heavy, many drivers are unlicensed and the traffic police mostly don’t speak English. It’s best to stick to a tour bus or hire a car with driver.

The subway system is expanding at a high rate and subsidised ticket prices make it a bargain. It carries almost two billion passengers annually, making it one of the world’s busiest.

The 2008 Summer Olympics has left a legacy of good signage and English-speaking taxi drivers that has made the city very accessible to foreign visitors.

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Major Sights

Great Wall

The Great Wall is easily reached from Beijing and it is no coincidence that these sections are among the most heavily restored – and photographed. The wall stretches over hills into the distance, making for an impressive sight.

Badaling Great Wall is the closest (40 miles) and one of the easiest to access. It is wheelchair friendly and has a cable car. This section has hosted such visitors as Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela and a series of US presidents.

Mutianyu is quieter as it is a shorter length (“only” 3.5 miles) and has steeper climbs. However, it also has a cable car and a (optional) luge, which makes for an exciting ride down. 

There is also an unrestored section to walk, although it can be tough going. It’s the most popular section for foreign visitors, rather than foreign ones.

Try to visit both sections as early as possible and on weekdays rather than weekends to avoid the worst crowding. Even larger numbers visit on major public holidays such as May Day or National Day (October 1-7).

In summer (June, July and August), temperatures in Beijing and on the Great Wall can be extreme and hats, sunblock, sunglasses, water etc are essential.

The best time of year is spring or autumn, when the weather is kinder and the scenery is in full bloom or displaying autumn splendour. 

Winter snow makes for great scenery and photography but the stones on the wall itself can be treacherous underfoot.

The wear of millions of feet has worn the stones smooth and they can be tricky at all times, and especially when wet in the rain, so wear good shoes and take care.

Must-do: Find time to see (and even hike) the Jinshanling section, some 96 miles from Beijing and perhaps the most scenic, unspoilt part in reach of the capital.

Tiananmen Square

The world’s fourth largest square can hold more than a million people. Much of its present appeal for westerners is watching the large number of Chinese visitors who are just as much tourists as you are.

The massive portrait of Mao Zedong on the square that dominates the entrance to the Forbidden City is by Chinese artist Ge Xiaoguang. The artist repaints it every year in a nearby studio to keep it pristine.

Must-do: Visit the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall to see the crystal coffin and embalmed remains of the founding father of the PRC.

The Forbidden City

The former home of the Emperor, the Forbidden City is the world’s biggest ancient palace and the most popular visitor attraction in China. 

For almost 500 years it was closed off to anyone other than the emperor and his family, officials and servants — hence its name. 

The 980 buildings with 9,999 rooms, built using hundreds of thousands of workers between 1407 and 1420, make up the world’s largest collection of ancient wooden structures.

With more than 20 million visitors every year, a visit often means coping with crowds but the palace is so vast you can also unexpected find yourself in relatively quiet spaces between tour groups.

Must-do: Having a good guide is essential to even begin to understand the palace and its contents which together make up the world’s largest museum.

Temple of Heaven

This beautiful temple was built between 1406 and 1402, the same time as the Forbidden City. Its Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was the site of annual sacrifices by the Emperor, following Taoist ritual but adopting much earlier beliefs.

Must-do: Visit the parkland around the temple, opened to the public in 1918 and still a popular place for morning exercises.

Yonghe Temple

Often called the Lama Temple, this dates to 1694 and mixes Han Chinese and Tibetan influences in its architecture and art. 

Originally the home of Emperor Yong Zheng, it became a lamasery in the 18th century and is the best-preserved in Beijing, and still the most revered outside Tibet itself. 

Filled with the smell of incense, it’s still a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

Must-do: Remember this is a holy place, and read up its history to fully appreciate its significance to those at prayer.

Chinese Acrobats

If you have ever seen Cirque du Soleil, you are familiar with the skills of China’s acrobats, perfected through years of training from childhood. 

Soleil’s more modern approach to circus entertainment has also made its way back to China, adding narrative and music to make a show here an even greater spectacle.

Must-do: There are several semi-permanent circus shows in Beijing, but look out for rarer performances by the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe.

798 Art District

Taking its name from a former factory in an industrial zone once supported by East Germany, the 798 Art District area of artist studios, galleries, designers, modern restaurants and cafes is a very different side to Beijing culture. 

The Bauhaus-style buildings are an interesting backdrop to a contemporary art community once threatened by the state but now more in danger through gentrification.

Must-do: Learn to say “But is it art?” in Mandarin.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.