Travel Guide

The Eight Great Wall Sites at Beijing

 

The eight sites of the Great Wall at Beijing, starting from the north-west clockwise, are Badaling, JuyongGuan and HuanghuaCheng, then Jiankou and Mutianyu in the north followed by Jinshanling, Gubeikou and Simatai to the north-east. A few desolated sites have been closed by the authorities to prevent further damage to the structures as well as injuries to tourists. The eight Great Wall sites in the Beijing area are described as below:

Badaling 八达岭 (Eight Prominent Peaks, also interpreted as Peak to leading all Directions) sector, located at Yanqing County 70 km northwest of Beijing, is the first section of the Great Wall to be opened to tourists. There was an older and incomplete wall here during Warring States Period (476 BC - 221 BC). However, the wall we are seeing was built in 1571 and was repaired in 1957. It is considered the best preserved, being the hallmark of Ming Dynasty wall construction. It became a United Nations world cultural heritage in 1987.

The section is about 5 km long with 19 watchtowers. The wall extends from peak to peak and is made of rectangular slabs, standing eight to ten meters high, six meters wide at the base and five meters wide at the ramparts, hence allowing ten soldiers or five horses to stand abreast. Along the wall are observation platforms every 500 meters and they also serve as sentry posts and storage for weapons and food.  Many sections of the wall were in desolate places, and food and quarters were supplied via narrow paths to the wall where they are pulled over the side in baskets.

Many visitors bemoan the commercialization of Badaling. Shops and sellers abound making the visit as one of festivity. There is a cable car as well as a Great Wall museum of Chinese History and a Great Wall Circle Vision Amphitheater for 15 minute film shows. The museum has a photo gallery showing all the world’s famous personalities who came to climb and admire this man-made wonder. For those who are not physically fit, Badaling is the safest site to see the Great Wall.

The left part of the Badaling wall is steeper but gives a better scenery of the wall. To the east of Badaling is a 2 meter high rock said to be where Dowager Empress Cixi looked towards Beijing in reflection to her previous grand court life-style  compared to her then 1900 distress in her fleeing to Xian to escape the Eight Nations Allied Army. This is the rock mentioned earlier, called “Looking to Beijing Rock”, with a monument for foreign contributors to the reconstruction of the Great Wall in the 1980s.

For those few visitors arriving by train at the nearby Qinglongqiao station, they will not fail to see the bronze statue of engineer, Zhan Tianyou詹天佑(1860-1919). He built the Beijing-Baotou railway line through the mountainous terrain when the Americans and Europeans refused to support the construction.  Zhan was born in Guangdong, and at the age of eleven years was sent to a select school to prepare him for a future study in engineering at Yale University in 1878. He returned to China in 1881, became chief engineer in 1905, and completed the railway line in 1909, two years ahead of time. This was an engineering achievement in China, matched almost sixty years later by the construction of the Nanjing Bridge. Zhan Tianyou is honored with a museum at Badaling and his story has been made into a popular film released in 2000.

Juyong Guan 居庸關 (Common Dwelling Pass), 10 km before Badaling,  is the sector I like best because of its historical significance.  Juyong Pass guards a 100 meter wide 20 km long and deep gully 60 km northwest of Beijing on the same railway line just before Badaling. It was first mentioned in a second century BC philosophical book called HuaiNanzi 淮南子as one of the great nine passes in the competing kingdoms of China. Juyong Pass was also said to have been used in the Qin Dynasty when the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi started the Great Wall.

The surrounding the valley area was considered one of the Eight Sceneries of Yanjing (ancient name for Beijing) during the Jin Dynasty (AD 1115-1234). In autumn the valley is colored red by the maple leaves. Juyong Pass has a architecturally unique marbled Cloud Terrace 雲塔 (Yuntai) complex built in 1345, with a semi-hexagonal arched gateway through it. The ceiling and walls of the terrace have interesting Buddhist inscriptions and carvings, one called “A Record of Charitable and Pious Pagoda Building” featuring six languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Western Xia, Uighur and Han).

Three stone pagodas atop the Cloud Terrace were built by the last Yuan Emperor, but were soon burnt down with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. Hence, the Cloud Terrace supporting the three white pagodas and built across a street was also called "Crossing Street Tower" 過街塔 (Guojieta). A temple called TaiAn Si 太安寺 (Great Peace Temple) was built to replace the pagodas, but was accidentally burnt down in 1702. At the Juyong area is a Northern Song Dynasty temple honoring five heroes of great strength who helped to dig the gully.

A tomb of the Eastern Han period (25-221) unearthed in Inner Mongolia showed a wall painting of a noble on horseback at Juyong Pass, showing Juyongguan as a wooden bridge-like structure with the word “JuyongGuan”.

The name of Juyong Pass is interesting because the character Yong 庸 indicated a common and inferior status, hence Juyong 居庸 means common dwelling, a name not complimentary to its status of protecting the Ming and Qing Imperial capital. It is believed that the name was given during the much earlier Qin Dynasty when this Great Wall site had plain dwellings for numerous conscripted laborers building the wall. At that time Yanjing (Old Beijing) was not considered as important as the Qin capital at Xianyang.

In A.D. 916 Beijing became the capital of the Khitan tribe, which called itself the Liao Kingdom. In 1122, the Jurchens or Nuchens attacked Beijing through the Juyong  Pass. To the invaders’ good luck, there was a landslide at the pass which killed many defenders, allowing the Jurchens to overwhelm them and to take Beijing, which became the capital of the Jurchens under the Jin Dynasty. The Liao Empress had to escape to the north from Beijing via the Gubeikou Pass.

In 1213, the Mongol leader, Genghis Khan 成吉思汗, attempted an attack on Beijing, but was repulsed by the Jin defenders at Juyongguan, who poured molten iron on the gate of the fortress. However. Genghis Khan had a general called Tsabar, who was his emissary to the Jin capital and who knew about a little used path to bypass the Juyong Pass. Using this path at night, the Mongol horsemen in a single file broke through and surprised the Juyong Pass defenders from the rear.

With the retreat of the Mongols in 1368, Ming General Xuda quickly secured the Juyong Pass and started reconstruction of the wall to prevent further Mongol attacks. He built four defensive walls, two circular and two straight across the pass with an extra wall at Gubeikou.  The Ming wall construction at Beijing lasted from 1368 till 1582.

In  1449, the 20 year old Ming Zhengtong Emperor正統 was gullible enough to allow his eunuch tutor, Wang Zhen王振 , to plan an attack on the Mongols, with the Emperor in lead. The corrupt eunuch’s plan was actually to divert the Emperor to visit his own nearby native village rather than to go to battle. Without any military experience, the glory seeking eunuch caused a military disaster ending with two Ming Emperors contending for the throne.

Half a million Ming troops with the Emperor passed through Juyong Pass to an ignominious defeat at the battle of Tumupu土木堡, where the Emperor was himself captured by the Mongol leader Esen也先 , but he was later released to cause conflict between the captured Emperor and his newly installed successor. The Zhengtong Emperor was re-instated by his supporters as the TianShun Emperor天順in a coup in 1457.

Again in 1549, another Mongol leader, Altan Khan阿拉坦汗 , attacked Beijing but knowing the difficulty of going through  Juyong Pass, he opted instead to go further east and broke through the Gubeikou Pass and then took Juyong Pass from the rear. Advancing up to the gates of Beijing he laid waste the suburbs before retreating north to the Ordos.

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the peasant rebel leader, Li Zicheng, attacked Juyong Pass in 1644. Dissatisfied with the Ming Court corruption, the military surrendered to the rebel forces and allowed Li Zicheng to capture Beijing, precipitating the suicide of the last Ming Emperor at Coal Hill, now called Beijing's Jingshan Park, just outside the Forbidden City.

There are many poems mentioning Juyong Pass. Yuan Dynasty poet, Chen Fu 陳孚 (1240-1303), typifies the officials sent on military or civil service to the Great Wall regions and he described in his poem Juyong Pass 居庸關his sadness at passing through Juyong on his journey into Mongolia. Other poets who had written about Juyong Pass are Tang Dynasty poet GaoShi高適 , Song Dynasty poet Wang Yuanliang 汪元量, Jin Dynasty (Jurchen) poet Yu Wen Xu Zhong宇文虛中,  Yuan Dynasty poets Gong Kui 貢奎, Liu Gui柳貴, Jie Xisi 揭係斯, Zhou Boqi周伯琦, Sa Duci薩都刺, Nai Xian 迺賢, Ming Dynasty poets Zheng Luo 鄭珞, Xu Tianxi許天錫, Xie Zhen謝榛, Li Zongshi李宗樞, Su Shi蘇祏, Liu Kan劉侃, Wang Ou王謳 and Qing Dynasty poets Gu Yanwu顧炎武, Qu Dajun屈大均 and Li Zhonghua 李重華. (Please note that the Su Shi of Yuan Dynasty is a lesser poet and not the famous Su Shi also called Su Dongpo of the Song Dynasty.)

Mutianyu (慕田峪) located at Huairou county 79 km northeast of Beijing, joins the Juyong Pass in the west and Gubeikou in the east. Though only 20 km long it has 22 beacon towers and was opened to tourists on May Day in 1986, the second Great Wall site opened to tourists after Badaling. For those weary of walking they can have access to a cable car, with excellent views at the top. There was an earlier wall built 1400 years ago, but the present wall was built during the Ming Dynasty by General Xu Da under the order of Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang. It was further strengthened by General Qi Jiguang in 1568. In 1988, the Henkel company of Germany donated US$300,000 to restore Mutianyu.

There is a tower complex of three inter-connected towers capable of withstanding a strong attack. The other interesting feature unique to Mutianyu is that the inner and outer parapets of the wall are crenellated with merlons for shots to be fired on both sides of the wall.  It was at Mutianyu that Cao Cao曹操during the Three Kingdom Period defeated his opponent Yuan Shao袁紹. The Mutianyu section was later redesigned and strengthened by Ming General, Qi Jiguang, Military Superintendent of Jizhou蓟州 .

Simatai 司马台, the 5.5. km long sector at Miyun county near the Gubeikou frontier garrison, is 140 km to the north-east of Beijing. It has 35 beacon towers, being quiet and peaceful but challenging, with crumbling parts and steep walls beyond its restored first portion. For those who want to see the Great Wall untouched by modern hands, this is the part to go for. It has interesting towers and platforms of various designs.

At the highest position one can see Beijing from a tower called Wangjinglou望京樓 (Tower for viewing the Capital). Notice that some of the bricks here have dates and numbers to indicate the maker in order to ensure quality. To reach Wangjinglou, about 1000 meters above sea level, one must overcome the 70 degree slope Stairway to Heaven (requiring a crawl on all fours), and the narrow hundred meter long Sky Bridge across a deep abyss between Wangjinglou and Fairy Tower. This is certainly a most dangerous climb. In the early spring and summer mornings, one may be lucky to see a sea of clouds below. Fairy Tower is beautiful with an interesting twin lotus flower carving above its arched door.

A cable car may save some half hour by foot, while a full hike may take two hours. A small Simatai reservoir divides the wall into two sectors, the Simatai to the east and Jinshanling to the west.  Simatai has been included by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site.

Jinshanling 金山岭 (Gold Mountain), equally far as Simatai, is at Ruanping county some 150 km from Beijing and slightly to the west of Simatai. It was constructed during the Ming Dynasty from 1386 till 1389, and re-constructed in 1571 by Ming General Qi Jiguang. The Jinshan 金山name apparently came from Genral Qi’s Jiangsu troops, who named two towers in honor of the smaller and greater Jinshan Islands in Zhenjiang City in Jiangsu.

The section, just over 10 km, is desolated with 150 odd battle platforms in various shapes. Parts of the Jinshanling have "obstacle-walls", actually smaller upright stone slabs at right angles to the parapets to shield defenders when facing enemies who had already ascended the wall from below and were charging up the rampart. The side walls also have peepholes and shooting holes unique to Jinshanling.  After Badaling, it is the second most complete section of the Great Wall, despite having no recent repairs. From the eastern end of Jinshanling, one ascends the hundred meter long Stairway to Heaven to reach Wangjinglou (Tower for viewing the Capital) at Simatai.

Huanghuacheng 黃花城 (Yellow Flower Town), 100 km north of Beijing and 20 km from Mutianyu, is the latest section to become popular with hikers. It was built by Ming General Cai Kai, 蔡凱whose prolonged and meticulous work caused him to be beheaded under a false charge of inefficiency. Realizing his mistake and with a heavy conscience, the Emperor had General Cai Kai reburied with honors as well as commissioning a two large words Jin Tang金湯to be carved into a large rock at Huanghuacheng. The character 金 (metal) denotes the hardness of metal, and the character 湯 (boiling solution) denotes great heat, hence the two characters implied the invincibility of the Huanghuacheng wall. Thus, the Huanghuacheng sector is also known as the Jintang Great Wall.

The wall can be accessed by crossing a moon-shaped reservoir close to the Jintang Lake. The wall section is said to be an exquisite for the lonely and contemplative traveler, a site considered beautiful but dangerous as parts of the wall may crumble, plunging the hiker down to the terrain below. During summer, the area is colored with yellow by the flowers, and during autumn, the ground is carpeted with yellow leaves. Shibadeng is the steepest and most perilous part.

Gubeikou 古北口 (Old Northern Entrance), in Miyun county is 120 km northeast of Beijing  on a road that running northwards as a 20 km wide pass through the Yanshan Mountain Range. Located at Wohu臥虎 (Lying Tiger) mountain, it was originally called Hubeikou 虎北口. In 1368 Ming Dynasty general, Xu Da, rebuilt this section of the Great Wall. Gubeikou has seen famous battles and on its slope is a temple dedicated to Yang Ye楊業 (??-986), a famous Song Dynasty general whose illustrious military family served the Song Emperors for four generations. Their stories of loyalty, bravery and romance were told in books, operas and  by balladeers and minstrels.

Gubeikou was first constructed in the Qi Dynasty while the newer Beikou town, originally called Yingcheng, was built in 1378.  The town is protected by Caohe River to the west and surrounded by three gates to the north, east and south, as well three underground,water gates. The Qing Emperors going to their summer residence in Chengde had to pass through Gubeikou. Although an interesting historical site on its own, Gubeikou is considered by some as inclusive of the Great Wall sections of Jinshanling to the west and Simatai to the east. Here, Jinshanling and Simatai are considered separately as different locations.

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) the walls were 10 kilometres north of the present Ming walls. The walls were built and rebuilt by succeeding dynasties from the Northern Qi Dynasty (479-502) to the Tang (618-907), the Song (960-1279) and the Jin or Jurchens (1115-1234). The victorious Mongols from the north under Gengzhis Khan did not have need to have the Great Wall as a barrier.

With the overthrow of the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty General Xu Da quickly captured Gubeikou and started reconstruction of the wall from Juyongguan to Shanhaiguan in 1370. When the Yongle Emperor moved his capital to Beijing in 1420, Gubeikou became even more crucial as the key to the defence of the city from the north-east.  In 1549, the Mongol leader, Altan Khan, succeeded in breaking through Gubeikou and pillaged the suburbs of Beijing before returning north. In 1568 the Gubeikou wall was again rebuilt by General Qi Jiguang in coordination with General Tan Lun, and the new wall was able to face attacks from both front and rear. Part of the wall was damaged from shelling by Japanese Army during the War of Resistance from 1937 to 1945.

Jiankou 箭口(Arrow Entrance) in Huairou County is 73 kilometres north of Beijing, connecting Mutianyu to the east and HuanghuaCheng to the west. This section was built during the Ming Dynasty in 1368. It is noticeable for its white rocks and the fact that the main section  are built on cliffs, with iron shoulder poles inserted between the cliffs. It has five gate towers and is considered very perilous, especially in winter when the wall is very scenic under white snow. Like HuanghuaCheng, this site is gaining popularity among the adventurous and the backpackers.