Amazing Wall of China: Six sections with stunning views

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Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that highlights some of the most captivating topics in the travel world. In September, we’re celebrating superlatives as we explore some of the world’s largest, tallest, and most expensive attractions and destinations. CNN — After residing in Beijing for almost 12 years, I’ve had ample time to extensively explore various parts of China. I’ve toured over 100 cities, along with numerous towns and villages across the mainland’s 31 provinces. Looking back, I’ve realized that my frequent excursions to different sections of the Great Wall in Beijing fueled my curiosity to further explore the country and its many areas of the wall that exist beyond the capital’s borders.

Construction on the Great Wall started over 2,500 years ago, with its origins dating back to China’s Spring and Autumn Period of around 770 BCE to 476 BCE. Various segments were added during subsequent eras as competing dynasties and factions vied for control. Eventually, work ceased in the 17th century. Although not a single continuous structure, the wall stretches over 21,000 kilometers, winding through 15 provinces, 97 prefectures, and 404 counties. While certain sections have become popular tourist attractions, many parts have fallen into obscurity, disrepair, and sometimes even oblivion.

Whether you’re planning your first visit to the Great Wall or your 50th, the following destinations will undoubtedly enhance your trip to China. (Watch the video above to see breathtaking aerial footage of these incredible sites.)

The Great Wall isn’t just a solid brick barrier; in certain areas, towers situated on rugged mountain peaks, fortified towns, or even wide rivers are considered sections of the “wall.” The Turtle City, which was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as part of the “Yellow River Defense Line,” was completed in 1608 and housed around 2,000 infantrymen and 500 cavalry units at its peak. Today, this fortress city is located in Sitan Township of Jingtai County in north central Gansu province. Although there are few actual turtles in the “Turtle City,” the town acquired its nickname due to its distinctive shape. The southern gate serves as the head, while the western and eastern gates act as the flippers. The town’s oval wall completes the body, and the northern gate serves as the tail. As one of the most well-preserved and authentically intact walled cities in China today, it’s definitely a worthwhile destination. It is recommended to stay in the center of Jingtai County. The ancient city can be reached with a 30-minute taxi ride from your accommodations, allowing you to visit whenever lighting conditions are optimal for photography. When in Jingtai, make sure to try local specialties such as the five Buddha tofu and the Jingtai cold mixed noodles – both delicious spicy vegetarian dishes. Additionally, a stroll through the expansive night market in Jingtai County People’s Square, which features over 50 snack stalls, is a must for adventurous food enthusiasts.

How to get there: Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, has a major international airport and high-speed train connections from various cities in China. The journey from downtown Lanzhou to Yongtai Turtle City takes approximately 2.5 hours (195 kilometers) by car. From Lanzhou Zhongchuan Airport, the drive is only 1.5 hours (125 kilometers).

Mutianyu and Jiankou are two sections that make up the same Stone Dragon – two contiguous segments of the Great Wall that collectively stretch for approximately 25 kilometers along the mountain peaks of Beijing. Historical records reveal that millions of men spent centuries constructing the Great Wall. Standing atop Mutianyu or Jiankou, you’ll begin to grasp the immense scale of this undertaking. These two sections represent the epitome of Ming Dynasty Great Wall architecture, and ascending either one guarantees a transformative experience. Mutianyu is the most tourist-friendly portion of the wall. Restored in the 1980s, it has a commercial atmosphere but remains undeniably stunning. Visitors who prefer not to hike can take a cable car to the top. Located west of Mutianyu, Jiankou is colloquially referred to as the “wild wall” – no ticket is required, and it has avoided commercialization. However, hiking at Jiankou has become somewhat discouraged by the local government due to safety concerns as of 2020. Mutianyu and Jiankou are located less than a 90-minute drive (without traffic) from downtown Beijing, but it is highly recommended to spend a night in the countryside if time permits. Jiankou can be accessed via Xizhazi village, and if your travel dates align, you might even have the opportunity to spend a few days with William Lindesay, a world-renowned Great Wall historian, and his wonderful family at The Barracks, their courtyard home adjacent to the wall. The Brickyard is an excellent choice for lodging near Mutianyu. During autumn and spring, the gray brick of the wall provides a beautiful contrast against the vibrant colors of nature. Winter sports enthusiasts will find skiing and skating options near Mutianyu as well.

How to get to Mutianyu: In September 2019, restrictions on applying for temporary driving licenses in China were eased, making it possible for foreign tourists to rent cars. (International driving licenses are not accepted in China.) Alternatively, you can rent a car with a driver for the day or take the Mutianyu Special Tourism Bus from the Dongzhimen Wai Bus Station. How to get to Jiankou: It is recommended to rent a car or arrange private transportation. Due to Xizhazi being a small village, public buses are scarce, and traveling by public transport can take up to five hours, as opposed to the 90-minute car ride.

Bataizi village is situated within the Motianling section of the Great Wall and is home to the remains of a Gothic church, which was built in 1876 under the guidance of a German missionary. The church has experienced damage and repair numerous times throughout its nearly 150-year history, with only the bell tower still standing. The juxtaposition of the church ruins against the rammed-earth Great Wall makes Bataizi an extraordinary place to spend a morning or afternoon. After completing your hike along the wall and exploring the church ruins, make sure to visit the “new” church in the village and say hello to Father Pan. If you speak Chinese, he can provide insights into the village’s long-standing connection with Catholicism. In addition to Bataizi, Datong should also be included in your itinerary. Pay a visit to the Yungang Grottoes (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the Hengshan Hanging Temple to make your trip even more memorable. Late summer is the ideal time to visit Bataizi, as you’ll witness a spectacular contrast between the Great Wall and the lush green hills.

How to get there: Bataizi village is located 80 kilometers west of Datong, one of Shanxi province’s largest and most renowned cities. Zuoyun County is merely 22 kilometers away, which is approximately a 35-minute drive. Datong can easily be reached by plane or high-speed train from other cities in China. A taxi from downtown Datong to Bataizi should cost around 300 yuan (about $43). Alternatively, you can take a bus to Zuoyun County and then transfer to a taxi. In Datong, luxury seekers may opt for the five-star Yunzhong Traditional Courtyard Hotel. Zuoyun County has one hotel that accepts foreigners, namely Zuoyun Jinshan International Hotel. Both options can be found on popular hotel booking websites.

As the locals say, Laoniuwan is where the Great Wall and the mighty Yellow River unite. The Laoniuwan Fortress was constructed in 1467, while the most famous tower in this area, Wanghe Tower (which means “river-watching tower” in Chinese), was built in 1544. Situated in Pianguan County, part of Xinzhou city in Shanxi province, Laoniuwan village sits just across the river from Inner Mongolia. Late summer or early fall is the perfect time to visit, as it allows you to avoid the potentially dangerous mountain roads during spring rainstorms or the discomfort of cold weather in a less developed area. Along the Great Wall, there are only a handful of places where it meets bodies of water, and among them, this location is the most breathtaking. Taking a boat ride along the river is highly recommended. It provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Yellow River Gorge while marveling at the incredible determination of the ancient architects.

How to get there: Laoniuwan is challenging to reach by public transportation.

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