Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008

Great Wall of China

No visitor to Beijing leaves without at least a quick trip to the Great Wall. Usually people visit the Wall at one of the two main heavily touristed sections: Mutianyu and Badaling. But there's a lot more to the Wall — called the "Long City" in Chinese — than those destinations; with a bit of effort and not that much extra time, you can have a piece of the Wall more or less all to yourself.

One option is to arrange a visit to a part of the Wall that's farther off the beaten track. Simatai is two-plus hours from Beijing, which usually puts off the more casual visitors. But the effort is worth it. Not only is the scenery here — with the Wall snaking up and down plunging cliffs and jagged ridges — the most dramatic, but the crowds are also thinnest.

There's also Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall begins, literally, rising out of the Gulf of Bohai at a spot called Laolongtou, or "old dragon's head," after the beast carved into the section of the Wall that faces the sea. This spot outside the port of Qinghuadao about three hours from the capital, gives a completely different and unique perspective on the Wall.

Finally, for the more adventuresome, check out the Beijing Hikers website, for news on their latest expeditions. The group organizes trips to remote sections of the Wall and leads hikes for all levels of ability, with transport and food included in the price. It's a wonderful way to get better acquainted with this chunk of history.


Another chunk of Chinese history can be found at Chengde, a city about two hours' drive outside Beijing. This was the summer capital of the Qing dynasty emperors, and each successive monarch has left his own particular stamp on the place. Not only does this mountain resort boast a plethora of palaces and imperial gardens to wander through, including a full scale replica of the Dalai Lama's Pottala Palace in Lhasa (built to make the monk feel at home on his visits), its museum features a dazzling array of the paraphernalia necessary for the gilded life of the court — like huge golden statues and exquisite snuff bottles.