The Great Wall of China is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site. With all of its branches it measures out to be over 13,000 miles long, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China. That's a lot of wall.
It's construction began over 2300 years ago in the Qin Dynasty when the First Emperor of Qin built the northern walls to prevent invasion from northern nations. In the Han Dynasty, the emperors extended the Great Wall far into today's western China to protect Silk Road trade. In the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall was rebuilt to be stronger and more sophisticated, thanks to better construction techniques being developed.
Today, due to natural erosion and human damage, about 30% of the Ming Great Wall has completely disappeared with far more of previous dynasties' Great Wall sections gone too. Thankfully though, a number of sections have been restored, protected and are open to the public and now boast over 70,000 visitors a day. That's right, every single day.
We were able to visit both Badaling and Jiankou during our stay in Beijing, which turned out to be wildly different experiences. Badaling is the most restored and visited section of the wall with Jiankou being the stark opposite.
Jiankou has never been restored since its construction in 1368 with many parts having fallen into disrepair. If you're looking for a quieter spot, that's a little more extreme, this is the place. We booked a 'tour' through Viator, which was basically an expensive taxi service, but one of the few ways you can get to this section from Beijing. The driver dropped us in a small village at the bottom of a dirt track which he then directed us to walk down until we could see the wall. That was the extent of the tour.
It took about an hour of uphill climbing until we could see the first tower appear on the peak of the hill above us. As you reach the top of the track you start to get a glimpse of the true scale of the longest wall in the world...
Once you reach the top of the hill you enter the wall through a collapsed section and quickly understand why it isn't a highly recommended part to visit. Despite most postcards featuring photos from this area, it is barely standing! Trees grow from every tower and each step needs to be taken with care. Nature has taken over.
It all makes for a very authentic experience though. You are walking along thousands of years of history. It isn't clean or stable but it is the original wall. Each stone was laid by hand. Men had built it and many had been buried below it. It's mind-blowing to think of the dedication, blood, sweat, and tears that must have gone into creating it.
To prevent further loss of the Great Wall, the Chinese Government had to take measures to protect it, introducing laws and releasing funds to protect, restore and maintain some sections of the wall. The portion of the wall at Badaling was fully-restored, and in 1957 it was the first section of the wall to open to tourists. They've since added in Cable cars that you can take up/down and even roller coaster carts for a speedy trip down! A little less authentic, but a popular addition for tourists with tired legs.
The photo below shows the difference that the restoration and roller coaster carts have made!
We saw a total of two people in Jiankou. Everyone else was at Badaling.
It's incredibly crowded. The rain didn't help either making the granite slabs dangerously slippy and forcing everyone to cling to the sides, holding on for dear life to the handrails. It took about 30 minutes to get through the initial traffic jam, at which point you finally find a little space to breathe and can enjoy the view of the wall in all it's glory. It's quite a sight.
A few facts for you...
The wall is on average 7.8 meters tall and 5.7 meters wide, which allowed five horses to gallop abreast and ten men to march shoulder to shoulder.
This section was originally built in the Ming Dynasty to occupy a strategic position for protecting the Juyongguan Pass on it's south, helping protect the city of Beijing and has witnessed many significant events since.
Yuan Taizu, the first emperor of Yuan Dynasty conquered it, took control over Beijing, then the whole of China, and began the Yuan Dynasty. So much for protecting the city!
It was also where President Richard Nixon and his wife, accompanied by Vice Premier Li Xiannian, visited on February 24, 1972, during his historic journey to China.
All in all, The Great Wall of China is awesome. These two sections in particular are so different I don't think they can really be compared. If you have time, go to as many sections as possible to get a more complete experience. If you had to choose one section I would say to visit Mutianyu where it has been restored for better hiking, but doesn't have quite the level of tourism as Badaling or the danger of Jiankou. If you are a confident hiker and want a little more adventure, be sure to visit Jiankou. You can freely roam in peace and quiet for hours and walk on the age old steps and even camp in the original towers along the way.