Mao Zedong famously proclaimed: "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a real man!" He neglected to follow up with: "but one who has saved his hamstrings from a real soreness!"
While there's a general consensus the bulwark lives up to the "great" part of its namesake, referring to the "wall" in singular form is something of a misnomer. It's actually a network of separate fortifications built between the 6th century BC and the 16th century, snaking 6,400 km from Shanhaiguan in Hebei province to Luobupo in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
In Beijing, 629 km of the garrison threads through the city's northern suburbs. A relatively small section, 30 km, is open to tourists.
Among the debunked myths surrounding the Wall - it can be seen from outer space; many of its builders are buried in its foundation; the existing Wall is thousands, rather than hundreds, of years old - perhaps the greatest misconception is that once you've seen one part of the Wall, you've seen them all. In fact, different sites yield different discoveries.
Here's a short guide to some Great Wall highlights:
Located 70 km northwest of Beijing, this section was first restored in 1957 and has since been restored again - and again, and again. Today, there is a cable car, billboards, and even a terracotta-roofed Starbucks. Yet its great advantage is its unsurpassed accessibility.
Compared to other sections of the Wall, Badaling's incline is shallow, its steps are wide, and transportation to and from the location is convenient.
This is the spot for those hoping to enjoy all modern conveniences while exploring an ancient wonder.
Located 45 km from Beijing, the 1.4-km-long route barbed with 22 towers is one of the longest uninterrupted sections. Its unique features include "branch cities" - fortifications built perpendicular to the main stretch - and pyramidal parapets. Hikers here can choose to ascend the mountainside on foot, or ride up in a gondola or cable car. Thrill-seekers can zoom back down on a violently meandering route ominously named "Speed".
Located 65 km north of Beijing, Huanghuacheng has been growing in popularity among hikers in recent years but still falls under the "off-the-beaten-track" category - barely. The name, which translates as "Yellow Flower Wall", comes from the fact that the surrounding mountains are sheathed with xanthous blooms from late spring to early summer.
(China Daily 08/12/2008 page14)