The Great Wall of China, also known as the 10,000 Mile Long Wall (万里长城), is one of China’s enumerable ancient takeaways. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it garners roughly 10 million visitors each year, and is enjoyed by both Chinese and foreigners alike. Spanning over 13,000 miles and traversing the hills of the Eurasian Steppes, it is not just an architectural marvel, but also boasts the pragmatism of its purpose. It was originally built as three separate walls, which were joined together during the Warring States period (260-210 BCE) under the orders of Qin Shi Huang; China’s first Emperor. Its most impressive quality was that it doubled as protection from Mongolian invaders and to monitor the safe passage of traders traveling the illustrious Silk Road. Today, the Great Wall stands as a testament to the timeless, indomitable spirit of the Chinese people.
However, this wonderful place does have an official ‘beginning’, even though its’ head was born several hundred years after its tail. If one is lucky enough to travel a few hours east of Beijing by train, they can encounter the starting point of this monolithic landmark. Just shy off the coastline of Qinhuangdao, where the Shihe Reservoir flows into Bohai Sea of Dalian lies the Shanhai Pass, or Shanhaiguan (山海关). This beautiful getaway is home to what locals call the Old Dragon’s Head (老龙头), and sitting adjacent to it is the First Pass Under Heaven (天下第一关), the renovated eastern gate that guards the city centre. The Dragon offers only modest attractions nearby, which makes the city all that more enjoyable! It is clearly the star of Shanhaiguan, and locals revere him by making the city very hospitable, with the charm only found amongst Hubei natives.
After paying admission (100¥) and passing through the gates, onlookers may be taken aback by what they find as it (surprise) really resembles a massive, stone head of a dragon peering into the waters. This intrepid guardian with watchful eyes was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and features a network of fortified passageways throughout his noggin, where Chinese soldiers could easily assemble to defend the city from attackers or to monitor ships coming into the harbours.
If one is lucky to stop by during the peak seasons of the year, namely during the Lunar New Year or mid-Autumn festivals, they will find the place jam packed full of tourists. The Chinese love to fawn over this site, taking pictures of his snout on the beach, perusing through the various artifacts in his skull, or taking a stroll along his endless spine; the actual Wall itself.
Near the beach, where the head of the Dragon rests, visitors can make a small contribution in order to play the seaside gaogu (鼛鼓) drum, used in ancient times to signal safe passage to friendly ships, or to issue commands to attack hostile ones.
Just to measure how big the Beast really is, the wall itself stands about 14 metres high and is 7 metres thick, towering above all other buildings in the vicinity. The stone walls snake in two directions; one towards the First Pass Under Heaven, and the other towards the long journey westward. In total, the walls of the Shanhai Pass stretch about 4 kilometres and were originally built to encircle the entire city, but due to ageing and damage from previous battles, only the Eastern facade remains.
Other interesting takeaways from Shanhaiguan are the Sea God Temple and the Goddess Hall, named after Lin Mo, a woman of legendary status that lived during the Song Dynasty. She was known to villagers for her amazing swimming skills and never hesitated to rescue sailors that were in distress. After death, she was deified post-mortem by her townspeople and they later built her a sacred shrine next to the Dragon’s Head in her memory; temples dedicated to her name later sprang up across all of Southeast Asia.
Additionally, the day wouldn’t be complete without visiting the many shops in the Old Town of the First Pass Under Heaven; a real treat for souvenir collectors. Here, you can visit various shops to buy bags, calligraphy art, and a multitude of ceramic items to suit your aesthetic tastes. There are also a lot of restaurants to choose from, many which offer traditional foods such as large (包子) and smaller fried (饺子) dumplings; a signature dish of Hebei cuisine.
To the outside world, most foreigners assume that the best way to the Great Wall is by taking a costly day trip from Beijing. However, in order to earn real bragging rights amongst your peers, it is thoroughly recommended to see the town where Guardian of the Han sleeps. Keep in mind that it is recommended to dress comfortably as, depending on the season and relative northernness of Shanhaiguan, one may have difficulty with the cold winds blowing from the shores. Also, due to the town’s small stature, very few people speak English, so it is recommended to travel with a phrase book if necessary. On the other hand, if you’re really in a bind, you can purchase a data roaming package beforehand to use Google Translate on the fly. This is possible depending on your provider, but there are also plenty of shops available where you can pick up a China Mobile (中国移动), China Telecom (中国电信), or China Unicom (中国联通) SIM card.
Finally, Shanhaiguan is best accessed by train, taking either the high-speed CRH from Beijing Railway Station (北京站) or Beijing South Railway Station (北京南站) to Shanhaiguan Station (山海关站). The city is also accessible from Qinhuangdao Railways Station (秦皇岛站) or by public bus no. 25 or 33 from Qinhuangdao Bus Station (秦皇岛公交站). For many, it’s best to stay in Qinhuangdao, as it is a mere 15-30 minute ride to Shanhaiguan. The following hotels are very foreigner-friendly and have received excellent reviews:
Best Western Junyu Grand Hotel Qinhuangdao
No.99, Yingbin Road, Haigang, Qinhuangdao, China 066000
Holiday Inn Sea View Qinhuangdao
25 Donggang Road,Haigang, Haigang, Qinhuangdao, China
Kamei’er Holiday Lanwan Hotel
Building15 Lanwan Community Henan Road, Shanhaiguan, Qinhuangdao, China 066200