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 Essential Architecture-  Peking

Simatai Section of the Great Wall (World Heritage Site)




Simatai, near Beijing / Peking, China


mid-6th century


Ming Dynasty




protective wall
Simatai, a section of the Great Wall of China located in the north of Miyun county, 120 km northeast of Beijing, holds the access to Gubeikou, a strategic pass in the eastern part of the Great Wall. Originally built during the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) and rebuilt in the Hongwu years of the Ming dynasty by Qi Jiguang, this section of Great Wall is one of the few to retain the original features of the Ming dynasty Great Wall.

Simatai Great Wall is 5.4 km long with 35 beacon towers. Ingeniously conceived and uniquely designed, this section of Great Wall, inimitable and diversified, has incorporated the different characteristics of each section of the Great Wall. No wonder the famous specialist of Great Wall, Professor Luo Zhewen, says: "The Great Wall is the best of the Chinese buildings, and Simatai is the best of the Great Wall." UNESCO has designated Simatai Great Wall as one of the World Cultural Heritage sites.

Hanging precariously onto the Yanshan Mountain, Simatai Great Wall is known for its steepness, ingenuity and uniqueness.

Simatai Great Wall is separated by a valley into eastern and western parts. The western part appears gentle with 20 well-preserved watchtowers dotting along the wall. The eastern part is much steeper, following more rugged terrain that includes cliff edges and kilometre-high peaks. The 15 watchtowers are relatively closely spaced and provide spectacular views. Main attractions in the eastern part include Watching Beijing Tower, Fairy Tower, Heavenly Ladder and Sky Bridge, though they are currently closed to the public for safety reasons.

Watching Beijing Tower: At an elevation of 986 meters, it is regarded as the summit of the Simatai Great Wall as well as the highest cultural relic in Beijing. Its name comes from the fact that at night (with good visibility), one can see the lights of Beijing shimmering in the distance 120 km away. More interesting is that the bricks used to built the walls here even stamped with the date on which they were made and the code numbers of the armies that made them.
Fairy Tower: With a sculpture of twin lotus flowers above the arched doors, it is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all towers and is known for its exquisite architecture. Legend goes that it was the dwelling place for an antelope reincarnated in the form of an angel who fell in love with a shepherd.
Heavenly Ladder: Climbing the mountainside at a steep 80-degree gradient, the Heavenly Ladder is the way to Watching Beijing Tower and the Fairy Maiden Tower. Stretching upward along the abrupt mountain ridges, the narrowest part is just half a meter wide.
Sky Bridge: As little as 40 centimeters wide in places, this 100-meter long segment of the wall connects the Fairy Tower to Watching Beijing Tower. It is said that only brave man can traverse the Sky Bridge.
Goats played an important role in building this section of the Great Wall on such precarious mountain ridge centuries ago, with each goat carrying a single brick to the top on each trip. Ironically, goats also played an equally important role in its dismay centuries later after its construction. Peasants residing near the site raised goats to generate extra income, and the goats eat the vegetation that protects the soil around the wall from erosion. In order to protect and recover the vegetation, the Chinese government banned the local population from raising goats, but peasants protested, claiming that the governmental compensation was not enough, and that they do not receive any benefits from the tourism. Many peasants also blame low compensation on corruption, a controversy that remains to this date. The ban did, however, greatly help the recovery of the local vegetation
Simatai, China
Simatai probably has to be the best place to visit the Great Wall, it is east of the Janshanlang part of the wall. Simatai is quite quiet compared to the overcrowed stretch at Badaling. There is a very nice lodge near by callled the Simatai Great Wall International Youth Hostel

A popular trek is from Janshanlang to Simatai, its around 6 mile and is quite a challenging walk, but can be accomplished by a complete novice. There are many parts to be careful of, due to disrepair there are lots of loose bricks and rubble. Reconstruction is underway with much already finished.

The views over the valley at Simatai are spectactulary breathtaking, and if this walk does indeed tire you out you can catch a flying fox ride to the bottom.

The Simatai stretch is the most calm and quiet part, within a days traveling from Beijing. It is 80 miles north east of Beijing, being quite far away is the main reason that there is not enormous crowds of hapless tourists. The damage and disrepair to this part of the wall helps declare its authenticity and has earned it the reputation of being the most beautiful stretch of the Great Wall.

Badaling and Mutianyu have undergone extreme restoration, and most parts have been rebuilt to a greater magnitude than the original wall! This part of the wall is still pretty untouched and is the obvious choice to see the original wall.

The damage here is very much expected considering the wall was built in the Ming dynasty 500 years ago. It was this stretch of the wall that UNESCO visited which granted it the rights of a World Heritage site, this makes the local people very proud.

This section still retains most of its original features and characteristics from 500 years ago. Offering the adventurous traveller the irristable challenge of walking along the hazardous passage and one of the highest parts of the Great Wall which at parts seems to precariously hang over the edge of the mountain.

Military architecture enthusiasts, will find many parts of interest to study as the wall finds its way along around 6 miles East to West seemilngly uninterrupted over the crests of the mountain, the only part which interrupts is the presence of water resorvoir that divides it in two.

Along this stretch those that are interested in architecture can acutely study the immense range of watchtowers, and blockhouses. Which is a good representaive sample of the many styles of towers found along the Great Wall.

Tourists have two places where they can acess the Great Wall. The first place would be at Simatai itself, secondly a bit further along at Jinshanling. The majority of tourists seemed to take the walk from Jinshanling to Simatai. My self personally started at Simatai and took the hike up to the Simatai Ridge. Generally you will only be able to do the one stretch as it is quite a climb and of considerable distance. Jinshanling to Simatai is quite a bit easier than the climb up to Simatai ridge. But depending on time you may not be able to do both, so if your up to it take the trek up to Simatai Ridge. The view is amazing.

Along this part of the Great Wall, there are 16 watchtowers. It took just under 2 hours to get to about the 12 watch tower and probably the same again to get to the 16th! As it is after here that the Great Wall gets hard to climb, i was often on all fours stravagasted by its sheer gradient. I have to say that looking back down at some of these points was pretty scary, and would have to be seen to be believed. This is not a climb for the feint hearted.

Just before the second to last watchtower is the steepest part of the wall, or should I say half wall. As here it is at least 80 degrees in gradient and only has one side to it, with a sheer drop of the other side. The wall is half the width as further down and has quite a bit of loose stones so be careful. At this stretch of the wall surely the natural terrain of the land would have been enough to defend against invasion, when you get there you will see that it would have been almost impossible for an army to have come over this part. This part of the wall is called the 'Stairway to Heaven' due to obvious reasons, and the second to last watch tower is called 'The Fairy Tower'. Im not sure if its because you would need to be a fairy to get up there everyday, or because this is what you would be if you fell off! But it is most definatly worth the hazardous climb as this is one of the most interesting watchtowers as it contains sculptures of twin lotus flowers on the doorways, and other features.

And now for the hardest part but the most worthwhile the climb to the 16th Watchtower. There is a sign which tells you not to go any further, and I have been told that at peek season it may be guarded. This was the most obscure part of the climb, as at this tower there is a ice cream stand! With a freezer and generator! How they got it up there I have no idea!! Only the most hardcore of hikers will be able to make this part (me of course being one of them), the last tower stands at 986m which is 3235 feet high. It is called the 'Wang Jing Lou' which translates to the Watching Beijing Tower. This is the highest peek in Bejing, and the views are tremendous. I would have loved to seen it at night where I could have seen the city, but thats for next time.

How to get there
You can get there by two public routes: You can take the Si Ma Tai bus from the Dong Zhi Men long distance bus station in Beijing, which will take you to Miyun County and you then have to catch a mini bus which will take you directly there. Alternatively the number 12 Tourist bus will take you there from either the Xuan Wu Men or Dong Si Shi Tiao stops. Buses do leave as late as 8am to get there, however if taking the bus I strongly recommend to get the first bus at 6am.

The quickest route and easiest has to be a taxi. However be careful of many touts trying to book you out for the whole day and they would take you to 5 places. 5 places!!!! You really only have time for the wall, unless your really fast climbing the wall and then you can always do something on the way back.

However after I consulted all the possible routes, I ended up taking an arranged trip with the youth hostel I stayed at. So if your not staying in one it may be worth popping into a few to see when there trips run if they are not full.

Please remember to be careful when climbing the wall as it is extremely steep in parts, and yes you will have to go on all fours. So for this reason make sure that you are wearing sturdy footwear and loose clothing. If your going there in the winter remember it will be extremely cold at the top so make sure that you have suffient clothing and gloves.

And of course make sure to get your valid Chinese visa which bizarrely must have an empty left hand page if not they WILL return your passport back to you.

The Simatai Great Wall International Youth Hostel which is an excellent place to stay in Simatai if your wanting a longer trek along the wall. You can book the Simatai Lodge directly from below.


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