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The Great Wall at Shanhaiguan
When visiting Shanhaiguan, it might be best to first go to the Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum. There you will get a good overview of the various fortifications that are a part of the Great Wall system in the Shanhaiguan area. The wall once played a vital role in protecting China from the attacks of nomadic northern peoples such as the Manchus. Shanhaiguan literally means 'mountain-sea-pass' and that name was chosen after the present pass was built in 1381 AD. It stands south of the Yan Mountains and north of the Bohai Sea. The narrow passage in between once was China's most heavily guarded frontier pass. Travellers from the north that wanted to enter China then had to come through the First Pass under Heaven. The area near the sea was protected by the fortress at Laolongtou and the Jiaoshan Great Wall protected the area where the wall climbs the first mountain on its way west.
Everyone in China today knows Shanhaiguan for the role it played in the fall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Qing dynasty. In the spring of 1644 AD, Beijing had fallen to a rebel army under the leadership of Li Zicheng. The Chongzhen Emperor had already committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree at the capital's Jingshan Park. Rather than stand aside to let the country be run by peasant rebels, the Ming general Wu Sangui reluctantly entered into an alliance with the Manchus in the north. At dawn on May 27, Wu had the gates of the Shanhai Pass opened for the Manchu army and officially surrendered to them. Wu Sangui's troops then helped the Manchu army to annihilate Li Zicheng's rebel forces. Instead of restoring the Ming dynasty then, the Manchus moved the capital of their Qing dynasty empire to Beijing and took over control of all of China in the years that followed.
Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum
The Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum is located in a traditional-style building just a short walk south of the First Pass Under Heaven. When it was opened in 1991, it became the first Great Wall Museum in all of China. In the years since, two other Great Wall Museums have been opened in Jiayuguan in Gansu province and Badaling near Beijing. The museum in Shanhaiguan showcases the wall's architectural beauty and provides insights into various military, cultural and organizational aspects. A special emphasis is put on explaining the military function of the various Great Wall fortifications at the Shanhaiguan Pass. The exhibits at the museum consist of pictures and cultural relics that are distributed across six differently-themed halls. These are the Preface Hall, History Hall, Construction Hall, Military Hall, Culture Hall and Shanhaiguan Great Wall Hall.
A statue of General Xu Da stands at the entrance of the Preface Hall. He directed the construction of the fortifications at Shanhaiguan Pass in 1381 AD. The story of how Xu Da had the Shanhaiguan fortress and its wall extensions built is vividly illustrated with pictures and maps and accompanied by a brief history of the Pass.
The long history of China's Great Wall, from the Warring States Period to the Ming dynasty, is shown through pictures, illustrations, maps and cultural relics in the History Hall of the Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum. However, the first exhibit you will see when entering the hall is a model of the Banpo Trench. It was built by the neolithic people of the Yangshao culture about 7,000 years ago as a defense against floods and wild animals and is regarded as the earliest form of China's Great Wall. To learn more about the ancient village of Banpo and our human ancestors that once lived there, you might consider visiting the Banpo Museum in Xi'an.
In the Construction Hall, you will see bricks, tiles and some of the tools that were used to build the Great Wall more than 400 years ago. You will also learn more about various issues that were important in the building process: how a building site was selected and the layout and structure of the fortifications were planned, how a steady supply of labor was procured, how the different building materials were used . . . etc.
From today's perspective, it is perhaps all too easy to regard the Great Wall as just a monumental boundary landmark. That however overlooks its primary military function which was to protect China from invasion/raids by the nomadic peoples of the north. At the museum's Military Hall, visitors will see exhibits such as cannons, scaling ladders and stone mines that serve as a vivid reminder of the Great Wall's sometimes violent past.
The complete defensive system of the Great Wall at the Shanhaiguan Pass was made up of passes, walls, watch towers and beacon towers. To help visitors to visualize it in its entirety, a miniature model complete with lights and sound stands in the Shanhaiguan Great Wall Hall. The model shows the wall's path from where it stretches out into the Bohai Sea at Laolongtou all the way to Jiumenkou about 15 km north of Shanghaiguan.
At the Culture Hall of the Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum, you will see how the wall culturally fits into its environment. To illustrate some of the local conditions and customs, about 80 pictures that were taken at scenic spots in the vicinity of the wall are shown. These photographs of temples, palaces, murals and pavilions might give visitors some ideas about other places to visit in the Shanhaiguan area.
The First Pass Under Heaven
The First Pass Under Heaven is the name under which the east gate of the Great Wall fortifications at the Shanhai Pass is most commonly known. It is also known as the Zhendong Gate or Zhendong Tower. Forming a square around the town of Shanhaiguan, the fortifications with their 14-meter-high and 7-meter-wide walls are still an impressive sight today. The first protective structures were built here during the time of the Ming dynasty in 1381 AD. Expansion to a fortified military city then occurred during the late 16th century. The Shanhai Pass was of strategic importance then because the area to the east of it was out of jurisdiction of the imperial Chinese government. The task of the soldiers that were stationed here was to protect China's central plain from incursions by nomadic tribes from the north.
Back then, there was a gate in the middle of each of the four sides of the enclosure. Ying'en Gate stood in the west, Wangyang Gate in the south, Weiyuan Gate in the north and Zhendong Gate in the east. Facing outward towards enemy territory, the eastern side of the Shanhai Pass was the most heavily fortified with a total of five towers. In addition to the Zhendong Gate, these were the Weiyuan Hall, Linlu Tower, Muying Tower and Jingbian Tower. These five towers that were protecting the border were then considered as the "Five Tigers". A deep and wide moat that could only be crossed on drawbridges surrounded the eastern, southern and northern wall and a barbican stood in front of each of the four gates. Only the one at the eastern side still stands today. A wide road led from each of the gates to the Bell and Drum Tower at the center of the enclosure.
The Zhendong Tower is a two-storey gate tower out of bricks and wood that sits atop a rectangular platform. It was named the First Pass Under Heaven as a way to underscore its important strategic position. You can see that name inscribed in Chinese Hanzi characters (it reads "Tian Xia Di Yi Guan" in pinyin) on a large tablet that hangs under the eave of the tower since 1472 AD. The tablet you currently see hanging there was created in 1920 however. The calligraphic style of its characters imitates the original inscription by a Ming dynasty official.
To see the original tablet as well as a first copy that was made in 1879, you will have to go inside the Zhendong Tower. Looking out through one of the 68 small arrow windows inside will perhaps make you feel like an archer of the imperial Ming army for a second. For the best views in all directions and the opportunity to take splendid photos, climb up to the second floor of the tower.
Old Dragon's Head (Laolongtou)
Laolongtou is famous throughout China as the place where the Great Wall meets the sea. The Laolongtou Scenic Area is located about 5 km southeast of the town of Shanhaiguan. The main parts of the section of the Great Wall that you will see here were built in 1381 AD. That includes the Ninghai Fortress area that you will see first when you enter this popular tourist site through the North Gate. This is where the Chinese soldiers that once defended the Great Wall lived, trained and fought to repel invading armies. You will see some typical structures of a military garrison here such as a training ground, commander's office and commanding platform, military camp and even some temples.
The two-story Chenghai Pavilion is undoubtedly the most important structure of this fortress. It stands at the southeastern corner of the Ninghai Fortress and is the tallest structure at the entire site. Five different emperors of the Qing dynasty stopped here a total of 12 times on their way to the Shenyang Imperial Palace in order to worship their ancestors. The poems and other inscriptions that were made in stone tablets by the emperors during these visits are on display at the Chenghai Pavilion. From the second floor of this pavilion, you will also enjoy the best views of the surrounding area.
There is a lot more to see at the Laolongtou Scenic Area. Between the sea and the Chenghai Pavilion stands the Nanhaikou Pass Tower. It leads to the Jinglu Beacon Tower and the Estuary Stone Great Wall. The Jinglu Beacon Tower is the only beacon tower that was built to overlook the sea. It was added to the wall in 1565 AD. The construction of the Estuary Stone Great Wall then followed in 1579 AD. This is the eastern end of the Great Wall and the most famous part of its Laolongtou section. The wall here reaches out into the Bohai Sea for 22.4 meters. With a little bit of fantasy, you can regard the wall that is crisscrossing the hilly Shanhaiguan landscape as a coiled stone dragon. The Estuary Stone Great Wall then represents the dragon's nose at it is plowing through the waves. This fantastical interpretation is reflected in the name Laolongtou (Old Dragon's Head) of this section of the wall.
About 350 meters west of the Estuary Stone Wall stands the Sea God Temple behind a large memorial archway. Surrounded by water on three sides, its two temple halls are dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven and the Sea God. People traditionally came here to pray for a good harvest and/or a safe sea voyage. Behind the temple and reaching out into the sea you will find the Sea-Viewing Pavilion. When the weather is misty, the Laolongtou Great Wall will appear only indistinct from here as if it was a mysterious gateway to a fairyland.
Jiaoshan Great Wall
The Jiaoshan Great Wall was built more than 600 years ago during the early period of the Ming dynasty. It is located about 3 km north of Shanhaiguan at the point where the Great Wall climbs the Jiaoshan Mountain, the first mountain it encounters on its long path to the west. Most visitors get here by taxi or bus. However, you could also just walk out of the north gate of Shanhaiguan's city wall and simply follow the Great Wall north. The wall is interrupted by two roads on its way north to the Jiaoshan section though. You will know that you have arrived there when you see a large gate in the approximate shape of the Chinese character "山". Considering the detours you would have to make to cross the two roads and the relative difficulty in climbing this unrepaired part of the Great Wall, it would probably take you about 1.5 hours for the 3 km walk to the Jiaoshan Scenic Area.
The Jiaoshan Great Wall consists of a renovated section and an original section. The renovated section is the first part when entering this scenic area. It starts at Hanmen Pass and continues for about 1.5 km via the No.1 and No. 2 Watchtower to the No. 3 Watchtower. Even though that doesn't seem to be a very far distance, keep in mind that the wall is mostly moving uphill here, oftentimes quite steeply. You will find iron staircases at some of the steepest sections, which make the climb a bit easier. Better be especially careful if you choose to climb up the iron ladders that lead to some of the watchtowers! However, not all parts of the renovated section of the Jiaoshan Great Wall are steep and narrow, so there are also some wide and flat parts. Altogether, you should plan about 1.5 hours for the hike from Hanmen Pass up to the No. 3 Watchtower.
Another much easier way to reach the top of the renovated section is by cable car (20 Yuan for a roundtrip). When riding the cable car, you will certainly enjoy the panoramic view of the Shanghaiguan area with the Bohai Sea in the misty distance. An even better option might be to ride the cable car up (15 Yuan for a one-way trip) and then hike on the wall back down.
Some really adventurous souls might be inclined to continue climbing up the unrenovated original section of the wall that starts just behind the No. 3 Watchtower. In order to do that, you would have to climb over a wall that is cemented to that last tower (at your own risk and peril!). After a very difficult climb of about an hour you would then reach Daping Peak, the main peak of the Jiaoshan Mountain. The marvelous view from there along the full length of the Jiaoshan Great Wall would certainly be worth that effort. You would also see Yansai Lake in the west, Changshou Mountain in the northeast, the town of Shanhaiguan in the south and perhaps even Laolongtou shrouded in the mist of the Bohai Sea behind it. Energized from the view at the top of Daping Peak, you could continue your hike on the wall for another hour further east until you come to the Sandaoguan Pass.