Dream Destinations Around the World

The smartest ways to see seven wonders of the modern world.

Who knew? Up close, you'll notice the tiles are a pale gray rather than the brilliant white they appear to be in photos. Depending on the light, they can look soft pink, even gold.

Great Wall of China

Originally built to keep foreigners out, it's now the very thing that draws tourists in.

An astonishing testament to human ambition, ingenuity, and xenophobia, the Great Wall looks much like the scaly tail of a dragon. It drapes the mountains in sections for 1,500 miles, from the Yellow Sea to its curiously unceremonious and abrupt conclusion in the middle of the far-west Gobi Desert.

Getting there Beijing is the best gateway. Airfare starts at $700 from L.A. or San Francisco; it's $100 more from Chicago or New York. All U.S. travelers need a visa (china-embassy.org/eng, from $50). If you want a guided tour, hire one of the touts in Tiananmen Square (from $25 a day). Though it sounds sexist, always buy from a man: Those seduced by the pretty saleswomen speaking English may end up with trips guided by men who don't speak it well, whereas salesmen usually lead their own tours. It's far more fun to explore without guides, though. You can reach several sections by taxi.

You made it Like aerobics, the Great Wall offers the low-impact (Badaling), the high-impact (a trek from Jinshanling to Simatai), and the extreme (Huanghua Cheng). Badaling--a reconstructed portion with guardrails and a 360-degree amphitheater showing short documentaries on the landmark--is so popular and crowded that the entry fees doubled this year to $10 during peak summer months (it's a 40-minute cab ride from Beijing, from $50 round trip). Badaling's good for tourists with little time, but those wanting to see the ancient monument in its more authentic, decayed condition should consider the winding, rocky 6.2-mile Jinshanling-to-Simatai hike (90-minute cab ride, from $100 round trip). It'll take at least five hours, but it offers breathtaking views of the vast countryside from a series of parapets. Have the taxi drop you off at Jinshanling. It's easier to get a ride back to Beijing from Simatai, which is popular because there's a cable car to lift visitors to a higher perch. (Admission $3.75 at Jinshanling, $4 at Simatai.) For an even more unusual experience, head to Huanghua Cheng with some lightweight camping gear and sleep on the wall. There's no formal entrance for this section, but taxi drivers will know how to find it. (Ask your concierge to write Huanghua out in Chinese characters, and show it to the driver. One-hour ride, from $100 round trip with the cabbie waiting overnight.) Not comfortable trying that on your own? Hire William Lindesay, who leads hikes to more obscure parts of the wall (wildwall.com, weekends from $365 including transportation and lodging).

Who knew? The party line for years was that the Great Wall was one of the only man-made objects visible from space. After the Chinese sent their first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit in 2003, reporters asked if that was true. "No," Yang said without hesitation, it wasn't visible. Intriguingly, many wrote with certainty that the Chinese government would force him to retract the comment. But Yang wasn't silenced, further evidence that China is changing. In fact, articles appeared in the government's English-language China Daily newspaper discussing the debunking of the myth.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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