Although a fair jaunt away to the Hebei coast, the well-preserved Shanhaiguan (the Shanhai Pass) has a lot to offer those who do make the journey – after all, it was here that the whole course of Chinese history changed. The fortress is home to a slew of major attractions, including the unique sight of the Great Wall disappearing into the ocean at Laolongtou.
Found at the coastal border of modern-day Hebei and Liaoning provinces, Shanhaiguan’s name refers to its position at the meeting of mountains (shan, 山) and sea (hai, 海), and defences were built in the area during both the Northern Qi (550-577) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.
It was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), however, that the barrier gained its current name, as well as its immense fortification, with the administration keen to shore up the strategically crucial pass in light of the increased threat of invasion from the north, be it returning Mongols or, later, the advancing Manchu (Qing).
In 1381, the construction of the new fortress – the ‘First Pass Under Heaven’ (Tianxia di yi guan 天下第一关, pictured below) – was led by Ming general Xu Da, who was also responsible for the building of Juyongguan, Mutianyu and essentially most of what we recognise as the Great Wall of China today. For nearly three centuries, it proved vital in protecting the capital and its interests.
By early 1644, the Ming had fallen into disarray, distracted by the breakaway Shun dynasty who attacked Beijing from their base in Xi’an in the west. After briefly claiming the capital, the Shun, led by their self-declared emperor Li Zicheng, met advancing Manchu forces at the Battle of Shanhai Pass on May 27.
Strengthened by the addition of the surrendered troops of former Ming general Wu Sangui who had been guarding the pass, the Manchu easily trampled the Shun, before heading onto Beijing, officially signalling the end of the Ming and establishing the Qing dynasty that would reign until 1912.
For history and battle buffs, this section has an obvious allure, and has been heavily but faithfully restored to resemble what it would have in its protective pomp, with impressive arrow towers, grand gates and an inner fort kitted out with its own drum and bell towers. There’s also a dedicated museum.
What seems to first attract most visitors, though, is the spectacle of the Great Wall meeting the sea – the eastern extremity of Laolongtou (老龙头) or the ‘Old Dragon Head’, a few kilometres south of the Shanhaiguan fort, so named for its resemblance to a dragon stretching its neck into the water. It’s pretty darn photogenic, and unlike any other Great Wall scene; weather and tide permitting, you can even grab a snap from the beach on either side.
Whether you’re a tourist or resident, an outing to Shanhaiguan makes for a terrific daytripping escape from the Beijing bustle, with some fresh(er) air, sea breeze and ocean vistas chucked in – even if it is only the greeny browns of the Bohai Gulf.
Fun fact On a complete side note, the city of Qinhuangdao where Shanhaiguan resides is a sister city to Honolulu, Hawaii. Proximity to water seems to be the only thing they share in common.
Be warned Being in a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people, you should be prepared to encounter a few busy situations here and there, and the wall at Shanhaiguan is no exception, particularly during national holidays. As ever, quieter spots can be found away from the tour groups and crowds who gather closer to the tourist centres and big sights. At Laolongtou, a short walk further along the beach offers a little repose.
Hikers say ‘There’s not much hiking to do at Shanhaiguan, but you can take a nice stroll on the beach by the wall for a close up look. If it’s hiking you’re after, you’ll need to head further inland.’
Distance from the city 310km
Getting there Although not part of the original Ming dynasty setup, Shanhaiguan is served by a super-convenient high-speed rail station that links it directly to Beijing Railway Station. On a high-speed D train, the trip takes just 3 hours, with multiple services running from early morning to evening. Single tickets start at 92.5RMB and are known to sell out quickly (particularly at weekends); best advice is to check schedules and book a week or more in advance using Ctrip’s English language service.
Once you arrive at Shanhaiguan station, it’s just a ten-minute, well-signposted walk to the entrance of the Shanhaiguan fort, while the Number 25 bus is available to take you from the station to Laolongtou (20 minutes); alternatively, a taxi should cost no more than 20RMB.
Opening hours and tickets
Peak season (May-October): 7am-6pm. 40RMB.
Off-peak (November-April): 8am-5pm. 15RMB.
Peak season (July-August): 6.30am-7pm. 60RMB; free for children under 1.2m.
Off-peak (October-June): 8am-6pm. 60RMB; free for children under 1.2m.