Simatai Great Wall is a relatively short span (5.4 kilometers) of the Great Wall that is situated near the town of Gubeikou, roughly 120 kilometers northeast of Beijing. Simatai Great Wall is bordered to the west by Jinshanling Great Wall. After the Simatai section, which is considered the easternmost section of the Beijing area of the Great Wall, the wall swings southward, snaking east and west until it reaches Jiangjun Pass, about 40 kilometers, as the crow flies, due south of the Simatai section of the Great Wall. Like most of the other sections of the Great Wall, the Simatai section was refortified by General Qi Jiguang during the reign (CE 1572-1620) of the Wanli emperor, Emperor Shenzhong of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty.
Simatai Great Wall is known for its daunting precipices - for example, the Sky Bridge section of the Simatai Great Wall is more like a delicate cock's comb perilously attached to the bony ridge of a mountain (think of an undulating razorback), being not more than 40 centimeters wide in most places - but also for its daunting construction, which involved the use in some places of goats, since no other animal was suited for the purpose, so treacherous was the terrain (the goats had to be loaded with a single brick, albeit, a rather large, rectangular brick of the type used for parapets along the Great Wall, since too much weight could cause the animal to lose its balance and therewith its life).
With 35 watchtowers over a stretch of only 5 ½ kilometers, the Simatai section of the Great Wall has probably the greatest number of watchtowers per kilometer than any other section of the Great Wall. Simatai Great Wall is divided into two subsections that lie on either side of a lake, Yuanyang Hu ("Mandarin Duck Lake"), which is fed by two springs, one hot and the other cold, with the result that the lake never freezes over even during the severest of winters. The subsection of the Simatai section that lies west of Mandarin Duck Lake snakes up a gently rounded mountain ridge. Here there are 20 watchtowers spread out at varying distances, in keeping with the dictates of the terrain and the need for supply depots/ added fortifications (which is the role played by the watchtowers).
To the east of the lake, the terrain changes character entirely, with a rugged mountain ridge that resembles the "razor" back of a wild boar. Here there are 15 watchtowers, most of them located on sheer precipices, and most of them situated at an altitude of above 1000 meters above sea level. The terrain to the east of the lake descends sharply, right down to the water's edge, with no shoreline to speak of.
Since both subsections of the Simatai section of the Great Wall descend from either side into the depression in which Mandarin Duck Lake is nestled, and since the snaking mountain ridges on either side of the lake are visible from the far end of the oblong lake, the macro view of the landscape, according to the vividly imaginative Chinese imagination, is one of two dragons leaping out of the lake, each in opposite directions.
There are three special features that sets Simatai Great Wall apart, and which surely contributed to the UNESCO decision to recognize this section of the Great Wall as a unique cultural heritage: it incorporates special style elements from the numerous other sections of the Great Wall; it has preserved, for the most part, its original Ming period refortification (this is the original work commissioned by General Qi Jiguang), both of which features make the Simatai section a uniquely representative section of the Ming period Great Wall); and the military crews that conducted the work commissioned by General Qi left their mark on the wall, quite literally, in the form of stamps that identified the individual military unit, such as "Made by the infantry unit of suppressing heathen invaders in the 6th year of the Wanli Reign", or "Made by the Left Camp of Shandong in the 6th year of the Wanli Reign", or simply "Made by Qiangzi Camp".
The main attractions of Simatai Great Wall are Wangjinglou ("Watching Beijing Tower"), Xiannulou ("Fairy Maiden Tower"), Heavenly Ladder, and Sky Bridge. From the 986-meter-high Watching Beijing Tower, one can view the famous scenic wonder of "White Snow on the Great Wall" in winter as well as the beautiful skyline of the city of Beijing to the south, which is particularly spectacular when viewed at night. Fairy Maiden Tower gets its name from a legend in which the Lotus Flower Fairy once resided on this part of the mountain. Fairy Maiden Tower is said to be the most beautiful of all the towers of Simatai Great Wall. It bears a sculpture of twin lotus flowers above each of its arched portals. Sky Bridge is not for everyone, however, given its narrow size and the sheer precipice on which it is erected.
To ease the access to the wall, there are several lanes of open-air gondolas (cabriolets) that ferry visitors up to the parapet and back. There is also a shuttle car that will take you uphill and a chute that will take you downhill considerably faster than you came up. For those who are up to it, Heavenly Ladder is a special staircase with an 80-degree gradient that leads up to Watching Beijing Tower and Fairy Maiden Tower. It narrows to a mere 50 centimeters near its top, so, what with the steep gradient combined with the narrowness, the faint-hearted are urged to opt instead for one of the mechanized forms of transport.
There is also a "rope" bridge (don't worry, it's made of iron!) across the valley (it is suspended over Mandarin Duck Lake) that connects the two subsections of Simatai Great Wall, as well as a cable on which you can slide across the valley if you are looking for a bit of bungee-jump-like excitement. There is also a boating service on the very placid Mandarin Duck Lake, the farther end of which offers the spectacular macro view of a dragon leaping out of either side of the lake, i.e., the subsections of the wall that snake up the ridges of the two mountains on either side of the lake.
The western side of the lake is ideal for picnics and the like. In fact, several annual events related to the Great Wall are held here, in which international visitors are invited to participate, including the Simatai Great Wall International Gliding Festival in the month of June, the Great Wall Cultural Festival in the month of August, and the Great Wall Climbing Tournament in September.
Quite possibly, Simatai Great Wall is the most spectacular and most aesthetically pleasing section of the Great Wall of China, taking both the macro and micro views into consideration, as the 1987 UNESCO recognition of Simatai Great Wall as a World Cultural Heritage Site also suggests.