We picked the Jiankou section of the Great Wall to hike because it is one of the few locations near Beijing that hasn’t been reconstructed. The Wall has been left in its original state since its last major construction during the Ming Dynasty almost 600 years ago. Combine that with the toothy green mountains it snakes across and relatively low number of tourists (we didn’t see any on a weekday in September) and it makes for an ideal spot to get off the beaten track while still being in reach of Beijing.
To get there we took a city bus to the bustling town of Huairou, then negotiated with a taxi driver (using the all-important hand signs and shouting ‘Tai Guile’) to take us the rest of the way to the tiny village of Xizhazi. An hour later we stepped out of our taxi and began setting off in the direction our driver had gestured. ‘Great Wall!’ he said, pointing to the top of a high, tree covered peak. The hike up took the better part of an hour, sometimes following a trail, other times we made our own, always keeping the little village of Xizhazi behind us. Half way up we passed a local woman with a woven basket on her back picking wild edibles from the forest. Hearing us approach, she emerged from the thick undergrowth of the forest and pointed us in the right direction. That was the last person we would see until we reunited with our taxi driver late that afternoon.
Nearing the top of a ridge we could start to see bricks through the foliage, so we scrambled up the last few meters and out of breath, hoisted ourselves onto the Great Wall of China. The view from there blew us away. Sprawling ranges of jagged, dark-green mountains stretched as far as we could see, with each range becoming slightly more obscured by a light fog. The Wall rose and fell with the peaks, never going around a mountain, instead going almost straight up over the highest points, where it would be accented by a magnificently crumbling guard tower. Extending for miles in either direction, the Wall is quite overgrown with many types of trees and bushes slowly reclaiming their scarred landscape. The un-maintained, un-touristed and at times, unsafe expanses of the original Great Wall in this area make it feel truly wild.
While hiking along it’s easy to get lost in the incredible panorama of the landscape, but a closer look at the wall shows amazing craftsmanship. Well-preserved archways over guard tower entrances, or carved, narrow windows can still be found perfectly intact. The materials used to build this section of the Wall are also unique; The base was carved from local dolomite rock, which is near-white and causes the Wall to really stand out from the dark greens of the mountains. The dolomite is also extremely strong which allowed the wall to be built over such steep terrain (such as one part called ‘Heavens Ladder’ which rises up to a guard-house at an angle of 70-80 degrees). This makes it one of the most photogenic sections of the Great Wall.
While hiking along the incredible Jiankou section, it is possible to follow it all the way east to where it connects with the reconstructed Mutiyanui section. This is a popular part for tourists that has been restored to it’s original state, making it an impressive contrast to the wilds of Jiankou. Otherwise, you can hike down another path (keep an eye out as they are not necessarily maintained) back to the village you started in, or backtrack following the Wall to where you started.
- To get to Jiankou from central Beijing, take bus 916 from Dongzhimen bus station to Huariou, where local drivers will be waiting to take you the rest of the way to Xizhazi Village (bargain hard and only pay half up front to ensure the driver waits around to bring you back!).
- The entrance fee to Xizhazi Village should be CNY20.
- There is accommodation in the village, although we didn’t stay there. Also some people camp on the wall.
- The hiking at Jiankou can be dangerous, there are steep drop-offs, loose rock and not much help available if you get in trouble. It’s best not to hike this section in heavy rain or snow.
- At times it’s best to get off the wall and follow paths around sections that are extremely steep or crumbling. Make sure to not cause unnecessary rock slides that lead to the deterioration of the Wall.