Near Beijing, the most frequently visited parts of the Great Wall are rebuilt to better-than-new condition. There are loads of tourists, hawkers, and even cable cars and alpine slides. The Wall extends directly from the parking lot for ease of access. The fee to enter is around 200 yuan or $33 – painful on a limited budget – and that’s without an organized tour. Good luck getting a picture without another person in the background, and even if you do, it’s more a picture of a modern building than a historic structure.
At least, that’s what we heard. We didn’t go to Badaling or Mutianyu, the usual sections of the Wall for those coming from Beijing, so I don’t honestly know what they’re like. My aversion to loads of people – just ask Jacque about how grumpy I was in the Forbidden City – led me to seek a different part of the Wall within striking distance of the capital. What I found was Jiankou: according to the Great Wall forum, it was two simple(ish) bus rides from downtown Beijing, but very few people make the trip. The forum claimed there were no cable cars, no hawkers, no Justin Bieber. The Wall isn’t rebuilt. The fee is 20 yuan or $3, much nicer on the wallet. The only alpine slides were if you slipped on one of the crumbling 70-degree staircases. And many of the published photos of the Wall are taken from this section; in short, it was perfect for anti-social, adventure-loving sightseers like me.
Our starting point for the trip was the Ming Courtyard hostel in Beijing. That was where we met Mark, a jovial Brit from near Manchester, who had the misfortune to be stuck in the same 4-person bunk room as us. Since he planned to head to the Wall the next day, we offered to drag him along. I think he wanted to go to a touristy part of the Wall to see it and move on. Little did he know that touristy isn’t really our style. He had just put his life in our hands.
We arrived at Zhao’s Hostel in Xizhazi, a tiny farming village, after municipal bus number 916 and a share taxi from downtown Beijing. There were no shops or ATMs and practically no people; all we saw were a few farmhouses and the Wall. I don’t know why, but all of us expected a bigger town. We walked from the hostel to the end of town and back in 15 leisurely minutes. Above us, surrounding the tiny valley on three sides, was a large mountain range. The mountain range seemed like the spine of a dragon, with soaring gray-rock cliffs visible in many places. Atop the spine of the dragon was the Wall, weaving up and over the highest cliffs, dotted here and there with squat towers. As we ate dinner, we gazed up and speculated what it would be like on top. We planned to walk most of it the next day.
At 9am the next morning, we started on the trail directly from the town. We ignored several signs stating that the Wall was closed – who was going to stop us? – and walked up a steep ascent, aiming to meet the Wall high on the mountain. Suddenly, while weaving through some trees, a square tower appeared; it had somehow concealed itself such that I almost ran into it. Imagine that: running into a 20-foot-high, white-stone tower built in the Ming dynasty. We turned right toward Jiuyanlou (Nine Eye Tower). The walking was steep and treacherous as the Wall near Jiuyanlou was mostly a pile of loose rubble. An hour and a half into the difficult hike, Mark thought we were crazy and said so. (“Mental,” as the Brits say. It’s one of my favorite Britishisms that I’ve learned on the trip.) Sadly, Jiuyanlou itself was a bit of a disappointment. The Chinese authorities have rebuilt the tower using modern construction and metal railings. The march of tourism must go on, I suppose. We turned around and retraced our steps toward Jiankou, walking along the Wall at all times.
The further we walked, the better the Wall was preserved. Finally, an hour after leaving the Nine Eye Tower, the real Wall started. A short staircase led us onto a broad, scrub-oak-covered alleyway atop the Wall with a 15-foot drop on either side. There was a small path to walk, but otherwise the top of the Wall was wild and overgrown. No gardeners had weeded there in many years. Every few hundred meters, we passed a small watch tower. Many of the towers were crumbling, huge vertical cracks threatening to shear off whole sections of the tower into the forest below.
As we continued toward Bejingjie (Beijing Knot), the scale of the wall became apparent. Looking back along the section we walked was surreal; the Wall is unbelievably huge for an unbelievable length. It crosses up and over the highest points of the mountains, never changing height. It appears to be a tenacious ribbon of square rock, its curves gracefully flowing in three dimensions. Our English friend began to appreciate the payoff for our hard work, even the slog up the loose, crumbly part of the Wall. The deserted Wall was spectacular.
We had one last pitch to negotiate before lunch. Beijingjie sits at the top of a rather large cliff, and the approach along the Wall that we took is approximately 70 or 80 degrees. In other words, it’s near-vertical, with crumbling stairs that were built hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, there were plenty of handholds that made it quite climbable, even for rookies like Mark. The payoff was an entrancing view of several different sections of the Great Wall. Behind us was Jiuyanlou, our first stop; ahead of us, Jiankou and the spectacular cliffs at Zhengbeilou (Sharp North Tower). We ate a quick lunch of boiled eggs and peanut butter, then descended from the tower.
After Beijingjie, we walked down and around Yingfeidaoyang (Upward Flying Eagle), perched on the biggest cliff along our hike. We would have needed ropes and climbing gear to stay on the Wall, but the trail going around the cliff was unfortunately unpleasant. After that point, we rejoined the Wall and the going got tougher. Each tower seemed to be surrounded by steep, nearly impassable stairs. At one point, Mark took off his backpack to climb down a particularly steep section, which I then tossed to him when he reached the bottom. Our progress slowed considerably. Since we were losing daylight, we decided to head back to town before reaching our goal at Jiankou (Arrow Nock). We were all satisfied with our day on the Wall.
The hike down from the Wall was an easy walk through the woods back to Zhao’s. We bought a few Tsingtao beers to celebrate the day – the farming village was small, but luckily well-stocked with beer. Mark, far from being doubtful of the journey any longer, seemed very happy for the new experience of hiking something so difficult. Maybe he caught a little bit of our “mental.” It was gratifying to see him fall in love with hiking in front of our eyes; that was the cherry on top of a fantastic experience on the Great Wall of China.