There are at least 5 major sections of the Great Wall near Beijing and each section of the wall is different in character and in the type of tourist it appeals to. For example you have Badaling which is easily accessible, immaculately restored and extremely crowded and then you have sections like Gubiekou that are hard to reach, largely in ruins and fairly isolated.
After visiting the more well known sections of the Great Wall such as Simatai, Gubeikou and Badaling, I was ready for some hard core wall hiking. I was ready for Jiankou.
The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is extremely difficult and dangerous to climb in some sections, joins the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, has incredible scenery, is very hard to access and a must do for any serious Great Wall enthusiast. Basically walking the Jiankou section is an adventure that no other section of the Great Wall can provide.
Jiankou is a Ming Dynasty section of the Great Wall and built in 1368 along steep mountain ridges and tall cliffs. In these areas where the wall has been destroyed by natural degradation, the only way up or down the wall is over crumbling ruins with very steep or vertical surfaces.
The Jiankou section of the Great Wall stretches from the Nine Eye Tower (Jiu Yan Lou) in the north to Zheng Bei Lou in the south east and has around 22 towers. I heard that Jiankou does not take more than a few hours walk so my plan was to hike from the Nine Eye Tower past Zhengbeilou towards the Mutianyu section. If I could not reach the Mutianyu section by 4 or 5pm, I’d stop at that time, leave the wall and make my way back to Beijing.
This plan sounded nice in theory but did not work in practice.
The starting point for hiking Jiankou is a small village called Xi zha zi 5 that is around 75-80 kilometers north of Beijing and hard to reach. To get to the village you first catch the subway to Dongzhimen station on line two then catch the 916 express bus at Dongzhimen Wai long distance bus station. The bust station is right next to exit B at Dongzhimen station and hard to miss.
The 916 express bus takes around 90 minutes ands terminates at a small city called Huairou where you get off at the last stop. From Huairou you catch a taxi to the village and the taxi ride takes just over one hour.
At Huairou you’ll be mobbed by black (unofficial) taxi drivers as soon as you step of the bus who will all want to take you to the Great Wall. They will probably offer to take you to the village for around 200rmb which is way too much. A fair price is around 100 to 120rmb so don’t pay more. I ended up paying 80rmb after half an hour of haggling and the taxi was a small old rust bucket with a tiny fuel efficient engine.
The drive from Huairou to the village is through the mountains and very enjoyable with gorgeous scenery. The taxi driver Mr Ma told me there was no way I’d make the hike from Nine Eye Tower to Mutianyu so we agreed that either he or one of his buddies would pick me up in the afternoon near the Zhengbeilou.
From the Village to the wall
The village is small and only has a population of around 300 people who are mostly farmers. Walking through the village is a great way to see a side of China that most tourist never experience. Once you pass through the village, there are a number of paths you can take and only one of the paths heads towards Nine Eye Tower.
I had to ask for directions three times to find right path. The locals are friendly so if you are not sure, ask for “jiu yan lou” or just point at the wall which is clearly visible I the distance look lost. Looking lost was not hard to do and worked for me.
Once you are on the path, the way to go is clear and you will have no problem reaching the wall. The path goes through very heavy scrub and reaches the wall north of Beijing Knot after 30 minutes of walking.
The wall itself
The wall was nothing like what I expected and these three words sum the wall up perfectly. Overgrown, dangerous and awesome.
I estimate that at least 80% of the wall was intact with the battlements and the road/path between the battlements in surprisingly good condition. The main areas where the battlements and the road were in ruins or had been destroyed was in the very steep sections south of the Beijing Knot.
Walking the intact sections of the wall would have been very easy if those sections were not overgrown. I’m not talking about a few weeds and the occasional shrub. I am talking about serious overgrowth with very thick shrubs, grass, weeds and small trees. Walking the wall in these parts was like walking through a jungle with the sky blocked by foliage and no sense of direction. The path through the jungle was very narrow an in some parts you had to squeeze through entangled shoots and branches.
I’ve seen the wall restored and in immaculate condition, in complete ruins and in various states of disrepair but I have never seen a relatively intact wall like the Jiankou section that was so overgrown and covered in vegetation. This part of the wall does not need restoration. It needs weeding. Badly.
I always thought that Jiankou’s reputation for being dangerous was exaggerated but I was very wrong. The northern section of Jiankou from the Nine Eye Tower to the Beijing Knot is safe and easy to walk. The section from Beijing knot to Zhengbeilou is extremely dangerous with three areas where the wall has been destroyed and you have to use hand and foot holds to climb up. Like rock climbing with out the safety rope. One of these sections is especially dangerous and so steep that the surface of the wall is basically vertical.
Being stupid and reckless, I climbed all the dangerous sections, even the vertical section. I was half way up vertical section and running out of hand and footholds when it finally occurred to me the dangerous the wall was in and how stupid I was to try and climb it. At this stage climbing back down was much more dangerous than continuing so I ignored the drop below, stopped thinking about how the bricks and rocks I was clinging to were laid over 600 years ago, resisted the urge to panic and kept climbing.
The drop from these steep sections can be over 6 meters and the bottom is rock and brick so if you fall, you are going to break something and will definitely not be walking away. Jiankou is an extremely isolated section of the wall and I only saw two other people that day. If you hurt yourself there, you may not get help for a long time and the nearest hospital is hours away. People have died climbing Jiankou so be aware of the danger and be careful.
Walking and climbing Jiankou took much longer than expected so I could not even reach Zhengbeilou. In the end I ran out of time and had to leave the wall at Lian Kou at around 4:15pm. The walk from the wall down the mountain to the pick up point took around 45 minutes.
I called Mr Ma on the walk back to let him know I was on my way and he said one of his buddies would be there. Great. Reached the pick up point and there was no driver so I called Mr Ma again who said no one was coming to pick me up, hung up on me and refused to take any more calls. Wow. So what do you do when you are stuck in the middle of no where with the sun setting? Start walking, stick your thumb out and hope for a lift.
After around an hour of walking I managed to catch a lift with a very friendly family from Beijing who were great. They dropped me off at a bus stop on a some main road and I caught a bus an hour later to Huairou. By that time were no more buses to Beijing so I found a taxi and negotiated a lift to the nearest Beijing subway station for 80rmb. I eventually arrived back at the hostel at 11pm. An exciting end to an exciting day.
Zhengbeilou is one of the most popular sections of the Great Wall for photography and with an altitude of 991 meters, the scenery and views are fantastic. My next Great Wall trip will be to walk from Zhengbeilou all the way to Mutianyu which will be a great walk.