Gazing up at a near-vertical stairway that led to an ancient watchtower precariously perched atop of a steep mountain, I began to understand why exploring the Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China could be dangerous. My goal was to reach Beijingjie, Beijing Knot in English, a mountain-peak junction where the wall meets from three different directions. But the northern approach, up the stairway, looked absolutely terrifying. Built from stone blocks and bricks over five centuries ago, this particular section of the wall has never been rebuilt and is now in a very decrepit state. Besides being extremely steep, the stone steps making up the center of the stairway are mostly broken or missing. A bigger problem is that virtually all of the horizontal walkways leading to the stairway and the first five meters of stone steps have collapsed and are spilling down the mountainside like a white stone waterfall. Surely this approach is better left to experienced rock climbers. I was certain that one mistake would lead to serious injury or even death. Not wishing to tempt fate, I abandoned my lofty goal and hiked back down the mountain to the safety of Xizhazi Village.
Spanning a distance of over 8000 kilometers, much of the existing 6259 kilometers of the Great Wall of China was constructed by the Ming Dynasty that ruled from 1368 to 1644 AD. Built primarily to protect China’s northern border from invasion by the Mongols, the vast system of fortified walls and towers generally runs from east to west along natural barriers such as hills, mountains and rivers. Construction of the wall continued for the entire reign of the Ming Emperors which lasted nearly three centuries.
There are over 600 kilometers of ancient Ming wall within the Beijing Municipality and it is often said that a visit to China’s capital is incomplete without seeing the famous Great Wall. A number of sections can easily be visited as a day trip from downtown Beijing. The most popular areas such as Badaling, Mutianyu and the lakeside wall Huanghuacheng, have been refurbished to a state that is probably better than when originally constructed. These sites are major tourist attractions with significant infrastructure and although there are a great number of stairs to climb, are generally suitable for visitors of all ages and physical conditioning.
However, there are still sections of the Great Wall that remain virtually untouched and have not been made into tourist attractions. Many Beijing residents and international travelers who are outdoor enthusiasts, avid hikers, rock climbers and photographers or those who simply wish to get off the beaten path will head to a remote area of the Great Wall known as Jiankou.
Jiankou is a pristine 20-kilometer section of the Great Wall located in the Huairou District approximately 100 (highway) kilometers north of the center of Beijing. Known as the “Wild Wall”, the mountains in this area are particularly tall and steep. The ancient sections of wall clinging to the mountainsides closely resemble roller coaster tracks. The scenery here is absolutely spectacular and is considered by many to be the best place to photograph the Great Wall. Constructed circa 1368 from brick and a locally-quarried white stone called dolomite, most of the Jiankou wall has not been restored and in many places the outer walls, walkways and towers are in severely deteriorated states. Hiking here can be very challenging and physically demanding as many of the walkways are very steep and a good amount of climbing or crawling over obstacles is required. Hiking here is often slow going and it can take many days to thoroughly explore the area.
“Wild” means that you will not encounter any tour buses, guides, touts or souvenir vendors, gift shops or fast food joints. You will be lucky to find a mom and pop “convenience store” set up in the living room of a villager’s home. On the most popular stretches of the wall one is likely only to encounter a handful of fellow hikers, mostly on the weekends. Hike further afield, to the west and north of Jiankou, and it is possible to hike for days without meeting any other travelers.
“Wild” also means that there are no park rangers, information booths or signage on any of these sections. You will not see any caution signs, barriers, yellow safety chains or whistle-blowing security guards. In fact, the trails leading to the wall are themselves barely marked. In some places only red or blue ribbons, hung from trees by local hikers, indicate the correct direction of travel, a turn in the trail or a bypass leading around an unsafe or impassable section of the wall.
Interestingly, Jiankou is not officially open to the public and many, or perhaps all, of the trails that lead to the wall appear to be on private property. There are enormous signs posted at the beginning of each well-trodden trail reminding hikers of this fact, yet strangely, there are also similar signs posted to remind visitors not to litter (a big problem) or build open fires. Camping on the wall is not permitted either, yet many hikers do this is well.
Jiankou is also considered to be the most dangerous section of the wall to hike on. This is particularly true of the stretch between Jiankou Spot and Zhengbeilou where several parts have completely collapsed and slid down the mountainside. In numerous places stone blocks and bricks continue to give way and fall from their precarious positions as the ancient mortar that once bound them disintegrates and turns to dust. Hikers will often find that walkways are overgrown with brush and trees and are nearly impassable.
For the most part the horizontal parts of the wall are fairly intact, which makes walking on them relatively safe and easy. However, you can only walk on a level stretch for so long before the snake-like wall ascends (or descends) to the next peak. It is these sections, essentially near-vertical stair cases, where the danger lies. Often one must approach the steps, if there are steps remaining, as a rock climber would tackle a sheer cliff face.
Hiking from Zhengbeilou to Mutianyu
There is one particularly popular Jiankou hike which is relatively safe, easy, and can be done as a day trip from Beijing. Starting from Xizhazi village (number 5) or Nanjili village, travelers will hike for one to one and a half hours through dense forest following a well-trodden trail that winds its way up the mountain to Zhengbeilou Tower. This large watchtower is situated on a high peak 991 meters above the valley. The westward view from Zhengbeilou is spectacular and is a popular place for photography. From the watchtower, hikers will travel eastward on a fairly level section of the wall towards Niujiaobian (Ox Horn Edge in English). The ascent up the western leg of Niujiaobian is not very difficult, but the eastern downhill section is a different story. Constructed from smooth and very slippery pieces of rock, this walkway is very steep. Personally, I would never attempt to do this hike in the rain or snow.
The next section, between Niujiaobian and Watchtower Number 23, is a nice, easy and relatively safe hike. At Tower Number 23 the Jiankou Wild Wall ends and the beautifully reconstructed Mutianyu Great Wall begins. At this point hikers will join tourists from China and around the globe walking towards the Jiankou cable car station. It took me roughly two hours to complete this section.
From the Mutianyu section of the wall, hikers can purchase a one-way cable car ticket (120 CNY) or simply continue hiking down the mountainside to the park’s main entrance. At Mutianyu, a major tourist attraction, it is very easy to arrange transportation back to Beijing.
My original plan was to go for a cable car ride down to the valley for lunch, but it appears that one cannot purchase a round-trip ticket from up top on the wall. Rather than paying over 240 CNY for two one-way tickets I simply turned around walked back to Xizhazi. The return hike took exactly five hours but I stopped many times along the way to rest and admire the beautiful scenery.
Smartphone Mapping Apps in China
The Google map included in this article is presented solely for informational purposes. I enjoy working with Google Maps but they simply don’t provide enough detail to navigate the Great Wall of China. Also, to use all the available features you must use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which I find to be a nuisance.
A better choice in mapping software, often recommended by Chinese residents, is MAPS.ME. Also known as "MapsWithMe", MAPS.ME features global coverage utilizing the GPS system with maps downloaded on your device. The App is fully functional even when offline. Most importantly, the China maps on MAPS.ME provide far more detail than Google Maps. MAPS.ME works very well on and around The Great Wall. Many of the small trails leading from Xizhazi to Jiankou and the bypasses that lead around hazardous sections of the wall are clearly displayed.
The Jiankou Great Wall is most easily accessed from Xizhazi village. Xizhazi is actually a cluster of five small farming villages located in a peaceful valley on the northern side of the Great Wall. Numbered one through five, they are often referred to on maps as “teams” or “spots”. Situated to the west of the cluster is the fairly large village of Xizhazi number five. From this village hikers can reach several Great Wall sites including Beijingjie, Jiankou Spot and Zhengbeilou.
Although there are no ATM machines, supermarkets, pharmacies or any type of store in Xizhazi, accommodations are plentiful. It appears that each family in the village built a hotel, guest house or hostel in preparation for a tourism boom that never materialized. There are more beds here than will ever be filled, prices range from 100-200 CNY. Most, if not all, offer home-cooked meals and beverages.
Budget travelers will appreciate that Xizhazi can be reached very inexpensively by public bus.
Travel to Xizhazi Village
To reach Xizhazi by bus travelers will have to first reach the Yujiayuan section of Huairou District. A number of busses travel between the stops and stations scattered around Beijing’s Dongzhimen subway station and Yujiayuan.
To visit Jiankou as a day trip from Beijing the fastest and most practical way is to take the number 916 express bus from the bus stop at Dongzhimen subway exit B. This bus will reach Huairou in just over one hour and costs 12 CNY. From Huairou a taxi or min-bus to Xizhazi should cost no more than 150 CNY and take 45 minutes.
On my recent trip I took the number 867 bus from Dongzhimen Outer Bus Station. The bus departed at 07:00 AM, costs 12 CNY and took approximately two hours. It should be noted that this bus is a typical local public bus with no designated space for luggage. The bus can also be quite crowded so carrying large baggage is a bit inconvenient.
Upon arrival in Huairou one will meet a number of taxi and mini-van drivers who will tout rides up to Xizhazi. The fare price is around 50 CNY for the trip but a far cheaper option is to catch the H-25 bus from Yujiayuan north bus stop. This leg of the journey costs a mere 8 CNY and takes approximately an hour and a half. The H-25 bus makes its final stop in the center of Xizhazi Village Number Five.
Beijingjie (The Beijing Knot)
Having spent the last four hours exploring the dense woods to the west of Xizhazi village my clothes are filthy and I am soaked in perspiration. I am searching for a safe and easy trail up to Beijingjie but it eludes me. I have explored many of the paths and trails that run along this section of the wall but only a Mongol invader or rock climber would have the skill and courage to scale the sheer sides of the Great Wall.
Finally I decide to investigate the end of a bypass that is clearly visible on MAPS.ME. Located roughly 200 meters southwest of Beijingjie tower, the east end of the bypass is situated at a particularly low spot on the wall. From this point I am able to easily and safely get on the wall and hike up towards Beijingjie. This section turns out to be in very bad condition but several bypasses lead around the worst of the obstructions and soon I am standing on top of the ruins of Beijingjie’s ancient watchtower.