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The unrestored (as of 2019) Great Wall of China
The Jiankou Great Wall is a mostly unrestored (as of 2019) section of the Great Wall of China. This makes it ideal for those who don't want to deal with crowds of tourists but requires greater endurance to deal with the difficult terrain and conditions.
The Jiankou great wall is best explored by staying in the nearby Xizhazi village. There are several sections or "groups" of the village and group #5 is the best for accessing the various parts of the Jiankou Great Wall. It is possible to do a portion of the Jiankou Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing but to get the full experience two full days of hiking are needed. To get to Xizhazi village from Beijing take subway(s) to Dongzhimen station. Transfer from the subway to the bus station and get on the 916 express bus. Get off at Yangjiayuan and walk around the block to Yujiayuan station. From there take the H25 bus (11:30 am and 4:30 pm departures) to Xizhazi village #5 (taxis are a viable alternative for the last leg).
The trailhead to Nine Eyes Tower can be found on the northern side of the village where it intersects the road near several guesthouses/hostels. The trailhead is not clearly marked and was pretty overgrown when we were there making it easy to miss. By contrast, the trailhead on the southern side of the village (which we ended our Day 1 hike on) is obvious. It has a parking lot, some signage and is more commonly used by local tourists.
Once on the wall navigation is more or less straightforward. There are a few sections where you will have to detour around a ruined tower or collapsed set of stairs but the path is usually apparent and sometimes flagged with red ribbons at the detours.
Getting to and from the wall can be more difficult. There are a myriad of approach trails that intersect each other frequently. There is no signage at these intersections indicating which way to go (in some cases there is but has either been marked up or is otherwise unclear) so some navigation aids are required. The maps I was able to find of the area did not show many of the approach trails but we were able to navigate successfully using a GPS cellphone app (MapsMe with relevant areas downloaded in advance) and picking trails that kept us headed in the right general direction.
Leaving the wall was similarly challenging. In most places, the terrain and the height of the wall make it impossible to simply leave the route of the wall. There are occasional trails heading down from the wall but the location of many of these trails is not well detailed on maps or GPS cell phone apps. A certain amount of flexibility is needed so that a descent location can be chosen that accommodates the conditions and daylight remaining.
We did this hike at the very end of August. Over the 2 days we were there, the weather started out misty and cool and ended up clear, sunny, and hot. It did drizzle a little on the misty day. On both days the humidity was very high and it was impossible to stay dry (you were wet with mist, rain, sweat, or some combination of the lot). If you go at the same time of year we did don't expect to be the freshest passenger on the bus back to Beijing! It was not unpleasant but lightweight clothes and sunscreen were a must. I am told that later in the fall is the rainy season so spring may be the best time of year to visit this area.
The approach was badly overgrown with jungle-like foliage. None of it was sharp or poisonous (that we could tell) but expect to have some grass stains on your shorts by the time you reach the Great Wall. The descent trail we used to get off the wall was fairly clear and bushwhacking was not required for that portion.
It was misty and drizzled periodically during the first day of our hike and the dirt potions of the trail were somewhat muddy. More challenging than the muddy sections were the smooth rocks used to construct portions of the Great Wall. They can get extremely slippery after some rain or mist and are treacherous on steep slopes.
Much of the top of the Great Wall in this section is overgrown with vegetation. There was generally a path around or through the growth on the top of the wall.
There are castles/towers set at intervals ranging from ~1/4 of a mile to ~a mile. They appeared more frequently on flatter terrain and were more spread out on the rougher sections. The condition of the fortifications was variable. Some of the towers were collapsed to the point that it was not even obvious that they had ever existed. Others were still in excellent condition with all the doors, windows, and floors intact. The route to cross the towers was similarly variable. The collapsed towers were generally hiked over but in some more intact towers the entry was made through a door with the exit being either a door or sometimes off the roof. Most of castles have a similar layout so it becomes more straightforward to navigate through them once you become familiar.
Several section of the Jiankou great wall are extremely steep. There are portions that were originally stairs with ascents ranging from ~45 to >80 degrees. The challenges of these ascents was variable. Some staircases were in good condition with regular stairs that were best descended with feet sideways to accommodate the narrow steps. Others no longer had steps but the underlying rock was solid enough to climb easily. The worst of these staircases still had some original stone or clay brick but many of them were loose and unstable. In these cases, each hand and foot hold had to be tested prior to putting full weight on them. The staircases in this section of the wall were mostly the equivalent of grade 4 rock with the steepest portions potentially being a low grade 5. There was no protection available in this section of the wall.
General Comments and Musings
The most difficult part of this section of the Jiankou Wall was the ascent to Beijing Knot, which consisted of three staircases in poor condition back to back. We reached this point towards the end of the day and originally planned to backtrack to the previous tower, which had a marked trail going back to Xizhazi village. The next marked trail that was on our maps was past "Eagle Flies Facing Upward" and we were concerned about being able to make it that far without running out of daylight. The ascent to Beijing Knot was challenging enough that we were not eager to repeat it in the reverse direction. While we were discussing the risks of pressing on into the unknown vs retracing the known but highly undesirable we heard voices up ahead. With our curiosity piqued, we proceeded to see if we could easily reach the other tourists. We were able to find them a short distance away and were immediately relieved. They were wearing sneakers and jeans; it was apparent that they had not traversed any terrain of significant difficulty. A brief conversation (consisting in large part of charades because we knew little Mandarin) revealed that the a short stretch of the wall up ahead had been restored and that there was a well-maintained trail back to Xizhazi village #5 near the next tower (tower #251 if memory serves). It was a huge relief to avoid backtracking down those treacherous staircases and we took the easy route forward to the village for the night.
Overall, the north to south route we took is probably the less dangerous and more enjoyable direction to go. The most dangerous and steep grades were upwards in this direction and most of our down-climbs were on more intact stair sections.
The mist made photography challenging but the shots we were able to get on a misty day were impressive. The sunny weather made for better long-distance views of the wall and gave a good sense of scale.
We found that the local (read Chinese) tourists were either not interested in or unable to explore the unrestored sections on the Great Wall. We only encountered crowds on the restored and commercialized sections. I could count on one hand the # of people we saw on the Jiankou Great Wall and we generally had the place entirely to ourselves for hours at a time.
At the time we did it, August 2019, the Nine Eyes Tower and wall sections immediately north of it were restored and apparently easily accessible from other villages. There was also a section from Beijing Knot heading towards the Eagle Flies Facing Upward that was restored (the route we took down off the wall). We did not do that short section of the wall so I cannot say how far it extends. According to the sign at the trailhead, this section was restored earlier in 2019.
This was a fantastic hike. The history, terrain, views, and challenges all combine to make it the experience of a lifetime. The next time I go to China I will look for similar remote and unrestored sections of the Great Wall to explore!
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.
This is a moderately difficult hike.