|Guide||♦||1 Triplog||0 Topics|
A nice blend of rugged unrestored and more tourist friendly Great Wall
The Jiankou Great Wall is a mostly unrestored (as of 2019) section of the Great Wall of China. It connects with the Mutianyu Great Wall in the south, which has been fully restored. It is a nice combination of remote, scenic, and serene areas initially without amenities and different (though no less spectacular) scenery.
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 or the entirety of the Mutianyu Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing but to get the full experience at least 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). On the return from Mutianyu, there are regular buses back to Beijing. However, we were fortunate enough to find a cab driver who was very motivated to find a fare back to town and negotiate a reasonable rate for the trip back to Dongzhimen station.
The trailhead on the village's southern side (which we began our hike on) is obvious. It has a parking lot, some signage and is more commonly used by local tourists. This is a thru-hike and ends at the Mutianyu Great Wall scenic area.
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 the wall was a bit more difficult. There is 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. We were able to navigate more or less successfully using a GPS cellphone app (Maps.Me with relevant areas downloaded in advance) and picking trails that kept us headed in the right general direction, in this case south, until we reached the Great Wall. We intended to start this day's hike at a section of the wall called "The Eagle Flies facing Upward" (the next major landmark from where we ended our first days' hike) but ended up choosing a path that connected to the wall just before "The Heavenly Ladder." We elected not to go back down and backtrack, so the short section of the wall between Beijing Knot and The Heavenly Ladder will have to wait for another trip.
Leaving the wall was more straightforward in Mutianyu. There are two cable cars and a "toboggan" or slideway (basically a slide with wheeled carts you ride down to the bottom) as well as a few walking paths down. We intended to take the toboggan as it was unquestionably the most exciting method of descent (no way would health and safety allow that sort of fun in the U.S.). However, it closed down for the evening just before we arrived. We ended up taking the walking path near tower 5 down, the farthest one away from our entry point to the Mutianyu Great Wall.
Many guidebooks describe a curtailed version of this hike, which starts at "Jiankou Spot." This skips some of (but not all) the more challenging sections and includes the breathtaking views of "Ox Horn Edge". It is suitable for an all-day hike starting first thing in the morning with the commute from Beijing.
We did this hike at the very end of August. Over the two days we were there, the weather started misty and cool and ended up clear, sunny, and hot. It did drizzle a little on a 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 sun protection were a must. I am told that later in the fall is the rainy season so spring may be the best time to visit this area.
The approach was a dirt trail through jungle-like foliage and very steep. The ascent to the wall is ~700' of elevation gain. The descent trail at Mutianyu was paved.
The mist and drizzle made dirt potions of the approach trail 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 apparent 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. 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 castles have a similar layout, so it becomes more straightforward to navigate them once you become familiar.
Several sections of the Jiankou great wall are extremely steep. Some portions were originally stairs with ascents ranging from ~45 to >80 degrees. The challenges of these ascents were 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 were loose and unstable. In these cases, each hand and foothold had to be tested before 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 occasionally "protection" in some areas to compensate for this. The protection provided was, in some cases, riskier to use than climbing/scrambling without it. Some memorable examples included a length of coaxial cable that was undoubtedly not rated to hold a person's weight. There was also a hinged piton/foldable step that wiggled alarmingly in the wall if you so much as looked at it the wrong way.
There is no water sources or opportunity to resupply anywhere along the Jainkou Great Wall. There may be an enterprising local with highly marked-up snacks and beverages at select locations, but this should probably not be relied upon. Anticipate having to hike back down to one of the nearby villages for meals or bring everything you need with you.
General Comments and Musings
This portion of the great wall was fantastic because it begins with a completely wild and unrestored wall and gradually transitions to a restored area with all the conveniences and tourist traps that entails. The wall itself on this hike is more intact than farther north on Jiankou (where sections are little more than rubble). There were potions where finer detailed stonework like rainwater channels and downspouts remained intact. In other spots, the different layers of roadbed, stone blocks vs. clay brick used over the centuries that the wall was in service could be seen in the more degraded areas.
The wall's width also varies quite a bit on these more southern parts of the Jainkou great wall. Some sections are as wide as a modern road. In others, the path between the crenellations is so narrow that the path is effectively single file. The narrow sections tended to occur along the higher ridges' tops, where there was not sufficient width on the ground to allow for a wider wall. At one particularly sharp peak, the tip of a mountain protrudes through the roadbed, and you have to clamber over. Apparently, the builders decided that going up an additional 5' wasn't worth the effort and built the wall right into the summit.
On this 2nd day of hiking, it became apparent that many or perhaps all of the towers and castles used a common design. Throughout the great wall, the towers' condition was variable, with some being little more than a pile of rubble and others appearing more or less intact. On the Jainkou to Mutianyu hike, the towers were more often intact, and after having gone through a few, we were able to recognize the common layout used. These ruins were good places to take a break in the shade along the way.
The Ox Horn Edge area of the wall was particularly stunning. As you approach from Jiankou, the Great Wall stretches out for miles in both directions and appears to go on forever. This is probably the most incredible spot on the hike but requires a clear day to appreciate it.
The more entrepreneurial locals also made for some humorous events along the way. A woman from Xizhazi village made the trek up to Jainkou Spot with a cooler full of cold drinks and snacks. I have no doubt she makes a good trade with the tourists following the guidebook from Beijing and finding themselves depleted and intimidated by the 700' ascent to the wall. Even more clever was a vendor that set up shop at the border of the Mutianyu/Jiankou great wall sections. Hikers, following this route, will certainly be hungry and thirsty after the long hike along the Jiankou wall and are unaware that there are dozens if not hundreds of vendors a short distance further into Mutianyu. The $5 Gatorade may be ice cold and delicious, but you can get one for half the price if you go just a bit further.
The presence of civilization gradually began to appear as we neared the Mutianyu Great Wall. One particularly prominent castle had clearly been restored, and we began to see a few other people. Initially, it was other longer distance hikers that hiked up to the wall from other nearby villages with the intent to through-hike to Mutianyu. As we got closer, we began to see tourists who started at Mutianyu venturing north into Jainkou, not long after we arrived at the Jainkou Great Wall.
The Jainkou Great wall is both fully restored and fully accessible to tourists. As a result, it is generally quite crowded and something of a tourist trap. However, it does have all of the towers fully restored (including wood doors and such on particular examples) and there were a few historical exhibits (like an early cannon) at some of them. From the Jainkou/Mutainyu transition, the Mutianyu Great Wall is mostly downhill, so the views are excellent even though you don't have the wall to yourself anymore.
A side note on navigation
We mapped the route using RouteScout and used Maps.Me as well as several tourist maps to navigate. I am confident that we identified each tower/castle we came across (even the ones that were nothing but a pile of rubble), but the tower numbers deviate a little. The topo on Maps.Me appears to have a different numbering system than the tourist maps, and when in conflict, we generally used the Maps.Me naming conventions as they appeared to better match the actual wall conditions/castle locations and quantity. So if you follow a guidebook that references a tower number near a point of interest and are using this GPS route, know that tower number might be off by a digit or two.
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 hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.