Today we continue our Jiankou adventure along The Great Wall of China.
If you missed Part 1, click here to catch up.
Day 2: From Xizhazi Village to Zhengbeilou Tower… the hard way
We awoke early the next morning about an hour before the sun rose and made our way up to the Wall, near what is labeled as the Jiankou Tower on the map below. My one regret about this whole excursion is that I wished we had planned for another day so we could have explored the Beijing Knot and the Eagle Fly Facing Upward sections using Zhao’s Hostel in Xizhazi Village as a home base. These two sections are known as two of the most dangerous, although I question how much harder they really could have been than the rest of our journey…
Getting to the Jiankou Trailhead
From Zhao’s Hostel, the hike out of town and up to the Wall took about 45 minutes. It could probably be done faster in daylight, but we were being careful in the pre-dawn light not to miss our turn after the previous day’s misdirection. To get to the trailhead, start out by backtracking down the road that you came in on to arrive at Xizhazi Village. About a mile or so down that road you will see a road with a bridge over the water, just off to the right side, you will want to venture down that road. It will dead-end into a circular area and the trail will be on the far side with signs warning about climbing The Great Wall. This trail climbs quickly and before you know it you will be on the Wall.
Getting Back on the Wall
Getting on the wall near the Jiankou Tower requires a little climbing, but really this isn’t too bad. Once we were on the Wall we started our difficult journey to the east towards the Mutianyu section. It was very early and we found ourselves in a thick fog so we decided to have breakfast and wait to see if the rising sun would burn off some of the clouds. The clouds did start to lift, but the dense smog that Beijing is unfortunately known for continued to hang low throughout most of the day. Keep in mind we are about 40 miles north of Beijing and it was still horrible. Hard to believe people live like this…
Getting to Jiankou Tower
Once we wrapped up breakfast we set about making our way along the wall toward Mutianyu. Almost immediately the path took a steep grade with loose rocks to stumble over. In hindsight this section wasn’t really that bad, but we made our way off the Wall for a short distance and then climbed back up.
We then made our way up a rougher section of the Wall, but still very doable. Once we made it over the first ridge and into the next tower, the sun had started to cut through and light things up.
The tower below with the broken window arch is one that stands out well in my mind. I believe that this structure is the Jiankou Tower, but it is hard to know for sure. The unrestored areas don’t exactly have plaques on them and I’m glad they don’t.
Tiny Potala Palace – The most Dangerous Unrestored Section of Jiankou
We left Jiankou Tower behind and continued our ascent up towards the Tiny Potala Palace which sits at the very top of the ridge line. We scrambled our way up the loose rock to a nearly vertical cliff that at one time was a part of the Wall (I imagine it used to have steps). You can see this section in the image above about half way up that crumbling ruin. We didn’t bring proper climbing gear so we could go no further. I was shocked as I hadn’t read that climbing gear was needed for this part of the Wall.
Just then we saw a ribbon hanging on a tree limb just off the trail. The ribbons were put here when the Olympics were held back in 2008. Very few are left to indicate the trail, but luckily this one had survived. We followed the ribbons off the Wall and onto a narrow ledge that hugged the vertical cliff. Sharing the path with overgrown shrubbery meant that keeping our footing was a challenge, especially with the backpacks. We made our way around the path to what was seemingly another dead end.
The Rock Wall and the J-curved Tree
The path stopped at a completely vertical 8′ rock wall. I really wish I had taken photos through this section, but at this point, my brain was in survival mode. In fact, 30 minutes went by between photos… a missed opportunity.
I noticed that the rock wall had a tree growing out of it. It was little more than 4″ in diameter, but it had grown in a perfect “J” shape that allowed for easy footing. I looked at my wife and asked, “Well… do you want to turn around?” My wife: “Uh…There is no way I am doing what we just did backwards!” Me: “(Gulp)… I guess we are going forward.”
I took my bag off and proceeded to climb up on the tiny tree. Keep in mind that this process takes place while standing on a 3′ wide cliff edge with a 30′ wall to our left, a 1,000′ drop off on our right, and this 8′ wall in front of us. Sure enough, there was another ribbon at the top. While standing on the small tree, I had my wife hand me the bags and I placed them on top of the 8′ high wall. I then shimmied my way up. My wife then followed the route I had taken up and over.
Continuing East Along the Jiankou Section
After the above section, the hike got much easier… for a while. We made our way back onto the ruins of The Great Wall. We looked back towards Tiny Potala Palace and thought about attempting a climb from this side, but it still looked very challenging so we continued on our way towards Mutianyu. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves walking through a small forest, but could still see the ramparts of the Wall on the left and right. It’s weird to think that portions of The Great Wall are now forest. At times the trees themselves made it hard to proceed as they had taken up the entire width of the Wall, giving little room for a path ahead. This section was relatively flat but had some undulating areas on the way to the next unnamed tower.
Out Onto the Ramparts of Jiankou
Once through that tower (at the top left corner of the image), the trail swiftly drops down into a nook along the mountainous ridgeline. You can see in the bottom right of this photo that this was a peculiar spot as the Wall was no longer the wide, easily traversed area that one thinks of when picturing The Great Wall. It was rather more like the hallway of The Great Wall, and worse, it had fallen away. It’s hard to imagine how this spot must have looked when it was new. Either way, this was our next challenge.
As we came around that corner you have to slide down onto the top of the physical brick and mortar of the ramparts. This is the outer edge of the Wall itself and, as you can see if you slip it is a bit of a ways down to the bottom. Once onto the brick you can actually pretty easily shimmy your way down the wall on the inside and back onto the rocks along the inside edge. This section really wasn’t as bad as it looks. Still, probably not for the faint of heart.
The Mountain’s Nock
Once past that obstacle we found ourselves passing through another tower and then proceeding further down, into the mountain’s nock to a tower at the bottom. (Jiankou means “arrow nock”…maybe because of how this part of the route resembles the nock of an arrow, the groove at the back end of an arrow.) We then started a slight climb up to yet another tower. It is unique in that you pass through it by climbing up to the roof from inside the tower and then continuing on the Wall from the roof level. These towers are all really close together. I guess since it’s the low point in the mountain the ancient Chinese thought this was a likely area of breech. Looking at this rugged terrain I couldn’t image any of their enemies picking this spot as an ideal target.
Once you pass through this last tower in the mountain’s nock you find yourself at the infamous ladder. I had read things about this rickety old ladder and had somewhat dreaded it. It’s a ladder made from small tree trunks lashed together with rope, leaned in against a rock wall. The ladder itself would scare off most travelers. There is a trail that would take you down from here and around the Wall to return behind Zhengbeilou Tower should you choose to do so.
From the Ladder to a Rock Crevice
My wife and I figured, “What the heck, we had come this far right? We might as well do it all.” However, the ladder turns out to have been the easy part. Once we climbed up and off the ladder, we found ourselves clinging to a rock crevice and shimming our way up a section that is three times as high as the ladder and nearly as steep.
I found this part to be extremely difficult, but I think it was made more intense by the fact that I had a backpack strapped on and my camera bag clipped to my chest. The camera bag pushed my center of gravity away from the wall making it much harder to climb. Jennifer didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much. I’m not really sure how The Great Wall would have originally looked through this area, but at this point, it has been reduced to a rocky cliff with just enough slope for a person with more guts than sense to make it up.
Above the Ladder
Once at the top of the ladder and rock wall combo, you will once again find the ruins of The Great Wall somewhat surrounding you. This is a thinner section in the rubble where trees have taken over. What is left of the Wall is perched upon a thin ridge line so it’s a sheer drop off on both sides of the wall. This section, unlike what we had been through so far, is actually fairly easy to navigate.
To Zhengbeilou Tower
Before too long we found ourselves at the doorway to the famous Zhengbeilou Tower. You can climb to the top of this tower where you will be presented with 360-degree views of the landscape below. You also get a great look of how far you have traveled and the terrain of Jiankou that you have survived. This is perhaps the most popular photographic angle of the entire Great Wall. From here you are still a long way from the restored area of Mutianyu, but the constant threat of falling to your death has passed.