Another title for this post could be, “That time we asked each other if we were going to survive this.” My wife and I have walked across ridges with 100′ vertical drops on either side. We have scaled mountainsides and walked on 2x4s 2,000′ in the air, but this trail made us question our sanity. This is how that conversation went, Me: “Well… do you want to turn around?” My wife: “Uh… there is no way I am doing what we just did backward!” Me: “(Gulp)… I guess we are going forward.” This is our story of how we hiked Jiankou—the most beautiful and dangerous unrestored section of The Great Wall of China.
When we decided to visit The Great Wall, I wanted to see the Wall in a restored area to see how it had looked when it was new, but I also really wanted to walk on the original stones that remain from those who built this monumental structure. In my extensive research, I found the Jiankou section of The Great Wall and discovered that you could go from the unrestored Jiankou area straight onto the restored Mutianyu section. By many accounts, the Jiankou section is believed to be the most picturesque and rugged section of the Wall. I also found out that it is considered the most dangerous and wild section of The Great Wall. Now that we have done it, I believe all of the above to be true. Having survived the experience, it was all worth it!
Getting to Jiankou
Subway to Dongzhimen Station
Take the extremely efficient Beijing subway system to Dongzhimen Station. It is at the intersection of the Airport Express line and Line 2 (in Blue). The subway is by far the most cost-efficient way to navigate Beijing, but at first, it will seem a bit overwhelming. The number of people who travel on this system every day is staggering and hard to fathom. Use the automated machines to get tickets for where you want to go (Dongzhimen Station). Make sure you check the signs on the platforms and stand on the side going the direction you are headed. Check the maps above the doors once on the train to check your stop in relation to the train’s current location. All the subway signs are in Chinese and English.
Bus to Huairou
Once at Dongzhimen Station, make your way to the bus terminal (aka Public Transport Hub) located inside the same massive complex. Take the B-station exit out of the subway system and this will lead you to the bus terminal area. Dongzhimen Station is a large complex, but signs are clear and in multiple languages. The bus station is underground in what amounts to a massive parking garage type structure. The bus cue lines are clearly labeled and the buses themselves have the numbers displayed on a digital placard.
Once in Huairou
Take the 916 Express (12 RMB/person) to Huairou and get off at Huairou Bei Da Jie. It is the roundabout and it is about the 9th stop into Huairou. It appeared to us that any of the bus stops in Huairou had minibusses (taxis) waiting to take you wherever you wish to go. Most drivers only speak Mandarin so come prepared to explain to them where you want to go.
Getting To Xizhazi Village
Have the minibus take you to Xizhazi Village, which is about a 45-minute drive outside of Huairou. It should cost you about 100 RMB per person. Although, if you can find others to split the ride with you then it could be cheaper. Keep in mind that most taxis and minibusses don’t have meters on them so always negotiate the fare before you head out. We split the ride with another couple who luckily spoke English and Mandarin so this part was surprisingly easy. Our part of the fee was 120RMB for the two of us. Make sure you tell the driver you want to go to the village, not the Jiankou wall, as they will often drop you off too early… Jiankou is a rather large section of the wall with many trails leading up.
Once in Xizhazi Village, you will be able to see the Wall running along the mountain tops. There are many ways onto the Wall and some are safer and easier than others. You can climb certain sections or start on one end and scramble your way across the whole Jiankou section… or so I am told. We weren’t able to do the whole thing and I read that some of the parts that we skipped were not recommended without climbing gear because of the risk. Still, it would have been nice to do the whole thing.
Hiking the Unrestored Section of The Great Wall – Day 1
We “checked-in” to our hostel the moment we arrived in the village. It was more like we just let them know we were there and headed up to the Wall as there is no official “check-in.” We stayed at Zhao’s Hostel on the western edge of the village. We were there in October and there weren’t many other guests, but I hear that it is very popular in the peak season and reservations are highly recommended. I wasn’t able to find a website but did manage to find a phone number for the hostel (+86-10-6161-1762). We know someone in Hong Kong who speaks Mandarin and they were able to set us up with a reservation which was nice, but not really necessary in October.
The owners of the hostel are very nice and eager to help travelers however they are able. The accommodations are decent with basic bedding, a cold shower, and toilet. They also provided heated blankets (no other heating), which was really nice the cold night that we were there. The food was simply amazing! I had some kind of pork in a red sauce that was out of this world good.
Hiking to The Great Wall
After we checked in at the hostel we headed straight for the wall. There are many ways up and I missed the trail we wanted to be on (in Orange on the map) so we ended up a little to the north of the Beijing Knot instead of being just below the Nine-Eye Tower. It took about 30 minutes to hike up from the village. The trail up is very easy, especially when compared with traversing the unrestored section of The Great Wall
I think the trailhead for the Orange trail (as seen on the map) from the village to the Nine-Eye Tower is an immediate right just past Zhao’s Hostel. The Green trail we took is on the dirt road that continues from in front of Zhao’s down a little hill and then the path will be on the right leading away from the dirt road. Once on the path, it is well worn and a straightforward trail to the Wall.
From below the Beijing Knot to Nine-Eye Tower
We arrived on the Wall just north of the Beijing Knot. In hindsight, we should have attempted the Knot before heading North, but Nine-Eye Tower was higher on my priority list and I wanted to make sure we got to see it. The section leading from here to Nine-Eye Tower has its challenges, but unlike the following day, I never felt like my life was in danger. Don’t get me wrong you could very easily get hurt on the trail, but broken bones seem like the worst that could happen unless you perhaps impale yourself on something.
The Inaccessible Detour
On a whole, the hike to Nine-Eye Tower was a good introduction for us to the unrestored section of The Great Wall. The only part that took some real caution was getting off the Wall in the “inaccessible, detour” area shown on the map above. There was some loose dirt here that caused some concern, but in comparison to the following day’s adventures, it really wasn’t dangerous at all.
Getting to Nine-Eye Tower
On the way up the ridge to Nine-Eye Tower, you sometimes lose track of the Wall itself as it has become little more than a pile of rubble.
The Nine-Eye Tower is the northwesternmost point along the Jiankou section. It derives its name from the nine windows that are on each of its sides. It has been restored and stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Jiankou section. I think it almost looks overdone even compared to the fully restored Mutianyu. It may have just been that it was recently restored and hasn’t weathered much yet. I am told that this tower was a strategic point along the Wall and thus it is larger and really stands out on the ridgeline from far off.
Back to the Beijing Knot
It took us about 3.5 hours to get up to Nine-Eye Tower. With about 2 hours left of daylight, we decided to make an attempt to scale the Beijing Knot. What had taken us 3.5 hours when we were taking out time with the camera and being cautious took us less than 1.5 hours on the return. When we arrived at the area to attempt the summit to the Knot, we were losing light quickly and it was a challenging venture, to say the least. I would say that the path up from this side is more rubble than a wall. We decided that the smartest thing to do was to thank the Lord above that we hadn’t fallen to our deaths and head back to the hostel.
Back to Xizhazi Village
We arrived back at Zhao’s Hostel in Xizhazi Village about a half hour after pitch black darkness had set in. Always travel with headlamps! We got a cold shower and some very good food before we hit the preverbal hay. With the heated blankets on and our beanies covering our heads, it was a comfortable night, although there was a bite of cold in the air. We had survived our first day on this unrestored section of The Great Wall