Blue skies overhead and a view to the mountains is better than I could have asked for on our big day to the Great Wall. The view out our hotel window is beautiful.
Mr. Zhang, our driver for the day, picks us up at 7am and begins the 2+ hour drive to our destination, the tiny village (even by Chinese standards) of Xizhazi (Shi-zah-zde).
He’s a cheery guy and speaks much better English than I expected for someone in a green and yellow Beijing Taxi. He’s a neighbor of our friends in Beijing, and agreed to do the day for a discounted price.
Which section of the wall?
The most popular section is Badaling, which has been completely restored and is very close to Beijing. Due to proximity it has become a tourist trap for Chinese and International travelers alike. There are carnivals and hawkers every step of the way there.
Chinese must see the great wall in Beijing in their lifetime. It’s like the Statue of Liberty: a national symbol. (Nevermind the irony of a country trying to build ties with the rest of the globe that has a defensive wall as it’s symbol.) Mao reportedly said ‘He who has not stood on the Great Wall is not a man.’
Other sections, like the one we are going to today (at least the first half.) are unrestored. Unrestored sections are more authentic, and arguably beautiful, but they are also more dangerous. The Jiankou section of our hike was reported to be the most dangerous activity in Beijing by a rescue team in China as reported by China Daily, the government English language newspaper.
Do your homework, or take a guide.
You can hire guides from Beijing with cars but they are very, very expensive. I was quoted a thousand dollars for the family, from one of the places. You can also get guides from Zhao’s hostel in Xizhazi for much less but you have to get your own transport and they often don’t speak English.
But I have done my homework, thanks to Greatwallforum.com and especially the administrator of the site, Bryan. I’m (mostly) confident we can do this without a guide.
While it’s true that a particular section of Jiankou is very dangerous (pictured left), but if you take the right trails, you can skip it and have a fantastic, challenging, but safe hike all the way to a fully restored section of the wall (Mutiyanu) that even has a cable car to take you down.
The hardest part, apparently is finding the starting point in Xizhazi. Our driver is very lost and it’s been at least three hours since we left Beijing. Fortunately the girls are entertaining themselves pretty well, and it’s nice to be out of the city with clear blue sky.
We wind around North Beijing district asking everyone we see, all of whom give him directions, none of whom actually know where it is.
I finally give him the number of a hotel that is supposed to be in this little town and they direct him to the right place. (Mr. Zhang was very patient and friendly, and is now one of the few drivers in Beijing that knows how to get to Xizhizi. So if you need him, email and tell him hi from the Creekmores! firstname.lastname@example.org We have his mobile number too.)
Another 90 minutes later we pull onto the road to Xizhixi. Greatwallforum.com said to look for a series of road signs, and turn-off through the cornfield. I’m not kidding. The entrance to this section of the wall is still somewhat secret.
He drives us as far as he can go up the road. There is no trail yet, only cornfields and a chicken farm. Beyond the fields is the intimidating mountain of Chinese forest.
Finding the trail to the top
I knock on the door of the farmhouse and use my 50 word mandarin vocabulary – ‘Zhengbeilou zai nali?’ Some chatter escapes the dark farmhouse – probably laughing at my pronunciation. A youngish woman steps out and points to a little trail that runs into the trees. ‘Xie xie’ I say, and off we go!
On the trail, we have a funny episode where the girls, including Trish, do outdoor peeing. Emma bends far backwards and pees forward like a boy! LOL I remember our night in the Sahara desert when the girls all had to pee in the dark, laughing hysterically. Like that night, today will be a great moment in travel.
Somewhat buried in the forums is the most important piece of information we needed: a picture of the critical fork in the road (right). Fortunately I recognized it (left.) Don’t miss this turn-off, because it’s counter intuitive to go down.
Some Chinese trekkers walk by coming from the wrong direction and ask me in broken English which way is Zhengbeilou (The name of the tower that starts this hike). I point down the right side of the fork and they laugh. The American is guiding the Chinese to the Great Wall.
It’s a pretty walk, but upill and in parts very steep. It’s not sunny under the dense canopy of pines and maples, but it’s humid we are already through one liter of water. I’m carrying three more on my back and hope we have enough.
As the switchbacks get more steep, our breaks come more frequently. The 45 minute climb to the wall is taking us a little over an hour, but supposedly this is the hardest part of the 5 hour trek.
It’s rough on Trish, especially in the humidity. Her body does admirably well, but she can’t go at the same pace.
The Creekmore Army attacks the wall
Emma is up front and yells ‘I can see the top!’ Sure enough, we catch up with emma and get our first view of The Eagle Flies Upward part of Jiankou. We are not going there because it is highly risky, but it is beautiful.
Up a little farther we can see the wall itself. As we are coming from the north side, this is what it would have looked like for the Mongols, and indeed it would be difficult to attack with confidence. We are looking at a sentry tower with little slots for arrows and spears (and guns eventually.)
Ghengis Kahn spoke derisively of the Great Wall, saying ‘A wall is only as good as the people that guard it.’ The Creekmore Army attacks the wall the same way Ghengis often did – by paying off the guards. For 10 Yuen, a man let’s us up the ladder so we don’t have to climb around the dangerous part.
Several photographers sit and stand on the guard station overlooking Eagle Flies Upward, waiting perhaps for later in the day when evening sun begins to cast shadows. Right now it’s 1pm and the sun is directly overhead.
It’s also lunch time! And we pull out our fantastic lunch of Pringles, Goldfish, peanut butter and water. After our tiring ride home from the Taoist temple, we were fortunate to find an international grocery in an expensive mall with companies like Tiffany, Cartier, Givenchy and Prada. Tucked away behind a thousand types of expensive jams and jellies were a half dozen jars of Skippy peanut butter.
I’ve never seen Emma so excited! She was jumping for joy at finding peanut butter. China has, for her, been a rough trip for eating. Honestly, it’s not been great for us either. Although a few spots have been interesting, I can’t honestly say that I love the food.
We pick the inside of the guard tower to eat, where it’s cool. There is quite a bit of trash, sadly, and we pick up as many pieces as we can stuff into the backpack. Lily looks out a window. ‘Daddy I’m a Mongol and I’m looking south at China!’ (Above in B&W)
We’ve talked a bunch about the Great Wall, which didn’t really do a great job of keeping out the northern barbarians. It probably stopped some of the petty attacks.
The unrestored part of the wall
The wall here is completely unrestored, which means we are walking on the original Ming dynasty bricks, which was built solidly of slave labor. There are bones of the dead slaves entombed in it’s walls. Plants, grasses and large bushes grow here leaving only small paths through which to walk. The sun beats down.
Many of the walls edges have collapesd inward, and in a few places you have to walk right along a 30 foot edge. You wouldn’t die from the fall, but it’s a long way to get help from here.
In places the wall is covered in vegetation. Little wild lillies grow with orange flowers. A bush grows everywhere with little pale lavender blooms.
And when you look up, your eye goes for hundreds of miles in almost every direction, almost to the horizon before is gets obscured by haze. We can see the outskirts of Beijing and a few other towns to the south. East and west is the mountain range we walk on. North is another range that has beautiful red clifsides.
And if you were just here hiking you’d be happy to see this view once on your hike through the forest. But you are also on the great wall, which is one of the great efforts in engineering history, and you are above the treeline and can see in every direction for the whole hike. And the wall itself is a beautiful dolomite snake coiled on the the mountain top.
It’s breathtaking. I shoot photographs every few feet in a futile attempt to capture some of the glory on camera. You get a small sense of it here (above) from my spliced pictures. Please come here. You won’t regret it.
We are fortunate that it’s a bright sunny day although an early morning start would have given us some better light. I’ve also seen pictures from Autumn, as the Maples change color, that are even more spectacular. A light winter snow makes this place look ghostly.
I wouldn’t want to trek up here in the snow though. This isn’t high risk, but it is tricky. Our hike up Wayna Picchu was probably harder and fatally dangerous if you made a stupid mistake. On the other hand this is a lot longer of a hike and farther from help.
The highest part of the Great Wall
anywhere in China on our trek today is at the oxbow of Jiankou, just up ahead (pictured above). the mountain curves in such a way that the wall has to do a hairpin turn. And it’s incredibly steep climbing up. But we are rewarded with the best views, all the way back to our starting place at Zhengbeilou and Eagle flies upward. Back down is easier on the legs, harder on the knees, scarier to the eyes.
Lily says this is the ‘best adventure day ever!’ with a mouth full of skittles. Emma nods in agreement. The constant views above the treeline and sweeping mountains are like a lifetime of hiking vistas compressed into 5 hours. It’s better than I expected myself, and I had high hopes.
Just as I begin to have a little concern that we have not brought enough water (6 liters seemed like too much at the store.) we cross from the unrestored Jiankou to the fully restored Mutianyu section.
Along with it’s polished and caulked dolomite bricks and graded walkway, there are vendors! “I hiked the great wall!’ T-shirts! Fake Communist Medals! Parasols! and all sorts of other weird crap. Of course the have water, but we don’t need any quite yet.
Mutianyu is the second most popular area of the wall, although we are as far from it’s entry point as one can get. It’s still at least an hour until we get to the cable cars that take us back down. We head there.
On the way there are steep stairs and a great echo spot where the direction of the wall went straight into a bowl in the mountain side that reflected our voices perfectly.
Breakin’ the law! Breakin’ the law!
We’re tired by hour five of course. But at least the hiking is easier on the restored wall. As we approach the cable car, we look at the map to see where is the alpine slide, and it’s unfortunately at least an hour away. Not only do we not have the energy for another hour but it might even be closed by the time we get there.
In fact the cable car seems closed. There is no ticket booth open. No one is around, passengers or attendants. But the cable car keeps automatically opening and closing the doors of each cab as they pass us and go down the mountain.
This freaks Lily out, who has, among other fears, a fear of automatic doors (like on elevators). Both she and Emma are surprised (below) that we are getting on without waiting for an attendant. Inside, the cab the doors close safely and we can begin to see our final view of the Great Wall, the mutianyu section continuing it’s run across the mountain ridge. (bottom)
A man yells something in Chinese. (You can see him in the background of the picture) I guess he went for a bathroom break when the people left. He yells at us ‘Ticket Ticket Ticket’ and holds up the car long enough for us to acquiesce and promise to buy a ticket at the bottom.
The lady at the bottom is unamused at our ignorance of the proper procedure and makes us sit in the corner for a minute, but I won’t have that for long. I’ll pay my ticket but it’s not our fault there was no ticket taker or attendant at the top.
Our ride back is triumphant. The sun sets on Beijing’s soviet-styled apartments and for most Beijinger’s the Saturday night fun begins.
We’ve had our fun for the day and look forward to bed, after a predictable dinner at McDonalds. The only hikes that rival this one are Amalfi’s Walk of the Gods, or Wayna Picchu in Peru and we remember those with pride and excitement.
This was one of our best days ever.