Actually, the term Great Wall has been keyed to describe the whole set of fortifications built during different periods by subsequent rulers, rather than a single piece of a wall. Therefore, while traveling around the North of China, one can get a chance to see different faces of the Great Wall, each clearly reflecting its date of origin and the current dynasty in charge.
Without doubt the most famous stretches of the Great Wall, originating from Ming dynasty, occupy the northern parts of Beijing municipality. There is one particular section which draws absolutely horrendous tourist traffic, called Badaling, easily accessible from the capital by train. Another one often highlighted in tourist brochures is Mutianyu, a bit less crowded and still relatively easy to reach by bus.
These two sections of Beijing’s Great Wall have got two major disadvantages. The first obvious one is the ubiquitous presence of tour groups. Another one, a subject to a more extensive debate, is the fact that both sections are actually the reconstructed bits of the original wall.
On one hand – thanks to the efforts of contemporary conservators and construction workers, it is possible to experience how these stretches of the wall looked like when they were just about to start serving their function. Moreover, they can be easily accessed by literally everyone, no matter their age and physical condition. (there are even cable cars running to the top)
On the other hand – they clearly miss the sense of authenticity and the original character. Fresh, clean bricks and freshly placed stable sandstone paving – this is definitely not something those seeking the actual ancient wall experience are looking for. Environmental footprint left by massive expansion of tourist infrastructure represents another serious issue.
But one should definitely not forget that Badaling and Mutianyu represent only the tiny percentage of what does Beijing’s Great Wall have to offer!
Jinshanling and Simatai sections have long maintained their reputation as the ones which were left relatively intact from any contemporary developments, providing an excellent opportunity for the daily hikes. However, the Simatai section has been recently closed for major refurbishment, hence the complete hike is no longer an option. Let’s hope that Simatai is not going to become Badaling 2…
However, there is another, a bit less known section which guarantees the excellent hiking & climbing experience for all those wishing to face the ancient wall in its original state. Ruined pavements, loose bricks, abandoned towers in the state of disrepair, vegetation taking over every single vacant spot between the stones – ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Jiankou section!
Having a little trouble getting here from Beijing using the combination of buses and shared cars, in the late afternoon I finally arrived in the sleepy village of Xizhazi, accompanied by a trio of Chinese students, with whom I shared the long distance ‘taxi’. (20RMB per person)
The wall was extremely easy to spot from here, winding like a snake on the mountain tops. I haven’t even started the climb when I was already mesmerized by its grandeur. One odd sight was that the area was dotted with signs saying “This section of the Great Wall is closed for public”. The warning nobody adheres to and the rule no-one apparently enforces either.
As my new friends wanted to stay in Xizhazi overnight, I said goodbye to them, proceeding directly towards one of the watchtowers. The climb was moderately strenuous, leading mainly through the lush forest. After an hour or so I’ve finally ended up proudly standing here – on the Great Wall of China!
I’ve very quickly noticed that this section is indeed in the state of disrepair and each step should be taken with greater care. Loose bricks, unstable surfaces, some nearly vertical climbing involved too – that was the exact Great Wall experiences I wanted to get!
The whole route is all about climbing up and down, up and down. Each watchtower presents a new challenge to the hiker. It sometimes takes a bit of effort to find the best (or even the only) way up. I was glad at this point that I had some previous scrambling experience. Undoubtedly it helped me a lot in carefully planning my next steps.
The sun was slowly about to set. What a brilliant view that was! I was here, completely alone, exploring the dilapidated watchtowers. I was admiring the outstanding mountain views, with the Wall reaching the far horizon, going on and on into the eternity. I’ve already started wondering how much time it would take to cover by foot the whole, more than 4000km length of this grandiose fortification system…
After the sunset I did some more climbing before I finally found the suitable watchtower. Tonight I was about to serve my duty as a guard and protect Beijing from intruders approaching from the North. Hence I found a decent spot and quickly set up my tent.
Without a single trace of doubt, this was about to be the most outstanding camping spot I’ve ever pitched my tent on. When my portable home was standing proudly on the top of the watchtower, I could just sit down and admire the brightly shining moon and the distant city lights of Beijing.
Every brick around me had its own history, every single stone brought to the top of the mountain to raise this magnificent creation of the human hand, was the result of the slavery work, often carried on in inhuman conditions. And now, hundreds of years after this part of the wall has been completed, I was sitting here in the complete silence, in the darkness of the night, about to spend the pleasant, if not slightly chilly night sleeping on the top of the watchtower.
The next day I was woken up by the gentle light of the rising sun. The wall in the early morning colours could not be any more impressive. Pure joy was the only feeling I was experiencing at this stage. I could easily spend long hours just sitting here and contemplating the dazzling landscape. But there were many more towers waiting to be explored!
After a quick photo session I went on with my hike, looking forward to climb every single watchtower I would face on my way.
After a while, upon descending to a small pass, totally accidentally I met my Chinese friends I got to know the day before. They just had reached the Wall from the village. What a coincidence! Since then we continued the hike in our small cheerful group.
The skies were clear, the early autumn sun was shining, the temperature was warm and pleasant – we couldn’t have prayed for a better weather to enjoy our hike.
Some watchtowers imposed serious challenges on us. At some points we had to cooperate well in order to bring our backpacks to the top. Some towers were impenetrable, forcing us to find the suitable bypass.
There was one funny moment when the villager proposed us to lend his ladder for 2RMB to help each of us climb onto the top of one of the watchtowers. We refused the proposal, making benefit of the power of cooperation. Nonetheless, I was kind of thrilled to witness that prime example of entrepreneurship of local people.
Eventually we’ve arrived at the point where the Mutianyu section starts. I felt like I’ve just arrived in a completely different reality. It was indeed very comfortable to take an easy walk through the renovated section. But on the other hand, the whole sense of adventure and the authentic, ancient wall experience were already gone, left far behind our backs at Jiankou section.
But still, it didn’t prevent us from having plenty of fun running like maniacs from one watchtower to another! Something definitely not possible at Jiankou…
In general – my Great Wall experience comprising of the challenging strenuous hike (and climb!), topped up by an unforgettable night spent on the watchtower, was to this date one of my definite highlights of my life of travel.
From the bottom of my heart I’d recommend Jiankou section to all those seeking a thrilling adventure within the realms of Beijing’s Great Wall, sick of the touristy character of some of the more well-known sections.
Just bear in mind that this is not an easy walk and should not be taken by anyone with a serious fear of heights or anyone without at least a little experience in mountain hiking and scrambling.
And obviously, especially if you decide to camp on the Wall and anywhere else in the wild – follow these famous guidelines: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprint!
Pay respect to all those who died working hard to build the wall.
Do not even think about taking any of the bricks as a souvenir!
Do you know any other adventurous, ‘non-touristy’ sections of the Great Wall? Have you got any memorable experiences to share?