Great Wall Walking (Jiankou, Mutianyu and Jinshanling Walls)

Getting There

It was pouring when we left Vancouver - the rain had finally chased us out of Canada. Eleven hours later, but with a nine hour shift in time zone, we arrived in China and checked in to our old courtyard guesthouse in a central Beijing hutong. Thus it was a badly jetlagged pair who wandered out on a hazy day to visit the traditional tourist sights in this enormous bustling city.

We walked from our guesthouse through the older traditional streets of the hutong to reach The Forbidden City, where we spent the morning exploring but a part of its incredible interior of palaces, halls, courtyards and gardens (see end of this page for some photos).

China at last!

Even more amazing than the place were the crowds of Chinese tourists, mostly in large groups designated by hats of the same colour, bustling at all the doors and openings to view whatever marvels lay within (sometimes it is an advantage to be a tall westerner).

The courtyard of our traditional guesthouse in Zhengjue Hutong

Tian'anmen - The Gate of Heavenly Peace

From here we wandered over to Tian'anmen Square, the geographic centre of Beijing and symbolic centre of China, again awash with local tourists. It was here that the crowds and jetlag caught up with me and a migraine gained hold. We retreated to our room at the guesthouse and I spent the next six hours with a splitting headache and throwing up to end my Beijing experience. Luckily, I had a good nurse. Sorry to be so graphic, but such are the hazards of long distance travel.

Day 1 - Jiankou and Mutianyu Great Walls (8km - 490m ascent – 770m descent)

The following morning, I felt fine if a little washed out. It was raining steadily when our guide, Robert, and driver, Mr Liao, picked us up at our guesthouse in the Zhengjue hutong near central Beijing. It was looking like the Canadian weather had followed us here. However, by the time we drove through the Beijing traffic, cruised down the highway to Huairou and wound our way through increasingly narrow country and mountain roads to Xizhazi village and the start of our Great Wall walking adventure, things were looking decidedly better. The rain had stopped and, although the sky was still overcast, the western horizon was starting to look lighter.

It felt good to be taking our first hiking footsteps in China, as we followed Robert on to a small footpath that wound its way around the garden and orchard plots of the village. We had started the climb up to the Jiankou wild wall, a section of unrestored great wall that had been built in the 14th century during the Ming dynasty.

Leaving the village gardens behind, we started to climb steeply up a small tree-filled ravine. Behind us, we were hemmed in by a range of high hills while ahead and above, we started getting our first look at the wall as a series of towers appeared on the sharp edged knobs of the ridge beyond. To say that these mountains are rugged is an understatement.

Approaching the precipitous trace of the Jiankou Great Wall

Looking over fields on the climb up from Xizhazi

The climb ahead to the ZhengbeilouTower

The climb became steeper, as we left the ravine to continue up the slope via a series of switchbacks. We were actually approaching from the north, the direction that invading armies would come from. Looking up at the towers, it was clear that you could not sneak up on the defenders. The switchbacks eventually brought us to the Zhengbeilou Tower and we were on the wall itself.

We climbed up to the top of the watchtower to get our first good look at the length of the wall – amazing. To the west it dropped away to a saddle before snaking its way steeply up the spine of the ridge to the next pinnacle and watchtower, while to the south the terrain dropped away to a deep valley with distant ranges and flatter land beyond – the land the wall was built to protect. To the east was our route, along a long section of wall, bricks crumbling in parts, overgrown by shrubs and trees in others, but still emanating a feeling of impregnability as it wound its way along the spine of the ridge.


View westwards from Zhengbeilou Tower

Crumbling tiles on the "wild wall"

Heading towards the Ox Horn

Our path eastwards along the unrestored wall towards the Ox Horn

Robert carefully explained the structures and told us us the history of the building of the wall. We generally prefer to walk independently, but this is one walk where your experience is greatly enhanced by a guide. And so began our exploration of the Great Wall of China, as we followed the Jiankou eastwards, picking our way carefully along a narrow trail through the broken stones and thick vegetation that has colonised its top, past ruined watchtowers and almost complete ones, but all untouched in over 600 years. It was hard to imagine the work need to put these dolomite stones and clay bricks in place all that time ago.

An overgrown section of the Jiankou Wall

View back to ZhengbeilouTower

At times the wall almost disappeared, as the taller forest trees encroached and shrubs and grass covered the walkway. It was the perennial battle between the constructs of man and nature and this was one of rare instances where nature was winning; summer rain and winter ice slowly dissolving the mortar and cracking the bricks apart, first the parapets and pavers then occasionally large sections of the wall itself collapsing into the valley below.

The rugged terrain on the north side of the wall

The cold north wind soon had us putting on our rain jackets to keep its bite out. When we reached The Ox Horn, a section where the wall headed steeply up to a pinnacle before descending even more steeply, we left it to take a short-cut across the slope of the mountain-side. The condition of the surface on the descent was considered too dangerous and hiking it was discouraged by management.

Dolomite stones and clay brick

The interior of a ruined tower

Exterior brickwork of the wall

Narrow path on a crumblng section of Jiankou Wall

Passing sections built of stone, we climbed back up to have a bite of lunch, while admiring the views of distant mountains framed in the watchtower windows. We had only met a few fellow hikers on this section of the wall, unlike the popular Badaling Great Wall, where Robert told us as many people walk in a day as walk the Jiankou Wall in a year.

View from a Jiankou tower window

Nello checks out the brickwork

Southward view over the plains to the Beijing skyline

Rugged peaks to the north of the wall

Descending the restored Mutianyu Great Wall

Not long after, we reached the end of the wild Jiankou Wall. Here, Tower 20 marked the start of the Mutianyu section - originally built in the 6th century, rebuilt in the 16th century and recently restored. Here, a combination of re-used old bricks and new brick and stonework has been used to recreate the wall as the original builders had made it. It was fascinating to compare the two sections and appreciate both how well it had been built and how well it had stood up to the ravages of time.

The steepness of The Heavenly Ladder

View over Huairou city and reservoir from the wall

Here we could stroll down three abreast on the smooth flat pavers if we wanted – it was however, a slow wander between the rebuilt ramparts, as we took in the incredible views over the rugged mountain landscape and long profile of the wall twisting its path from high point to high point along the ridge. There were more people visiting this restored section, but we still did not feel crowded.

Tower view

The Mutianyu Wall stretches westwards
towards the Heavenly Ladder section

Autumn colours at Mutianyu

Walking Mutianyu from west to east was also a long descent, including the 450 stone steps of The Heavenly Ladder, the steepest section between two watchtowers. Climb shortly and sharply, descend even more, admire the structure and internal architecture of the watch-towers and the views framed in their windows as you passed – such was the pattern of our walk down this superb grey brick road. Even better, the cloud was slowly thinning and the wind had dropped – at first the sun appeared as a watery patch of light through the grey veil, but eventually it broke through to illuminate the wall and bring out the splashes of autumn colour in the vegetation of the steep slopes beneath.

Mutianyu landscape

Interior of a restored tower at Mutianyu

A dash of autumn orange on the steep slopes

The rugged ranges behind Mutianyu

A restored watchtower on the Mutianyu Wall

Too soon we reached Tower 5, one of the main access points for the Mutianyu Great Wall, but for us it was the exit. Robert led us off the wall to follow a stone-stepped path downhill, making a pleasant detour past a limestone cave and gardens to reach the village and car park at the base.

Entry to the cave

Gardens at Mutianyu village

Here Mr Liao and his car were waiting to pick us up and drive us for another two hours further east. We were heading for the village of Gubeikou to spend the night at the "Hao jia da yuan" (Hao Family Courtyard) - a farmhouse in the village that took in guests. Our hosts were very hospitable and the inn, with its racks of drying corn and carved gourds hanging from high trellises, gave a us a glimpse of rural life in China.

Our hosts - Mr an Mme Hao

After an enormous dinner, we went to bed early, partly due to residual jet lag but mainly due to the contented tiredness of the exertions of the day. The good thing was that tomorrow we would be doing it again on another section of the Great Wall.

The Gubeikou guesthouse

Day 2 – Jinshanling Great Wall (5km - 430m ascent – 430m descent)

It had been a cold night and Mr Liao was obliged to scrape the ice from the car windscreen before we set out, after eating yet another huge meal – this time a traditional Chinese breakfast of corn porridge, egg and pancakes with pickled radish and pickled tofu. We were not going hungry on this walk.

Decorated gourds at the hostel

Section of unrestored Great Wall above Gubeikou village

Breakfast with Robert and Mr Liao

The sun was shining brightly this morning and on the hill-tops around the village we could see the towers of the unrestored Gubeikou section of the wall. Arriving in the dark, we did not appreciate that we had slept just under it. This, however, was not where we were headed. We had a 30 minute drive to reach the starting point of today's walk below the eastern end of the Jinshanling Great Wall. The track started alongside the road and Robert led us quickly up a gully, still in the shade and frosty underfoot, to reach a set of stone steps and the welcome sunshine. The steps took us the rest of the way up to the Kylin Tower. The wall here has not been restored, but having been built later in the Ming Dynasty and only being 400 years old was better preserved than the Jiankou Wall. As we reached the top, we stepped into the cold wind blowing in from Siberia – despite the sunshine, our jackets stayed on.

Climbing up to the Jinshanling Wall

The Jinshanling Wall snakes its way westward along the ridges

Crenellated walkway and watchtowers

Our first act was to look eastwards out to the spectacular sight of the Simatai Great Wall silhouetted against the morning sun. This section of wall, currently closed, sits on a jagged razor-back ridge that dominates the horizon.

The dramatic profile of the Simitai Great Wall on its jagged ridge

Descending the steps from Kylin Tower

We then turned westwards to start our hike along this section, its sinuous path lit up by the sun as it snaked its way along the steep pinnacles and saddles of a ridge top, backed by the rugged mountains and ranges receding into the distance. It was an incredibly panoramic section and probably the one that best shows the character of the Great Wall.

Nello and Robert

Descent to the Flower Tower

Early morning on the Great Wall

Looking back up to a ruined watchtower

We soon reached the restored part of the wall, and could admire the different structures - barrier walls, buttress walls, grenade slots, crenellations for archers, canon emplacements, identity bricks with ancient seals stamped on them, towers capped with gabled rooves, signal towers and the general's tower – as Robert explained the purpose and design of each part.

Watchtowers of the Jinshanling Wall backed by the profile of the Simitai section

Steep descent on a crumbling staircase

Brick-framed view of the wall

The rugged landscape of the Great Wall

As we descended the steep barrier walls you could appreciate the military planning that went into its design – even if the lower sections of the wall were breached, the attackers faced row after row of defensive cross walls above them before they got anywhere near a watchtower.

A long unrestored section of the Jinshanling Wall

16th century builder's seal stamped onto a brick

A steep set of barrier walls

Heading towards a flat-roofed tower

The watchtowers of the restored section of Jinshanling Great Wall

Before long we reached the section of this wall that has been restored. Up and down the steep stone steps we walked, once again in awe of the magnificent scenery surrounding us as well as of the structure of the wall itself, passing a procession of quaintly named towers – Flower Tower, Dark Tower, General Tower – each with its own history. Our early start had reaped the benefit of being alone on the wall for much our our walk. Only towards the end did we start running into other groups of hikers.

Exterior of the wall

A nicely restored section of the Jinshanling Wall

The Dark Tower

A guard's view of the wall

Heading towards the Dark Tower

Morning light on Jinshanling Great Wall

Climb to a flat-topped tower

Autumn colours of the Jinshanling Hills

Interior of a restored watchtower

Restored garret of the Dark Tower

Sadly, today's walk was shorter, but we had a plane to catch – our brief time in China was almost over. Once again, we used the main access point to leave the wall and follow the stone steps down to the carpark for an early lunch and the 90 minute trip to Beijing Airport. It had been a wonderful couple of days and the fulfilment of a long ambition to visit this wonder of the world. We had walked three sections of The Great Wall and seen two others. Thanks, Robert, for being an excellent guide and companion and for teaching us so much about the Great Wall of China.

Fifteen kilometres down, only 5985 to go!

Beijing bonus photos - The Forbidden City

Corner tower on the palace walls

Lion with globe

Ornamental doorway

Internal walkway

A quiet courtyard

Although these pages are not usually about cities, below are some images of The Forbidden City – it is so large that a visit to it could almost qualify as a hike. The photos are just aspects of this amazing palace that caught my interest for one reason or another.

Nello walking around the palace moat

The Golden Stream

Throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony

A palace courtyard

Crowds jostle for a photo op

Thousand Autumns Pavilion

Entry to The Forbidden city at the Meridian Gate

Crowds gather at the Gate of Supreme Harmony

Carved mythical beasts sitting on a gable

The beautifully sculpted staircase

Ancient cypress in the Imperial Gardens

The cupola in the pavilion

Outside the palace walls

Rooftops of the forbidden city

If you pose for a photo someone will take it

... and Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen Square - the symbolic heart of China

The big flowerpot - it would give any of our "big" objects a go

The workers united

On leaving the Forbidden city, we wondered over to Tian'Anmen Square, the symbolic heart of China - an eclectic mixture of sombre national monuments, huge elecronic screens, gaudy artwork and crowds of Chinese tourists visiting Beijing from the provinces.