Hiking the Wild Wall
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
We decided to add China to our trip itinerary for two reasons – the Great Wall and Hua Mountain. Okay, and the food too! But mainly the Great Wall and Hua Mountain.
Josh did a lot of research on different ways to see the Great Wall and decided he didn't want to go the normal tourist route. No big surprise there. He wanted to visit the “Wild Wall”, which is any part of the Wall that is not restored, and therefore not exactly tourist friendly. That means it's not the easiest to get to, but it's also that much more authentic, untouched, and uncrowded.
There's a lot of information out there about different sections to visit and how to do so, and we quickly realized it would be extremely hard to do on our own. Various blogs and websites warned of the many ways people are scammed attempting to reach the Wild Wall – fake train or bus representatives sending you the wrong way, taxi drivers taking you way off course, people agreeing to take you there and then taking you to one of the popular restored sections, all resulting in a big loss of time and money.
Luckily, we have a good friend that had recently done a layover tour of the Great Wall and highly recommended his guide. We reached out to Herbie, told him what we had in mind, and asked if he'd be up for it. He was! Herbie had never been to the section Josh picked, between Jiankou and Mutianyu, but was happy to attempt it with us.
On the agreed-upon day, Herbie and a driver, Mr. Lee, picked us up from our hotel in Beijing at 6:30am sharp. We drove about 2 hours, stopping for some snacks and a bathroom break, nerves making it easy for me to use the squatty potty. Finally we reached a small village of Xi Zhi Zi, following the instructions Josh had found to “drive into the village, turn at the first left where you'll see the big blue sign saying Please help us protect the Great Wall. This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public, and keep driving past that until the road becomes a worn path.” From there, we said goodbye to Mr. Lee and started walking.
We only had to follow the dirt road for about five minutes before we were confused. The info Josh had said to follow that path up and through the woods for about an hour until we hit the Wall. But the path abruptly ended with two sort-of paths that went left and then in seemingly different directions about 50 meters apart from each other. We decided on the one that seemed to go more up, and after we did so, realized we made the right decision because when we looked back on the ground from above, we could faintly see a spray-painted arrow pointing out that direction. Great, we were on the right track!
As instructed, we hiked through the woods for just over an hour, alternating between going up and going down and back up again, off-and-on joined by a small family of locals from the village led by a very enthusiastic and adorable 6-year-girl who was happy to practice her English as well as a Chinese hiking group in matching specially-made Great Wall sweatshirts.
Then we were at the Wall. Our first glimpse was a little overwhelming. We were entering at a pretty run down watchtower, very overgrown and ancient, and we were alone, so there was almost a feeling of discovery to it all. The three of us silently split up, exploring on our own and taking it all in for a few minutes. Then the excitement hit, and we were calling out the different watchtowers we could see in the distance, visually following the Wall in both directions as far as possible.
We had planned to follow the Wall east to Mutianyu, a pretty popular section for tourists, but there was a tower we could see in the other direction that looked very intact and inviting. Deciding to stick to the original plan, we started hiking. When we got to the next watchtower, we noticed that it was spray painted “MTY” with an arrow pointing down and to the right. The path we were on was a big horseshoe up a pretty steep hill, so we figured that arrow indicated a shortcut to a point farther along on the path toward Mutianyu. Bypassing it, we huffed and puffed and climbed our way up, pausing periodically to catch our breath and to take in the views.
A few other hikers passed by us as we rounded the horseshoe, and Josh and I were asked to pose in pictures with them. Herbie explained that a lot of Chinese have only ever seen people who look like us on TV and never in real life. One man complemented Josh's facial hair in broken English by telling him he had a “bootiful goatee”. Josh thanked him and gesture-explained that it was called a beard. In response, the man's face broke open with a smile, and he said, “Aahhhhhhh, bootiful beard!” It was really sweet.
At the top of the horseshoe we were rewarded with a view of where we had come from framed by the ruins of a wall, forming almost an arch. Then we were going down the other side, which felt even steeper than our ascent. And it was slippery. Herbie joyfully hop-slipped his way ahead, I clung to the sides of the wall for dear life, and Josh alternated between holding on and jumping around to take photos.
When it finally plateaued, Herbie estimated that we'd probably make it to Mutianyu in the next hour, which seemed way too soon. We once again huddled up and decided that we should try to use the shortcut to get back to where we started and head up to the farther-west tower and then double back through the shortcut again to pick up from where we currently were.
That plan worked perfectly. It added about 90 minutes to our schedule, but mainly because we hung out at the Zhengbeilou Tower for so long. This one, unlike anywhere else on the trail so far, was crowded. We quickly realized most of the 20 other people populating the area were part of one group, another hiking club. It seems that lots of hiking clubs like the Wild Wall! The Zhengbeilou Tower is high off the ground, and if you don't access this tower from somewhere else on the Wall, you can make use of any of a number of rickety-looking ladders propped up against the sides of the Wall close by to get onto the Wall from the woods, most likely for a small fee to the local that put the ladders there. Luckily, we were already on the Wall!
After munching on some moon cakes Herbie's wife had baked for us in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival the next day, we climbing up to the seemingly sturdy roof, and we got by-far the best views of the hike. This tower is perfectly positioned to look out over the mountains below and in the distance, and you can see the Wall and a bunch of towers snaking out farther west. We took tons of pictures, and then Herbie decided it was the perfect setting to practice his kung fu and give Josh a little lesson. Why not?
Once the boys were kung fu-ed out, we retraced our steps, took the shortcut again, and landed back at the bottom of the horseshoe curve. From there, it took a little less than an hour, as Herbie estimated, to reach the start of the restored section, and a couple of tables selling souvenirs made it clear we were close to our end point. Pedestrian traffic started picking up as well, and before we knew it, we hit a block in the road, with a wall in front of us, next to which stood a security guard and a section of Mutianyu wall.
We had to divert to the right on a very well-worn path, hiking semi-parallel to the Wall. Hoping to be able to hop back on a little farther down, per the internet's instructions, as well as our plan to meet Mr. Lee in the parking lot of the Mutianyu entrance, we investigated at each point that the Wall looked low enough to gain access back onto it, but found a security guard. Apparently, the internet is not as up to date as we had hoped, and we weren't able to get back on to the Wall. We wound up hiking down the path for approximately 30 minutes, Herbie messaged Mr. Lee when he got some cell service, and we were picked up about five kilometers down the road from our intended end point.
Happy, exhausted, and hungry, Herbie took us to his favorite post-Wall restaurant, which was astoundingly delicious, and then we snoozed our way back to the hotel.