The Great Wall is with any doubt the highlight of our trip to China. Nowadays many guided tours bring tourists to the restored parts of the wall, but we decided instead to go on our own and visit one of the original sections, fallen into disrepair, but 100% authentic. Here’s how we did it!
More than 20.000-km long, the Great Wall of China was built and restored over two millenniums under many dynasties; what remains today is mostly from the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century).
Several sections have recently been repaired and made tourist friendly, which means that taxis, buses and also cable-cars can literally carry you on the wall. But that doesn’t sound fun, does it?
We love nature, we don’t mind hiking, and we prefer to approach destinations in the most authentic way when possible, that most of the times is on foot or by using local means of transport: that’s why we opted for a more adventurous way and to reach the Great Wall by ourselves!
HOW TO REACH THE GREAT WALL FROM BEIJING BY PUBLIC BUS?
We won’t go straight to a tourist access but reach instead the original section of the wall at Jiankou, and then hike back for 8 km to reach the restored part at Mutianyu.
Doing some research online and speaking with the kind staff at our Happy Dragon Alley Hotel in Beijing, we planned to leave in the early morning and reach Dongzhimen station. This is the hub where all buses going out of town leave from. We hop on bus 916 with direction Huairou Beidajie and enjoy the about 1-hour-long ride as we get away from the city pollution and air becomes cleaner.
Screenshots on our phones and Chinese writings on pieces of paper from our hotel are all we got as we have to decode from ideograms which stop to get off at.
Once in Huairou, a centre approximately 60 km from Beijing, we have to change bus. Not the mention, we are the only foreigners, everybody looks at us with curiosity! From Huairou, there are many buses that bring directly to Mutianyu (h23, h24, h35, h36), but we need to go to a village called Xizhazi, from where we will hike to reach the Great Wall. Some touts/drivers approach us trying to offer rides to the wall, but prices are obviously exaggerated and it is really hard to talk to them as their English is quite poor! At least if you want to rip me off learn some English! We are now looking for bus h25 or h36, but we missed the one at 6.30 am and apparently have to wait until 11.30 for the next one.
After a while a group of French guys join us but they quickly hop on their bus to Mutianyu, whilst we have to find a solution that works for us. Later an athletic and equipped couple from Spain is in a similar situation to ours, but they want to start their hike from even further than we do, a more rural portion of the wall. They’re in a hurry since they need more time to hike, we aren’t organised enough (the best our backpacks could offer were sneakers and jeans), so we can’t find a deal to share a ride and they are soon gone too.
Eventually we find a decent English speaker and have to bargain a price for a car to Xizhazi. We managed to get the bill down from 250 to 150 yuan (about 25$). Some touts actually refused to bring us there, as if it wasn’t worth the return trip for them, and lowering the price was such a challenge that we started to think the village was very very far.
Our driver goes quite slowly through a nice valley up the mountains that reminds us our Alps back in Italy, but after not much more than 30 minutes we are already dropped at Xizhazi: it wasn’t that far and we got a bit of a rip-off. But that’s alright now, our hike to the Great Wall is before us and it will be a day to remember! The car drops us in the middle of nowhere and the driver points left to the mountains: observing carefully we can spot a watchtower on the edge of the ridge, here we go!
JIANKOU SPOT – ZHENGBEILOU TOWER
Funnily, since there are very rare English writings in Beijing, the only sign accompanying us along the beginning of the trail is “This section of Great Wall is not open to the public”. We can see Jainkou spot and Zhengbeilou watchtower quite clearly now, but what we can’t seem to find is the right path towards it. It is early November, and a myriad of leaves have just fallen down from the trees and covered the ground.
At one point we make a wrong turn and start climbing up a steep side, seeing Zhengbeilou tower right in front of us. We are almost free climbing now, the watchtower is quite close, but it becomes too hard and dangerous and this isn’t clearly the right way, we have to go back. Finally we find some red marks on the trees and get back in track. This path leads more on the left side, it actually goes along the wall for a while, a 7 to 9 meter high barrier impossible to get onto from here! Until we find a half ruined tower that has a hole on its side and… We step on the majestic Great Wall of China!
CONQUERING THE GREAT WALL!
We climb on the highest point of this collapsed watchtower and get the first of many breathtaking views we will enjoy today. What a wonder. It was indeed a challenge, we lost our way, lost some time, but that was our aim, to take the adventurous way to reach our goal, in order to feel like we deserved to be here!
From now on we’ll be like immersed in a parallel world, our mind will start wandering in timeless fantasies, picturing ancient nomad populations living on one side of the wall, and an old empire on the other. It’ll not be easy to find the words to describe this, I’ll do my best but for sure it won’t be enough to explain the beauty we are about to witness. Again this is only made possible by a sort of “conquest” of the destination, because had we gone to Badaling or the newly paved wall of Mutianyu by bus and then taken a stair or cable-car to get on the wall and be together with other 20, 50, or hundreds of people, well it wouldn’t certainly have had the same effect!
OX HORN EDGE WALL
As we get a 360° endless view and don’t see anyone around, we enjoy this special moment, before starting walking. As told, this portion is in disrepair, edges are often missing, plants are growing on the actual wall, and there’s only a narrow path where people can walk. The hike is safe, but never let your guard down, the wall is at an average height of 7 meters from the ground! We are not even sure to be in the right direction, until we see the astonishing Ox Horn Edge Wall, a section that goes incredibly steeply up on a mountain side and down the other, resembling exactly an Ox Horn.
While we are still speechless and taking millions of pictures and videos, we encounter the first other hikers, a group of Singaporean and Malaysian men who reached us from behind. They spent the night in a nearby village and started their excursion from Zhengbeilou tower.
The streak of watchtowers is perfect, there’s one every 100 foot steps, it’s said that this was done so that every point of the wall was within arrow range. The towers themselves are great examples of architecture, two storey buildings with windows and loopholes on the sides, rooms for food and ammo storage, and an inner stair leading up on the roof. Some are in good condition, some other are half destroyed, but it’s amazing to think that this area is authentic and has been untouched for over five centuries and more in some points.
While resting on top of a tower, a paced duo arrives: the Spanish couple! They tell us how they wanted to start further but then ended up at the famous Zhengbeilou as well, and were surprised to see us already there (we were surprised too to be honest, after losing our way!). As the saying in Italy tells “all roads lead to Rome”, here it’s safe to say that all roads lead to the Great Wall!
From up here the view is really spectacular and goes as far as the eye can see: finally the air is fresh and not polluted, and in the same way the wall is visible from anywhere around. Carrying on downhill (as we hiked up before to reach Jiankou, the way to Mutianyu is fairly in descent), we start to see clearer restored watchtowers from far. We reach a tree decorated with red ribbons that marks the end of Jiankou and beginning of Mutianyu section, a vendor and his stall sadly welcome us… We have to trespass a cemented door (hiking at Jiankou is officially prohibited) to get on the new path.
Even though the wall looks gorgeous with its smooth pavement and its parapets perfectly crenellated, we feel already a bit nostalgic after leaving the authentic section. However, photographs here come out outstandingly and, being at the top of Mutianyu not many tourist make it here, so we take advantage of the situation to get some cool shots.
ORIGINAL WALL VS. RESTORED WALL
In this new portion of the Great Wall, everything has been restored, as we are coming from the original side we can tell it’s kind of fake: the access to the interiors of most of the towers which have collapsed have been blocked by cemented doors as the one we saw before, and steep stairs connect the main path to the top of the tower. For this reason the walkway here is more of a stairway. The floor is paved better than a high shopping street and together with the presence of hundreds of people this takes some magic away from the setting, but it is still pretty awesome.
We are so glad we decided to start the hike from Jiankou and we could enjoy all we did while lost in an awesome landscape, so we don’t mind it. Only thing we can do, is recommend you do the same, or begin from another original section of the Great Wall, or if you start from Mutianyu, go further up and get a glimpse of a real and authentic side as Jiankou. Oh, I almost forgot, clearly there is no entrance fee at Jiankou (there’s not even an entrance), while at Mutianyu the ticket costs 50 yuan per person.
As we reach the entrance/exit at Mutianyu, it is almost 4 pm! We have been walking a good 5 hours, roughly 3-4 km earlier in the forest, plus 6-8 km on the wall. Remember to wear properly when possible (if you get there from the Philippines like us, we can understand you), bring some snacks and most importantly decent provisions of water, above all if you go during the summer. Autumn is a good period to go, the temperature is around 5-10°C but you get warmed up while hiking, and the sky is clear blue, although going when the trees are in flower must be amazing too!
Being quite tired and satisfied from our effort today, we opt for the toboggan slide down along the Great Wall! It’s a fairly long way down through hairpins and curves, a thrilling way to end a memorable day.
It will not be over yet because somehow we can’t find the bus back to Huairou. We meet two Chinese tourist girls and follow them trustfully to look for the bus stop, but nothing, they reveal not to know the area better than us. Fortunately they do know Chinese when a driver stops by and offers to bring all of us back to town for 5 yuan each (80 cents, not ripped-off this time!), so we end up in a van with some boys and we all start laughing for the funny situation!
Once back to Huairou, bus 916 running until 6 pm at least brings us back to Dongzhimen, we eat a quick dinner and return back to our room, exhausted but happier than ever.
- Happy Dragon Alley Hotel, Beijing: perfect location, 3min to subway in the centre of Bejijng, helpful English speaking staff, style designed themed rooms, AC/heating, TV, bar at ground floor, excellent value for money.
- Bus 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou: 6 yuan with Beijing Card (12 w/out), 70 minutes;
- Bus h23, h24, h35, h36 from Huairou to Mutianyu/Xizhazi: 5-10 yuan, 45-60 mins;
- Private transfer to Xizhazi for Jiankou: fair price between 120-150 yuan;