Getting lost at the Great Wall and exploring the Wall’s wild and deteriorated sections was one of our favorite adventures on our trip so far. Nothing went as planned and with each problem we encountered we were able to turn those issues into opportunities to make the trip much better.
The original plan seemed simple enough. We would hike the last section of Jiankou, known as the “wild wall” due to its unrestored state to Mutinayu, which is a restored tourist section of the wall Michelle Obama had visited when she was First Lady. We read many blog posts that it was a 4-5 hour hike from Jiankou to Mutinayu and we planned to stay in a nearby village for easy access to the wall.
While even locals suggest getting a guide for Jiankou we wanted to have the hike to ourselves. In retrospect, this was perhaps just the first of several mistake.
Mistake #1 – Location of Hotel
Quan will be the first person to tell you, “I don’t do directions.” That become abundantly clear after the day on the Great Wall. With Quan having lived in China for 5 years and is fluent in Mandarin, Jesse took a back seat and let Quan plan the trip. She booked a hotel in Hauirou a village in the mountains near several of the wall entrances so “we can beat all those tourists coming from Beijing in the morning and we will have the wall to ourselves.”
Mistake #2 -Drop-off Spot in Xozhazi VillageWe got to the bus stop around 9:30 and thought it would be faster to hitch a ride into town. After a few unsuccessful attempts including trying to get in the back of a cart of tool supplies being pulled by a motorbike, a nice older couple pulled over and agreed to give us a ride.
Quan explained in Chinese that we were hoping to catch a ride to Huairou which also happened to be where they were heading. Then we explained that from Huairou we planned to find a taxi to Xizhazi Village, where we would start the trail. The male driver said in Chinese, “a taxi will cost you 200 RMB ($30) to drive you from Huairou to Xizhzhi AND it will be a big detour as we are now halfway to Xizhazi!” Quan then said, “we were told we could get a taxi there for 150 RMB ($22).” To which the man said “I’ll drive you there for 150 RMB we don’t have to be anywhere till 12:00.” And so we had a deal!
They were a lovely couple and ended up saving us a lot of time by dropping us off directly. Unfortunately what we didn’t know was that Xizhazi Village has 5 areas of town. As we would later sort out, the trailhead we planned to do started at the end of Xizhazi Village Area 2. Unfortunately we were dropped off at Area 5. While everything seemed correct, the blog post we had read told us that the trailhead was at the end of the road just past a playground (which it was) near a white toilet building (which is was), we were at the wrong spot.Mistake #3 – Missing All the Signals That We Were On The Wrong Trailhead
As we started hiking, we quickly started to see the Wall at the top of the hills. The blogs we read said it was a 30-60 minute uphill hike to the wall and we would come to a fork in the road and needed to go right. The blog also provided detailed information about a critical fork in the road where you had to turn right. We found many forks in the road which should’ve clued us into the fact that we were on the wrong trail!
We hiked about an hour before reaching the wall, this section was completely crumbled.
We saw an older Chinese couple hiking (these are the first people we saw). We walked up to them at what looked like a dead end as it was a straight wall about 30 feet high that could not be climbed. After snapping pictures from one another we said “we are going right to go to Mutianyu.” They were shocked to hear this from us and said “Mutanyu is that way (pointing to the left)” Disaster averted! Had we gone right we would have walked the Great Wall back to Beijing! They also said to us “Mutianyu is very, very far away. Impossible to do in one day!”
We unfortunately did not pay close enough attention to this statement or we would have been clued in to the fact that we were in fact at a much further away section of the wall than originally planned.
Mistake # 4 – Thinking We Were Somewhere We Weren’t
Now we needed to figure out how to climb back up the wall as our path was completely deteriorated. We had read blog posts that there is a man with a ladder to help in such a section and he charges 5 RMB ($0.75) for this. We thought he was taking the day off not realizing we were about 6 miles away from this location.
Luckily there was a path around this section which got a little dicey, but got us back on the wall.
We found our way back to the wall and after 5 more minutes of climbing we reached a totally renovated section, with stairs that were easy to walk on for about 300 feet. It turned out this section was surrounded on both sides by “wild,” deteriorated sections of the wall. There wasn’t a person in site.
The Amazing Great Wall
We hiked on the wall for another 2 hours. It was a crystal clear blue sky days. It was an amazing experience and those first two hours were incredible. We climbed what appeared to be the highest tower called Eagle Flies Facing Upward.”Here was the point we reached the Eagle Flies Facing Upward Tower:
We also climbed down the Heaven Stairs, all without seeing a single other person along the way with the exception of those friends we bumped into right before we almost went the wrong way. We could see green mountains, rock covered mountains and the endless wall in all its glory.
After coming down the Heaven Stairs we saw 2 Chinese men who reiterated that we were very far from Mutanyu. Not knowing where we were we didn’t really believe them. We just told ourselves that there was a cultural difference in what constitutes “very far” in terms of hiking.
We hiked another 2.5 hours on the wild wall that was either partially or fully deteriorated in parts, climbing steep sections that went both up and down. At around 4:30 a group of 3 British hikers told us Mutianyu was 3 hours away and it would be dark in an hour. We were confused but not upset because we were having an amazing day. However, with darkness approaching we were concerned as we had no interest sleeping on the wall with no tent or sleeping bags (however, we were prepared with extra water and headlamps).
Here’s a video of part of the Wild Section of the Wall:
Finding Our Way Down
The last hour on the wall we had seen in the distance people standing at the lookout of a tower at the tallest point. We believed that if we got there we could find other people so we hustled. However, the steep up and down sections of the wall make going fast very difficult.
About 15 minutes from the tower we encountered two men with a ladder. This was who we were looking for! After 6 hours of hiking we finally reached the part of the wall we had intended to start at! They told us that if we reached that tower there was a trail down to a village on the left side. We paid our 5 RMB each and reached the tall tower at 5:20. We had been on the wall for 6 hours and the sun was already setting. We raced down and got to the village at 5:50 just as it got completely dark.
The town was pretty desolate. It appeared nobody was around until we came across what looked like a house. We walked into what turned out to be a one room hotel with a restaurant. The owner asked if we wanted to eat and Quan said, “we’ll take whatever you have, we are starving.” We had a 5 course meal that we stuffed in our mouths in about 10 minutes.
The owner got a taxi driver in town to drive us the 45 minutes back to our hotel for 200 RMB ($30). The driver told Quan that Xhoxahi has 5 parts and we were in part 2. We then realized that we had ended where we were supposed to start.
We showed him a picture of where we started the hike as well of sections on the wall. He told us we were lucky because he regularly hikes the wall and we hiked the “most beautiful parts of the wall.”
We were exhausted but it was a great day and we were so happy with our mistakes.
Great Wall Recommendation. While we made a lot of mistakes we would totally recommend the route we took, it is a road less travelled.
Here at reccomendations should you want to do this same hike:
Please watch the video below and follow these steps to find the wall: (due to poor internet connectivity we aren’t able to upload this video, but will upload at a later date).
Pack plenty of water we both had 3 liters each.
Pack food- we brought snacks but wished we packed lunch. Our original plan had us back in civilization for a late lunch. Never could we imagine we’d spend the majority of the day on the walk.
Don’t wear loose clothing. There are sections that you have to climb.
Most of all, bring extra money in case you make mistakes and have to pay someone to drive you where you need to go, although getting lost is half the fun!
Strongly consider getting a guide. Language was in our favor since Quan spoke Chinese which really at the end to communicate our way down as well as to arrange food and transportation in the village. Remember google translate doesn’t work in China.
Last but not least- no matter what happens, don’t forget to take lots of pictures and enjoy your time on this masterpiece of human construction!