Walk on the wild side

If you ever visit the Great Wall, go wild. As in wild, unrestored sections of the wall.

They’re a lot less likely to be crowded and reaching them can be an adventure in itself. Last May, a friend and I hired a driver to take us from downtown Beijing to Jiankou, a section of the wall on the outskirts of Beijing built in the 1300s.

Our driver didn’t speak much English, and my Chinese was pretty bad at the time. I knew we were going to be in for an adventure when our driver, who was already talking on one cell phone, took a call on a second and used his knees to steer the taxi through heavy traffic.

We stopped a few times along the way so he could ask for directions. In one village, he pulled over in front of a huge billboard of Hu Jintao, the former president of China. Hu had come to the village several years ago, and in the picture he was surrounded by a huge entourage. A villager our driver had stopped to ask for directions turned to me and asked if I recognized Hu. “Yes, of course I do,” I said in Chinese. He laughed and complimented my Chinese.

After a few wrong turns, we finally arrived at the foot of the mountain that led to the Jiankou section of the wall. Unlike other sections of the wall I had visited, such as Huanghua and Jinshanling, there were no easy routes to get to Jiankou. It was climb the mountain or bust.

Our driver told us to be careful, and said the path to the top was very dangerous. He held his palm nearly vertical to emphasize just how steep it was.

The trail to the top of the mountain was marked by pieces of red tape that had been tied to tree limbs, and after a couple of hours of following them, we made it to the wall.

Final ascent to the the Wall.

Our ascent to the wall included climbing a rickety ladder. The red markers, like the one at the top of the photo, guided us from the bottom of the mountain to the wall.

The wall was nearly empty, except for an exhausted European man who we ran into at one of the towers. He said he had been hiking all day, and that some of the sections he passed were very scary. Parts of the wall were crumbling, and the stairs were nearly vertical, he said. If you didn’t watch what you were doing, it was very easy to fall. “I’d never do it again,” he said.

Which direction did you come from, I asked. He pointed to the left, where the wall snaked up and down for as far as I could see.

Having already scaled a mountain to get this far, we turned right, which appeared to be a more manageable trek, and began our journey.


The Jiankou section of the Great Wall. A hiker who had just come from this section told us some of the paths were “very scary.”


Part of the Great Wall at Huanghua, an unrestored section that I hiked in April 2011, was destroyed to build a road.


Another section of Huanghua that was destroyed for new development.

The Great Wall at Huanghua.

Huanghua was almost empty when I visited.

Broken wall.

The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. Parts of this section, which I visited in June 2011, are crumbling.

Great Wall.

Some of the towers at Jinshanling appear to have been restored.

Great Wall.

Some of the sections are not for the faint of heart.

Great Wall at Jinshanling.

On a clear day, the views at Jinshanling are spectacular.


A section of the wall at Jinshanling, silhouetted against the sky.

15 thoughts on “Walk on the wild side

  1. Well done ! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me… I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers. http://www.wildgreatwall.com/how-difficult-is-it-to-do-great-wall-one-day-hike-from-jinshanling-to-simatai-west/

  2. In my youth I would have loved and dared to do this. Now, my knees wouldn’t allow for such a thing. I did do a part nearer Beijing two years ago and I am glad I did. Even if someone isn’t able to get to the remoter parts of the Great Wall it is still very worth it to get to some part of it and walk and stand on the top and think about the pride, arrogance, fear, and hope that it represents.

    • I’m glad you got to make it. I’ve been to the Great Wall 5 or 6 times now and it never gets old. If I had the time and money, I’d like to spend a month or two hiking the different sections.

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

  3. That third to last photo is really scary. It looks very, very steep and high. It looks like a really cool place though I’m not sure if I can hike it all the way up.

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