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Walking Back In Time Along the Great Wall of China

This post covers our experience walking along both unrestored and restored sections of the Great Wall of China from Jiankou to Mutianyu, China. This post will list the pros and cons of both sections of the wall as well as provide directions on how to get to the unrestored section of the Great Wall if you want it give it a try as well!

Last Updated: February 2020

When arriving in Beijing, we both knew a must-do was to spend one of our three days exploring the nearby sections of the Great Wall of China, as arguably the wall is the most iconic monument in all of China. Having learned about how the Great Wall was built as protection from the northern Mongol invaders as a high-schooler, I was giddy with excitement to finally get my first chance to see this colossal feat in person – I mean come on it spans 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers)! My excitement was further amplified as while a lot of China is being modernized, the Great Wall is an everlasting legacy of an ancient time where construction of such a huge military barricade almost seems impossible.

Luckily, Rid had visited a restored section of the wall from Jinshanling to Simitai in 2008 and could attest to how it was seeing the Great Wall for the first time with hundreds (if not thousands!) of Chinese tourists all pushing you. While the restored section was crowded with tourists of all types, it is for good reasons as the stones have all been replaced to create smooth walking pavements, the towers are easily accessible, and the wall looks stunning in photos. While the glitz of the perfect Great Wall picture has its allure, imagine being the only people standing on top of a tower of the Great Wall in its original (now wild) form with trees and bushes pushing through the stones with only a few other people off in the distance. Well my friends, we are here to tell you that you don’t have to choose between the untamed beauty of the unrestored sections and the glossy finish of the restored sections as you can hit both in the same day trip from Beijing.

Being a logistical magician, Rid found an obscure blog on the internet that laid out directions to this small mountain village where you can hike up the mountain through a forest for about an hour and then climb a farmer’s ladder onto an unrestored section of the wall (see below for directions from Beijing to Xizhazi). If you’re like me and a little hesitant to either believe everything your partner says they have found on the internet, you will be happy to know that we actually did find this mythical ladder and didn’t even have to pay to use it (the original blog Rid found said it would cost roughly $5 per person to use the ladder). After safely climbing up the ladder, pure bliss set in as we soaked in the amazing views of the lush valley below, the Great Wall winding along the ridgelines off into the distance, as we sat alone on the Zhangbeilou watchtower. Seeing the Great Wall for the first time is already a breathtaking experience, but to sit in complete solitude, struck with awe and contemplating how the heck this was built was one of the coolest moments of my life.

If you are tinkering with the idea of adding the unrestored section to your Great Wall experience, we highly recommend it as the advantages are worth it:

  1. Hardly any other people will be hiking along this section of the wall, so you get to really connect with the feeling of the Great Wall as well as take a ton of pictures of just you and the wall.
  2. While the path can be rocky and uneven at times which can get a bit tricky, it is so awesome to see how nature has interwoven its way into the wall over time. You feel like Indiana Jones hiking through the lost spoils of an ancient civilization.
  3.  The magnitude of engineering is intensified as the route of the wall are more steep and include more crazy sections – don’t worry though as there are also shortcuts so you can observe how brave those who used to guard the wall were while avoiding any threat of injury.
  4. There were a few vendors on the unrestored section selling souvenirs, drinks (including beers 😊), and small snacks so take a break to sit and take it all in. We spent 45 minutes having a beer with one of the vendors where we talked through Google translate about her life, which was another highlight of our hike.
  5. The cherry on top is that this unrestored section connects easily with a restored section so you can see experience both versions in the same hike!
  6. The hike only takes about 4-5 hours at a relatively slow pace.

Now that we hyped up the unrestored section of the wall, let us also give credit to the restored section as well. For all of you who aren’t looking to do a long day hike or want to wear a more fashionable outfit, the restored section is equally as amazing with stunning views and some steepish parts that still give you a small dose of exhilaration.

Walking along the restored section will cause you to bump into more people but this specific section of the wall isn’t as popular as Badaling, Jinshanling or Simitai so you aren’t fighting your way through thick crowds all day. A cool memento is that you can even sign the dedicated graffiti walls – we promise it was all legal 🙂 A funky addition to the restored section is how you can get off the wall, where you can either take a gondola down or ride the luge down! We highly recommend the luge option as it cost the same as the gondola (100 RMB/person, $14pp) but was super fun – just remember to let the speed devils in your group go first so they don’t get stuck behind the grandmas (Sorry Rid!).

Luge option to get off the Wall!

Directions to the Unrestored Section:

It’s a bit of a logistical challenge getting to the unrestored section of the wall, but totally worth it. Depending on where you are in Beijing will depend on how long it takes you to get to Dongzhimen subway station (station on line 2 or 13).

From here you’ll need to follow the signs for the Bus transfer Hall/Dongzhimen Public Transportation Hub to hop aboard bus 916 Express (916快 – you can take bus 916 but it’s slower i.e. more stops). With the Express (12 RMB) it takes about an hour to do the 15 stops to Yangjiayuan (杨家园). Get off at the Yangjiayuan stop and walk for about 10 minutes to another bus stop, Yujiayuan (于家园) bus stop. To go between the two bus stops, head in a south then east then north direction (use your phone’s compass!), which looks like the below image. If you’re no good with compass points, effectively it’s the first main left and then walk to the main road before turning left again.

From here, you can wait until 11:30am to take bus H25 to Xizhazi village (西栅子, sometimes called Nanjili) which is 24 stops away – show the driver and he’ll tell you where to get off. Please note: There are only two H25 buses per day heading to Xizhazi – at 11.30am and 4.30pm. The 4.30pm bus is too late to undertake the hike so you need to leave Beijing in plenty of time to hit the 11.30am bus.

We arrived well before the 11.30am bus (Rid got anxious so we left early!), so rather than wait for XX minutes for the bus, you can do what we did – negotiate with a local taxi driver (who was conveniently waiting for us at Yujiayuan bus stop) to take you to the start of the hike. These guys know exactly where to go, save you the time of having to wait for the later bus and drive you there in 30-40 minutes. We paid 180 RMB (at the time $25), but this was worth it so we could start our hike earlier and remove the hassle of another bus and potentially getting lost.

From the drop off point you head up through a dirt road, which soon leads to a forest path. It should be obvious where to head as the main road and route through the forest is well worn. We hiked in September and the mosquitoes were rampant, so be sure to wear long sleeves/have repellent for the forest section. After climbing up for about 45 minutes, passing signs showing you’re in the right area (‘Keep the wall wild and wonderful!’), you reach a junction, where you’ll need to head to the right. Following this up will lead you to the wall and the farmer’s ladder where you can get on top of Zhangbeilou tower to start your hike. There was no one there when we climbed up but sometimes a farmer will demand a small amount (5-10 RMB) to go up their ladder – just pay it or else your journey has been wasted unless you can scale the wall… it’s totally worth the effort – you’ll see a view like this from the top…

Do NOT go to the right once you are on the tower, this will lead you towards Jiankou which is treacherously steep, although we did see some wack-a-doodles coming from that direction towards us! Head out of the tower towards the left and follow the path from there. It’s easy to avoid getting lost, however there is one point where you have the option of either doing the horseshoe shaped Ox-horn edge (which will add an extra 30-45 minutes to your hike), or taking a 10-minute bypass through the forest (take the path to the right of the tower marked with red graffiti ‘MTY’), off the wall, before rejoining the wall and continuing on. We chose the 10-minute bypass as the bend has circa 70% slopes on the way down and we didn’t want to risk a slip but it looks like an awesome undertaking!

There is only one other tricky point on the hike, getting from the old section onto the restored section entails you climbing up and over a 5ft wall once you get to Tower 20. This wall has foot holes and a pole sticking out and is easy enough to climb up and over but those with restricted mobility may struggle. There is also apparently a bypass round the side of the blocked tower and back onto the wall, but we didn’t do that as we were happy to climb over. Once over the wall you’re on the restored section and can go all the way to Mutianyu.

Once you get off the wall at Mutianyu, (please tell us you took the luge!) you need to take a shuttle bus back to the Great Wall parking lot (10 RMB), then bus H23 (4 RMB) to Huairou Beidajie bus stop before jumping on board the 916 Express bus back to Beijing.

As a disclaimer we should add at no point were we challenged to produce our entrance tickets on the wall, but we understand this may be a possibility. We also can’t vouch for any blockades that may be put in place. The hike is undertaken with a certain element of risk, but man, what a reward!

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