The International Steam Pages

Private Great Wall Hike Part 1

In 2008, I celebrated a big birthday by indulging myself in an orgy of conspicuous consumption and other stupidity in Situbondo, Java. You can read about it elsewhere on my site. For 2009, to prove that the old boy can still do some of the things he could do 30 years ago, I took my family and visitor John Raby on an ambitious hike on the Wild Great Wall near our house in Jiaojiehe in the mountains north of Beijing. As someone once said, every journey starts with a single step and in this case it meant joining our new mid-morning bus service to Huairou after our standard leisurely breakfast of bacon, eggs, French bread, Camembert cheese and as a local sop, Yunnan coffee.

This took us over the pass (which includes a spiral) to Lianhuachi - this is in effect now 90% a tourist village. Note the two year old 'repro' Great Wall feature and horses for the fat middle class tourists to ride up and down the road and also towards the official back gate to the restored section at Mutianyu above the village. This was the fourth time I have attempted the circuit. The first time was anti-clockwise with my son Chris back in 2005 when we allowed insufficient time and ended up crashing our way out down a pathless water course. The second time was with Yuehong in 2007 when we managed to take 7 hours clockwise as we took an intuitive path down which expired in the middle of a valley. We got out, obviously, the most memorable part was surprising a badger in the daylight after we eventually found another track. The third time was with Peter Nettleship in 2008, when to my shame I took the wrong fork early on and we ended up with no more than a distant view of the wall. This time I was taking no chances and I had 'book marked' the right path. Leaving the back of the village, after about 2km we came to the offending fork and turned left:

After this, in theory, it would have been difficult to go wrong and so it proved, you can just see one of the watch-towers behind, at this point everyone was full of energy - it wouldn't last mainly because although it was overcast, the temperature was in the upper 20s and the humidity of Sumatran proportions.:

Never mind, as we climbed, looking back the views were already stunning:

Apart from its status as an unofficial back way in to Mutianyu, the trail serves groves of chestnuts which are harvested in the autumn.

The reason for the path being so clear was quite obvious, with total lack of regard for the semi-wild environment, the collectors take the easy way out and dose the vegetation with huge amounts of glyphosphate herbicide. Naturally, they leave behind large numbers of plastic bottles as evidence of their activities:

By now we had been going for an hour and what we once called the 'lost Fukawee Tribe' effect was kicking in as the rest of the group waited while I did a 'recce' for the final climb to the wall:

It was only about 50 metres but it was totally overgrown, eventually we got a great view of the hordes of tourists on the wall by looking back towards the entrance, these days many of them here are from overseas.

Looking ahead, the restored area ends about 2/3 of the way above the watch-tower in the centre of the picture. With an electricity cable strung along the side of the wall here, there's some kind of trail just below it, you just have to watch out for flying litter from above... 

Somehow, we found ourselves mixing briefly with the more moneyed gentry, the alternative to this steep ascent would have been the worst part of the alternative 'off-piste' section; the climb held no terrors for 16 year old Yiran. The senior members of the team took it rather more slowly.

Immediately beyond this point the wall is currently under restoration and this section is strictly off limits. So, much to the chagrin of the workers 'gaffer' we headed back into the forest again following the trail paralleling the wall - we had used this successfully before, it may be used by other hikers or by the nut gatherers. We knew there were places where the wall had collapsed so rejoining it would not an issue. At last after 3 hours, we were now on the Wild Great Wall!

Click here for our Private Great Wall Hike Part 2.

Rob Dickinson