Sleeper Train Adventures: The Great Wall Off the Beaten Path Jiankou Section
We arrived in Beijing at 7 am, after twelve and a half hours on our sleeper train from Xi’an. We headed straight to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. But, I’m just going to skip right past our morning around there and get straight to the fun stuff.
The Great Wall of China. Cue travel music.
I love the Great Wall. Every time you visit there is something new to see. The goal for this part of our trip was to get to the Great Wall. We didn’t have a tour guide or really a plan even. The only thing we had going for us was our hostel, in the mountains a little ways down from the Mutianyu section. From the Forbidden City we booked a Didi to our hostel and settled in for the hour and a half ride.
Our Didi driver dropped us off in front of a gate at the base of a hill. Looking at the map I assumed this was our stop. So we lugged our bags all the way up a steep hill, passing three very curious dogs in a kennel along the way.
We finally turned a corner where we could see the building that matched the photos from the website. Going up the last stretch we met a man, who upon seeing us called immediately for his wife. (Some things never change.) Next thing we know we are greeted by a cheerful older lady, who starts fussing about, taking all Jackie’s bags and ordering her husband to take mine.
Once we walked in the door, my Mandarin skills were put to the test again. Āyí (auntie) was so excited to have foreigners staying in her home and wanted to accommodate us any way she could. We immediately loved the place and it’s inviting ambiance.
We were so tired from our journey so far and hadn’t had anything to eat yet. Once I told her we were hungry and tired, she shooed us towards the table ran off to get snacks. Our table was soon filled with all kinds of new Chinese snacks to sample. Everything she put in front of us was followed by me asking “Nà shì shénme” (what is that?). Anything I couldn’t figure out, I took a picture of and sent to my coteacher for verification.
I finally got her to sit down and join us for a chat. Her Mandarin was a little harder to understand, so I asked her to write down words that I didn’t know. I have found that I have picked up reading and writing quicker than listening. It was once again nice to speak to someone new in a relaxing environment.
After a much needed break we asked for directions to an entry point to the Great Wall. On our way up the mountain we passed multiple spots where people were strolling along the wall enjoying the afternoon. It was a very different picture than the hustle of the tourist sections and we couldn’t wait to have our own piece of the wall.
Before we headed out, she showed us our room. Once we opened the door we had to force ourselves not to abandon all our plans and lay down and relax. We were seriously contemplating changing our trip plans to spend another day enjoying this place.
The Great Wall Of China
On our way out the door, Āyí volunteered her husband to drive us to the wall. Not knowing what exactly to expect, we took her up on the offer. As we were leaving he walked out the shed with two walking sticks. At first I was confused. I’ve been to the Great Wall before. I didn’t need that.
He dropped us off.
When the car stopped we saw a guard hut and a sign. In the background was a loud speaker blaring a repetitive message. He looks over at me and says “We’re here.” The Great Wall was nowhere in sight. All we saw was a bridge leading up to a mountain path. I was a little skeptical after seeing the sign, but when we got out the car and the two guards came out and just stood my the man and watched us, I figured we were ok. I immediately thought, “Oh man! They just don’t know me! No public access? Let me hurry up before they change their minds!” Later on our walk I saw multiple markers for hikers and I felt a lot better about our trail.
Come to find out later (and by later I mean right now) it’s possible we were on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall. A section considered the most dangerous because it is a steep mountainous section that hasn’t been restored since its completion.
It was a LONG trek up. The overgrown path was narrow and wet from the day’s rain. About an hour into our hike I knew one thing- I am a firm believer of walking sticks now.
I literally almost ran into the wall. It just popped out of nowhere. All of a sudden- BAM!- bricks! We spent the next hour making our way through an even narrower, overgrown path, climbing the steep, centuries- old steps. At one point I told Jackie, “We officially have no cell phone signal. Please don’t fall over the edge. Nobody can help us here.”
Right before we hit the first tower there was a natural look out point. The view from the top was just breathtaking.
While we didn’t see as many towers or long spans of restored walkways, it was a much more natural and authentic experience.
The hide down was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was much harder to keep from sliding down the the wet, worn steps.
It had also grown mistier as the day went on. By this point my jacket and shoes were soaked, and it seemed like every branch we passed was trying to reach out and grab my hair.
The loud speaker message, that had been our compass throughout our hike, had long since gone out. But it was easy to navigate using other natural markers along the path. We made it back with plenty of time before nightfall and at a large fulfilling dinner at the hostel.
After a much needed shower, we settled in to our first real bed on this trip, and were asleep instantly.