From Heart And Seoul

Hiking the Wild Great Wall: Jiankou to Mutianyu

January 18, 2017 37 Comments

Where do I even begin?! The Great Wall of China is a bucket-list item, so coming to Beijing wasn’t going to be complete without checking this one off. However, it’s January. It’s cold. And there are so many choices.

Getting there is one thing. China’s traffic is among the worst I’ve seen, and when you drive in Seoul on a regular basis, that’s saying something. You’ll probably want someone else to navigate the mess that is Beijing (home to a casual 22 mil). If you’re looking for adventure and heading to the Wild Wall (Jiankou, Gubeikou, Huanghuacheng),  you probably want to make arrangements with a private driver & guide. If you don’t mind the crowds, or want an easier trek – you can get to the restored sections (Mutianyu, Badaling) with a tour group or taxi. In theory, it’s even possible to take public transportation (but read up on the scams first here!).

After countless hours of research (and a lot of indecisiveness about hiking 5 hours in January)…. we decided to go for the Wild Wall. We would start off hiking the untouched section at Jiankou, and another 4-5 hours later, we would finish the hike along restored Mutianyu.

So we had just booked a 10 hour day trip. Half of which would be spent in Beijing traffic, and the other half in below-freezing temperatures. Sounds great. We were super excited (but really we were).

Our guide, Leo, and his driver picked us up from our hotel at 8am. Right away he was fantastic. Super friendly and talkative, he started right in getting to know us and telling us anything we wanted to know about China. And I don’t just mean where to go for a tourist in the city. Read on for details.

After lots of good conversation, we finally ended up in a small remote village 2.5 hours later, where we would start our trek getting up to the actual wall (this is half the battle, trust me). We only passed two or three signs reminding us that this section of the wall was off limits. Our guide brushed it off – as long as you have a good relationship with the villagers, and give them a little money now and then, NBD. So off we went, and 40 minutes later we were climbing up the two stories into first watchtower.

Great Wall of China Watchtower Jiankou section wild wall

Great Wall of China Watchtower Jiankou section wild wall

When we came out on top and looked around, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Jiankou runs along the ridge of some seriously steep and breathtaking mountains. It’s known to be one of the most dangerous sections of the Great Wall, and people have actually fallen to their death on parts of it – hence why its not open to the public. But the views! Pictures won’t ever do it justice…

Great Wall of China Watchtower Jiankou section view hiking the wild wall

After snapping some photos and catching our breath, we started the real hike along the Wild Wall. When you think about what it took for the Chinese to even transport all the materials to this point (much less build the wall), it really starts to blow your mind – not to mention the fact that the wall spans more than half the length of China. They didn’t put it on the New 7 Wonders of the World for no reason.

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall

Once we started the walk up (and then down) the steepest section, our legs were burning pretty good. If you want an idea of how steep, and how nonexistent the footing is – take a look:

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall

When Leo stopped us on the worst part of the incline to take some pictures, my thoughts were – WHY and WHY. I could barely stand up without holding onto the wall, so I thought “I’ll just slide down this thing and meet you guys at the bottom”. Turns out these are some of my favorites now 🙂

When you level the camera with the wall, it looks like we’re falling over. But if you turn your head to look at us as if were standing straight up, you can see that the wall is almost vertical!

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall optical illusion

Great Wall of China Jiankou section hiking the wild wall optical illusion

After just under 2 hours, we reached the beginning of the Mutianyu section, marked by a tree full of red ribbons. You immediately notice the contrast between the two sections. Mutianyu is in pristine condition with English signs everywhere, and people everywhere too. You can even get an ice cream or a beer to take with you as you walk. We were able to move through this section a lot faster, and finished early in just 3 hours!

Great Wall of China restored Mutianyu section hiking red ribbons

Great Wall of China restored Mutianyu section hiking watchtower window

After the hike, Leo took us to a traditional Chinese restaurant. The food was a mix of Northern Chinese and North Korean influence, and it was some of the best food I’ve ever had. We shared three dishes and toasted over baijiu (Chinese vodka) made from scratch by the restaurant. If you ever get your hands on any, drink up! It’s very good (not bitter like Russian vodka) and goes down easy.

Throughout the hike we learned so much from Leo, but sitting down to an early dinner together was the best way to wrap up our day. He was so candid with us – telling us the ins and outs of how the Chinese government operates, what Millennials think of life in their country, how the car lottery operates in Beijing, what Chinese culture expects of a woman who’s just had a baby….I could go on. It was SO. FASCINATING. We laughed about the differences between Americans and Chinese, and still found common ground in our world views. I don’t think we could have asked for a better guide.

Chinese North Korea food Beijing restaurant Great Wall of China Baijiu

Chinese Baijiu

I would HIGHLY recommend using Leo & Beijing Walking for your trip to the Great Wall. He has so much knowledge of Chinese history, and knows his way around perfectly. It was a huge bonus for us that he was so open when sharing about life in China. We felt completely at ease with him all day – like we were with a friend.

If you’re going to see the wall at all though, do it right and experience the Wild Wall! I couldn’t imagine what we would have missed out on had we decided to only see the restored section. It is so worth the cold, the extra hours and the cost (although your legs might feel otherwise).

Until next time, Beijing!

Side note: If you’re planning a trip soon, make sure to read up on all you need to know before going to China here!

Planning a trip to China? Ready to check the Great Wall off your bucket list? Click here for the BEST way to experience the Wild Wall and the restored section all in one hike.

37 Comments

  1. Reply

    Angie Stolz

    January 19, 2017

    Wow what a trip!

  2. Reply

    Nam | Laugh Travel Eat

    February 11, 2017

    I’ve hiked some of the more preserved section of the Great Wall but this looks fantastic as well! Would have to go to Beijing!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      They’re both great! I think definitely worth the trip if you’re in Beijing!

  3. Reply

    Kelly

    February 11, 2017

    Wow!!! I love the photos where you guys look like you’re gonna fall over. So funny. And I went to the wall butto the restored part. Man, I should have gone to the wild wall. Way toomany tourists on the other side. You.chose wisely. I want a redo!! Lol.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      Haha thanks Kelly! Those were fun to take! The wild wall was a LOT less touristy – it was also January during our hike (so off season) but we saw maybe 50 people the entire 2 hours we were on the Jiankou section. It definitely felt more authentic!

  4. Reply

    Lauren

    February 11, 2017

    Ugh! This is a destination I’d never even considered but after seeing these photos I think I’m a little bit obsessed. Such a cool place to visit!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      You should definitely go! It was the highlight of our trip to Beijing for sure!

  5. Reply

    Penny

    February 11, 2017

    I’ve always thought that the worst traffic was found in India. The idea that something worse exists is just plain scary.

    The great Wall looks interesting to say the least. I’m not sure when we will get to see it but hopefully sometime soon.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      I haven’t been to India yet so you may be right about that, but Beijing is the worst we’ve seen yet. Somehow it’s always worth the hassle though!

  6. Reply

    Kiara Gallop

    February 11, 2017

    This looks like exactly the sort of hike I wish I’d done at The Great Wall! Although it took a good few hours just to walk along the Mutianyu section, because I stopped every few seconds to snap a photo, the scenery was incredible! We visited on a crisp Autumn day and we were lucky that not many other people seemed to have the same idea, it was really empty save for a few locals 🙂

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      Yes! Ours was a 4 hour hike, and I think the only thing that kept me from stopping to take pictures every 10 feet was the fact that the Jiankou section was pretty difficult in itself. You definitely had to concentrate on your footing!

      We were lucky and got a nice clear day in January. I’m sure the wall is beautiful in the Fall though! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  7. Reply

    Nicky

    February 11, 2017

    What a great article! I’ve always wanted to visit The Great Wall, but those photos of a million people all there at the same time totally put me off! Your photos are stunning, thank you for inspiring me to rethink a trip to China!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      I totally agree! The Badaling and Mutianyu sections especially seem to get very crowded, so it helps if you go in the off season and visit the less traveled sections 🙂

  8. Reply

    Flo

    February 11, 2017

    Wow your photos are incredible! I’m taking my boyfriend to China for his first time later this year, he’s so psyched to see the Great Wall. Leo sounds like a fantastic guide 🙂

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      Thanks so much lady! I wholeheartedly recommend Leo if you’re visiting any of the less-traveled sections! He felt more like a friend than a guide – but he knows his stuff.

      Hope you both enjoy it!

  9. Reply

    Doro

    February 11, 2017

    Beautiful photos – the wild wall looks amazing! I’d love to visit the Great Wall but I was always a bit put off by seeing millions of people in all the photos 😀 Definitely will keep this in mind for the future!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      You should so do it! Worth all of the planning and added stress 100%!

  10. Reply

    Alice Chen

    February 11, 2017

    I love this! It looks like such a fantastic experience. Definitely nice that there weren’t very many people.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      Thanks Alice! That definitely makes a huge difference – the Wild Wall has my vote!

  11. Reply

    Megan | Red Around The World

    February 11, 2017

    I ALMOST went to Beijing on my way home from the Philippines last year to see the Great Wall, but I didn’t and SO wish I did now (more than before haha!) It looks like an awesome experience

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 11, 2017

      Oh no! Haha you’ll have to make time to go back! It’s worth seeing at least once! 🙂

  12. Reply

    Lyssie

    February 11, 2017

    This is an amazing write-up! A unique take on a touristy trip…and I LOVE IT!!! You guys are awesome for taking the path less traveled. I absolutely love those pictures standing almost vertically on the wall. And for hiking in freezing temps! And most of all, I love that you learned so much culture and history from your guide…learning about other people is one of the best reasons to travel in my opinion. So happy to read this, it’s exactly what I needed!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 12, 2017

      Thanks so much Lyssie! I agree it’s the best part! It made all the difference being able to learn from an inside perspective 🙂

  13. Reply

    Cali

    February 12, 2017

    Ok, so I didn’t even realize there were different areas of the wall you could visit! Such a great read with excellent tips! I love how tour guides always have the best trick photography! Pinning this. I hope I make it to China sooner than later

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 12, 2017

      Yes! The untouched sections are the best! Hope you get to make the trip soon 🙂

  14. Reply

    Anisa

    February 12, 2017

    I went to the Great Wall in December so I know what you are talking about with the cold. So we didn’t hike as much as I wanted to. I definitely want to go back when the weather is better. And I agree you cannot go to Beijing without seeing the Great Wall.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 13, 2017

      Yes the cold can be brutal up on the wall! We got really lucky in January, but we had made our minds up that we would just suffer through it either way lol

  15. Reply

    Cynthia

    February 12, 2017

    What an AMAZING experience! This is a bucket list item for me too – although I’m not sure I’m adventurous right now to do the Wild Wall, maybe with a little extra effort at the gym I could do it! 😉

    By the way, I haven’t seen your blog before, but I really appreciate your writing style (especially the humor) and all of your advice. Looking forward to reading more! Cheers!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 13, 2017

      Thanks Cynthia! I’m so glad you enjoy it 🙂

      You could definitely tackle the Wild Wall though! Our guide was great about going at our pace – however fast or slow we were comfortable with. We were a little nervous about going at first too because of the cold, but i’d suggest it to anyone! It completely changed our experience!

  16. Reply

    Rosie Benton

    February 13, 2017

    Ahh this brings back so many memories as we did a similar trip whilst we were in China 5 years ago! I can still remember the burn now – you’re right though, it’s totally worth it. Amazing pictures!!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 13, 2017

      Yes! The burn is real haha it almost helps to numb it out if you do the hike in cold weather!

  17. Reply

    Laia

    February 13, 2017

    This is so amazing, I never heard of the Wild Wall but I can see that it’s worth the effort! The views are great and being there with no other people is priceless, not to mention having a guide willing to talk about cultural topics. I’ve read so much about how overcrowded the Great Wall is… this is a great alternative to consider. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 14, 2017

      Glad it was helpful, Laia! We just did a ton of research before we went – but it paid off! Knowing what I know now, I would have been so sad to have missed the Wild Wall!

  18. Reply

    Brianne Miers

    February 14, 2017

    What a fantastic experience! I visited the Wall years ago when I was a teenager, but it was definitely the more “pristine” section. Now that I can handle more rugged terrain, I would love to go back! And it sounds like being able to spend time with Leo was just as fun – having experiences like that when traveling are so valuable.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 15, 2017

      He was such a great guide! 100% recommend him if you go back!

  19. Reply

    Emily

    March 11, 2017

    Wow, what an incredible adventure! I didn’t even know there were “wild” parts of the Great Wall like that, though of course when I think about how long it is and how much maintenance must cost it makes sense. If I ever make it there I will absolutely be looking up that tour company and asking for the guide- learning things about other cultures like that is one of my favorite parts of traveling!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      March 14, 2017

      Thanks Emily! The craziest part is that there are still places in the Gobi desert that are in crumbles – and I also didn’t realize that the wall was built in separate pieces, not just as one long continuous wall.

      Hope you make it there! Let me know if you have any other questions! 🙂

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