Sleeping with a Million Ghosts (part 1).
Updated: May 20, 2021
Part 1 : Shanghai - Beijing - Xizhazi - Jiankou
Hiking & Camping on The Wild Wall (a remote and unmaintained section of China's Great Wall)
Sony A7rii & Zeiss Loxia 21mm.
Cliche alert : It started with a dream ... really it did ! Researching ideas for a Winter trip I saw lots of shots of the main tourist areas of The Great Wall in Winter which, since I'm living in China, I'd been to numerous times at other times of the year, however never when covered in snow.
Easy you might think, just go in Winter, well no because although The Great Wall around Beijing gets very cold in Winter (often down to -20C) it doesn't snow often because usually the cold air blows in from over the very dry Gobi Desert, so obviously no moisture, no snow.
Added to which I didn't want to tread the well worn (literally) tourist routes. I wanted to hike the rundown, abandoned and unmaintained 'Wild Wall', as those sections are called in Chinese. Dozens of hours of research led me to a starting point an hour further out from Beijing than the main sites. I would start at the dilapidated section of Jiankou at the village of Xizhazi (and by dilapidated I mean crumbling stairs, many absent battlements (so just flat topped walls), vertigo inducing drops, vertical climbs from collapsed staircases, and signs forbidding entrance. Simply awesome !
Jiankou. In other words : No Entry !
Having allowed 8 days for the trip I planned my route (Jiankou - Mutianyu - Jinshanling - Gubeikou - Simatai), worked out the logistics and got my gear sorted, I waited for the 5 weather stations on sections of the Wall that I was monitoring to report that snow was falling. And I waited ... and waited ... and waited and finally Winter had come and gone without one flake falling !
Next year was the same, daily checking of the weather reports only to find -20C temperatures but no snow. The third year I ran out of patience, which turned out to be very lucky because the route I took would have been potentially deadly under snow, there is very little phone reception and almost no other hikers - I saw 3 in 3 days on this section ( I hike really slowly, being intent on taking photographs and video and often sitting around waiting for good light - and carrying a huge pack)! Though I do carry an In-Reach satellite transponder to call for emergency assistance in the event of an accident. Instead there is a bloom of white, pink and yellow bushes & small trees for two weeks each year and so, in the absence of snow, the blooms would have to do and as soon as I saw reports of the blooms I booked my flight to Beijing.
Sony A7rii & Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8
Shanghai to Xizhazi
Having flown up from Shanghai, transport to the starting point comprised of a selection of metro trains, buses and finally an hour long taxi ride to reach Xizhazi. It was important to carry as much water as possible on these sections of the Wall as there is no other source other than coming down off the Wall at one of the few trails and walking to the nearest village. I did this twice during my 6 nights hiking the Wall (plus a night in accommodation both before and after the hike) and parallel trails (in some areas there is a military presence to be avoided and regardless some sections of the Great Wall are just so decrepit they are completely impassable).
My pack weight came to around 23 kgs (50 lbs) and I loaded up with 5 litres of water at each stop (that's another 5 kgs, a total of 28 kgs or 62 lbs). Sounds a lot ... it was ! It comprised of my personal effects, clothing, camping & cooking gear (no tent, I just used a bivvy - basically a heat retaining waterproof sack), food for 5-6 nights, photographic equipment (two cameras and 4 lenses, more of those later) and that 5 litres of water (thankfully of course this gradually reduced each day, though that water was only enough for 2 days & nights maximum (drinking, cooking, cleaning cups & pans, brushing teeth) before needing to go to a village to restock.
Total weight : 23kgs (50lbs) + water.
I won't go through the hike day by day but I'll just post some photos and add an anecdote or comment underneath.
Jiankou to Mutianyu
I started the hike by getting onto The Great Wall at Nine Eye Tower (Jiu Yan Lou). This was the first obstacle - because obviously the Wall was not built to be easily accessible ! Eventually after much scrambling (see pic below) I found a way onto the Wall at a portion of collapsed fortifications.
Finding access to the Wall.
This section could be traversed without undue effort, just pushing past the thorny bushes that can be found growing all along the top of the Wild Wall. Hence the biking gloves I wore ! Just a little jaunt to start off and although it was a nice steep section it got me in the mood. *cough
Unfortunately though I had arrived during one of the worse 'pollution clouds' of the Winter (during the Winter months there is a lot of coal burning in Northern China - both in homes and industry - which is the primary cause of their air pollution issues). So bad was it on that day that as you can see it was obscuring some of the great views around me. Fingers and toes crossed it would clear soon !
Hiking from Nine Eye Tower towards Jiankou.
Scrambling ascents on loose collapsed staircases could be tricky.
This second section proved to be the toughest of the hike but maybe not the most terrifying ! A collapsed portion of steps meant a 10m vertical climb followed by .. well I didn't know where to go. Up seemed like I needed climbing gear since it lacked obvious footholds or sections of wall I could hang on to.
And then without warning a guy appeared right above me, climbing down with his 5kg mini-pack (note my jealousy here). As we nestled into a 1/2 metre long groove in the near vertical pile of steps he described a way around the vertical climb above, by virtue of an unseen path just a couple of metres above our hold on the rock. Wishing him well I found the path and followed it around the exterior of the now high wall above me. There were a couple of small 2-3m high rocks to scramble over and then the path continued, with a sheer, what looked to be, 200m drop off to my right shielded by bushes & the odd tree clinging to the mountainside.
The rocky path, just over a metre wide, on the cliffside detouring around the collapsed staircases. There's a drop-off of between a 100 and 200m on the right. It looked a bit crumbly so I daren't go any closer to get a better estimate !
Soon I came to the end of the path, it was ... literally ... a dead end with just a drop off of up to a couple of hundred metres at a rough guess. To my left it looked like there a way back to the Great Wall so I would have avoided the dangerous vertical climb, that I was stuck at earlier, up to the watchtower at the top.
However there was an issue, the wall beside me was around 2m high with absolutely no footholds, so with my heavy backpack there was no way to stretch up and pull myself over, to the right (and directly over the drop-off) was a 1m high wall which had crumbled at some time. So it would mean reaching out to grasp the top of the 1m high wall, hoping it held and didn't disintegrate, and then having to swing a leg out over the abyss and onto the top of the wall to scramble over it ... with 28 kgs on my back !
My legs began to tremble and, deciding I didn't want to be further proof of Darwin's 'Theory of Evolution', I back-tracked around 30 mins all the way I'd come to find the nearest exit from the wall and then proceeded to take the long long way around this section ! Bravado be damned !
The Beijing Knot
The climb up Beijing Knot was easily the most terrifying of the hike. Besides there being a vertical 12-15m section of collapsed stairs to ascend lower down, the angle of ascent of the steps grows ever steeper as you climb upwards. I started out on what looked to be around 200m of extremely steep stairs, after an hour, past the collapsed section on onwards, I thought I could see the top just ahead, which was great because darkness was beginning to descend. However as I pulled myself up what I thought were the final few stairs using my hands, the steps being at around a 70 degrees incline at this stage so you are standing and using both feet and hands to climb the steps, I was dismayed to find this was just a 20m long flat landing section before the final ascent.
Final Ascent Steeling my nerves as it was almost dark I could see there was just 30-40m left to climb. That however took me another 30 mins of taking every step / hand hold very very carefully to avoid shifting the weight of the backpack in the wrong direction sending me off-balance and tumbling disastrously down the stairs (I say hand-hold since it was incredibly steep at an incline of 75-80 degrees, not far off vertical) and I was in total darkness once I arrived at the 'top', which consisted of two flat areas of about 10 m each, overgrown by thorn bushes, before dropping over the top to descend to the ramparts below.
Needless to say I hadn't daren't try taking any photos going up this section. Even when pausing for breath. I quickly set up my bedding in the only area I could see possible by the light of my torch ... it was absolutely pitch black without any city lights or, at that time, moonlight. Then cooked myself a meal whilst watching the moon rise, realising the horrendous pollution, courtesy of Beijing's industry, was beginning to dissipate.
Sleeping quarters at Beijing Knot
Sony A7rii & Zeiss Loxia 21mm. 30 secs exposure since it was pitch black :)
Sleeping with a Million Ghosts ... sharing the nighttime hours with below me the bodies of so many that worked and died building the wall and whom were then usually interred beneath it. The onerous artefact of their lives becoming their tomb in death. Getting heavy now aren't we !
I was awoken during the night, no not by ghouls or ghosts, but by the rising moon. Which I was delighted to see since it meant the pollution levels must have substantially decreased !
Sony A7rii & Zeiss Loxia 21mm. 4 secs exposure.
Drone shot of the climb up to Beijing Knot taken the following morning. If you look very closely you can see both me and my bed area by the wall nearest to the top of the stairs. Look at the steepness of the bank by the wall, that's what the stairs inside looked like climbing up them !
DJI Mavic Pro.
Drone photograph. And the view looking down from Beijing Knot at the route ahead of me.
DJI Mavic Pro.
Once over the Beijing Knot the hiking was a little easier for a short while and was so so beautiful with all the little bushes and trees coming into bloom. Just gorgeous flowers, if I couldn't have snow these were a wonderful substitute :)
Sony A7r (the i not the ii this time) & Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8
The Detour There are three infamous sections on the Jiankou to Mutianyu Wild Wall with some parts totally derelict and extremely dangerous to traverse (see the video below). Those sections I avoided were those that have been responsible for a number of fatal accidents over the years, although I had convinced myself (haha - yeah right!) that I would have chanced it with a 5kgs day pack ... but never ever with the 'week-long-hike' backpack I was lugging around.
Two of those sections are called 'Upward Flying Eagle' and 'Heavenly Ladder', though I had, as you know by now if you've read the post so far, climbed the third, but easier than the other two of that infamous Jiankou trilogy, the Beijing Knot.
The detour off the wall gave me a chance to shower, replenish my water supply and eat a decent meal at one of the nearby villages, not more than an hour or so hike away from the Wall and then it would take the same to return at a different point further on, and find another way up. ---------------------
See the superb drone footage video clips by Jean-Philippe Bouchi-Lamontagne below (his website is shown at the bottom of this post) and visit his site for more of his awesome drone footage, this video was the inspiration behind planning my somewhat lesser trek of Jiankou.
I recognise much of the Wall footage shown as being along the route I took, however the most difficult sections including 'Upward Flying Eagle' and 'Heavenly Ladder' I was thankfully able to skip by taking a detour off the Wild Wall, as shown in the map on this page, and rejoining further along. It also gave me chance to replenish my dwindling water supply ! Nevertheless this drone footage gives you a fantastic view of the hike that is impossible to imagine from photographs & text alone and I applaud Jean-Philippe for his stunning work.
Please visit :
The very detailed map used in planning my route was purchased from the Great Wall Forum website here : http://www.greatwallforum.com/greatwallguide/index.html
Part 2 of 'Sleeping with a Million Ghosts' covers the planned hike of the sections after the detour at Xizhazi thru the remaining sections of Jiankou and on to Mutianyu. Contains lots of photos of the 'Wild Wall' at Jiankou and arrival at Mutianyu.
Part 3 of 'Sleeping with a Million Ghosts' covers the planned hike of the sections from Mutianyu - to Jinshanling and contains lots of photos of the semi-restored sections of Mutianyu & Jinshanling.
Part 4 of 'Sleeping with a Million Ghosts' covers the planned hike of the sections from Jinshanling - Gubeikou - Simatai and my 'logistical errors' ! Contains lots of photos of the hike and sleeping at the Wild Wall at Gubeikou.