Book Excerpt: Secret Marvels of the World / by Thomas O'Malley

A spread on the Jiankou Great Wall I contributed to this book:


40°27'16.64"N 116°32'10.38"E
The Wild Great Wall
Zhengbei Tower (正北楼)

In the village of Xizhazi, nestled in the Yan Mountains, an unremarkable path winds upwards between terraced cornfields and mud-red farm houses. Not much more than a shepherd’s track, it climbs gently at first, past hens and snoozing dogs, then rises more steeply into a thickly wooded dell, leaving the village behind.

Forty minutes later, through a clearing in the leaves, you get your first glimpse of stone. Then another. The crenelated crests of two watchtowers, peering over the tree line.

Higher and higher the path climbs, tree roots becoming steps, branches becoming handholds. Then finally, hamstrings protesting, your destination looms into view: a sheer, inward-sloping wall of brick and white dolomite stone.

A stack of bricks has been fashioned into a precarious stairway; now you’re inside a Ming Dynasty watchtower. The ash of an old camp fire darkens the worn stone floor. Beside it, a second set of stone steps, cool to the touch, rises all the way to the top.

Now you’re back in open air, standing on the upper battlement of the Zhengbei Tower, the highest point of the Jiankou section of Great Wall.  

And all around you the world drops away.

To the west, the crests of mountains plummet downwards like a rollercoaster, then rise majestically again, the Great Wall flowing serpent-like across the ridgeline, unceasingly, into the hazy distance. Sixty miles to the south, far out of sight, is Beijing. From up here it might as well be centuries away.

Jiankou means ‘arrow notch’, named for the way the mountains hook around the flat-floored valley. It’s also surely a reference to the weapon that proved so lethal in the hands of the pastoral warriors from beyond the Great Wall - the very reason for its existence in the first place.

It’s on quiet days in lofty places like Jiankou when the romance of the wild Great Wall is conjured: miles of brick and stone, crumbling and overgrown with vegetation, epic beyond the imagination. A testament to the rise and fall of empires, of threats long vanished, and military technologies long since superseded.  

To journey west along the Wall from here, one would need climbing equipment and comprehensive insurance cover. Gravity-defying stretches with names like ‘Soaring Eagle’ and ‘Heavenly Ladder’ beg the question: how did they manage to build this, all those centuries ago?

Hiking eastwards, the Great Wall tapers more gently down the mountains, and two to three hours later, the wild battlements meet the upper reaches of the restored Mutianyu section. Climbing over a barricade onto smooth, recently laid cobbles, you’re greeted by looks of astonishment from puffed-out tourists, who can only wonder at what discoveries lie beyond.

Sunrise at Jiankou, taken from Zhengbei Tower, way back in 2009.

Sunrise at Jiankou, taken from Zhengbei Tower, way back in 2009.

Jiankou is about an hour and 30 minutes from Beijing. Take bus 916 from Dongzhimen Bus Station to Huairou, and transfer to one of the many waiting taxis for the final stretch to Jiankou. If you are a group, consider hiring a driver for the day from Beijing.