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Coiled Dragon – visiting the Great Wall at Gubeikou

The Great Wall of China. I’ve dreamed of visiting the Great Wall for a very long time. Along with the Pyramids of Giza and the Roman Colosseum, this ancient man-made structure pops up again and again when I think about ANY educational books of my childhood. It is a remarkable example of humankind’s perseverance (and ruthless single-mindedness) and I was very excited about the prospect of finally being able to set foot on this 2,500+ year old structure.

Of course, actually seeing original, unrestored parts of the Wall (or “wild wall”) is something that many who make it even this far never get to do. Had we arrived in China in June or July (much warmer) we would have perhaps been able to head into Central Northern China to see rarely visited parts of the Wall and other attractions. At this time of year (October), however, it was already too cold for us on our current mission of “warm weather only” (more on that in later posts) so I would have to make do with what parts of the Wall are available to see near Beijing. And there are plenty!

Many people visit the (heavily reconstructed) Badaling section of the Wall (accessible by train) or the restored Mutianyu or Jinshanling portions. These can get very crowded and, looking at pictures online, seemed to me to lack “authenticity”.

I chose, therefore, to visit a section of the Wall known as the “Coiled Dragon” that passes through a town called Gubeikou (古北口), 140km (90 miles) NE of Beijing. Instructions for getting to Gubeikou are at the end of the post.

I left my hostel at 9am and made it to the Wall by 1pm! A metro line to Beijing’s main bus station, 2 buses and a taxi but eventually I was there. Some random guy jumped on the first bus about 1/2 way to Gubeikou and started telling the only foreigner on the bus (me) that it was my stop and that I had to get off to see the Great Wall. I was sure that I had to go to the last stop and then get another bus for an hour but he was very persuasive (although grabbing at me to help me off did not win my confidence). The bus driver sat and waited to see what I was going to do but eventually a lady behind me showed me the stop list and I saw we still had a ways to go until my stop so I told the guy to jog on in no uncertain terms.

After all that and the 4 hour trip, I was beginning to doubt that the effort was worth it all. Turns out – IT WAS! I could not have asked for a better view of the Great Wall as I made it to the top of the hill and up the Wall.

I literally fist-pumped the air as I saw the Wall snake away from me, to both the East and the West. It was everything I’d hoped for.

There were too many people (like 20) to the East so I decided I’d walk West, where nobody else was heading.

I’m not sure if this was the right thing to do, as I had heard that there was military land somewhere in the vicinity and that part of the Wall between my current spot and Gubeikou was off limits, but I didn’t think I’d get that far – I was wrong.

I ended up walking for 2 hours on (or near) the Wall, all by myself. I definitely (accidentally) passed through the military exclusion zone, as I saw rifle range targets to left (South) and a checkpoint with a guard down the ridge on my right (North). I didn’t bother them and they didn’t see me so all’s well and good – phew! In hindsight – maybe I should have walked East like the other handful of tourists, but I’m no sheep!

The reason I say on (or near) the Wall is that absolutely none of this section of the Wall had been restored in any way (since the 1300’s); parts of it date to the Qi Dynasty (550-557). Thus, there were quite a few times where I had to brave the thorny brambles on the side of the Wall until I could get back on top.

The walk was a lot of fun, although if I’d not been in shorts and a singlet, I might have escaped with a few less scratches.

Once I reached a point where the Wall started to veer too far North, I used the compass on my phone (Google Maps doesn’t work in China) to dismount the Wall, cross some farmland, and reach the town (Gubeikou).

This took ~15 minutes and I made it down into someone’s backyard where an unsuspecting dog got a bit of a shock. Luckily, there were renovations going on in the yard which required one of their fence/walls to be removed. I stepped into an alleyway and made my way back to the main road.

I then had a nice, late (15:30) lunch at a restaurant in the old part of the village. As I was paying the bill, I casually asked about the best spot to catch the Southbound bus and the staff immediately rushed me out the door and told me to run! I (and the waitress) ran down the cobblestone street and then across the highway as the Northbound bus passed us. It did a u-turn at the next stop (end of the line) and came back to pick me up, huffing and puffing.

It was a real adventure, not a single English word spoken all day and a lifelong ambition fulfilled. Highly recommended!

Directions:
  1. From Dongzhimen Public Transport Hub (东直门交通枢纽) go to the Bus Transfer Hall and board the 980 bus to Miyun ( Mìyún Zhèn 密云镇).  This bus takes 1.5 hours to get to the end of the line.  A guy jumped on and tried to get me off after an hour, insisting it was my stop.  Go to the end of the line.
  2. From Miyun, exit the bus station and cross the main road.  There are bus stops along this road.  Walk until you see the bus stop for bus 密25.  After one hour, get off immediately before the tunnel (if you miss this stop, the next one is the terminus so you can easily walk back)
  3. I then caught a taxi (20 yuan) to PanLongShan (蟠龙山).  You could also cross the river instead and climb the steep WoHuShan (卧虎山).
  4. At PanLongShan, I climbed up and walked west – having the wall all to myself.  I suggest making it a round trip, turning back after an hour since the wall disintegrates and there is no path out.  Walking East would also be wonderful, though more popular.  Make sure you get back in time for the last bus back (16:44 for me – nearly missed it while having a very late lunch)!!
  5. Use same buses for return trip – the 980 bus for Beijing can be caught from inside the terminal at Miyun.
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8 thoughts on “Coiled Dragon – visiting the Great Wall at Gubeikou

  1. Good post with an all too familiar theme, I’m glad you were as thorough as you were with China, what a difference it makes! Happy adventuring Ash!

    1. Cheers Vivian – still a lot to see in China of course but pretty happy with the dent I made. Hopefully I can make use of my long-term visa again some time soon!

  2. Glad that the Chinese military didn’t notice you and decide to have some moving target practice. What a great visit to a remote part of the wall.

  3. Mate, looks and sounds awesome. What an adventure!
    How was the food in the small village?
    Can’t wait to read more updates.
    Mouth x

    1. Cheers Mouthy – gotta step outside the comfort zone every now and then eh?
      The food was good, they basically piled the rice on until I had to ask them to stop. Nowhere else in China has compared to the amazing flavours in Sichuan province though, worth a trip for the peppery hot pot and baked potatoes alone!
      Not sure if you saw my update on climbing Mt Fuji – another adventure but not one I’d soon repeat…

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