The Bushwhacking Fallacy : Every foot forward into a bushwhack compels you to continue. Every foot forward is gained through pain and would require retraversing the same ground again in pain. You are not excited going forward and going back seems even less desirable, so you push on in hope that it will end soon and you'll soon reach your destination. The soon part rarely plays out quickly.
With my fourth trip to Jian Kou Great Wall I completed the process of hiking or walking the entire length of the Great Wall in the area Jou Kou area of the Wall. From the 9 Eye Tower (九眼楼 Jiǔ yǎn lóu) to Zheng Bei Lou ( 正北楼), this short 8 km (5 mile) section of the wall is my favorite and in my opinion is the most rugged and most beautiful. The Jian Kou Wall hugs a jagged ridge line over steep rocky peaks and precipice. The wall makes a large L shaped loop around the small valley where the village of XiZhaZi is located. At the south-western end is ZhengBei Lou (ZhengBei Tower) and on the northern end is the 9 Eye Tower. In between the other major features (from East at ZhengBei heading west and north) : the actual Jian Kou (箭口) or Arrow Notch, meaning the notch of the bow, where the wall dips sharply to a narrow notch between two hills; the Heavenly Ladder (天梯 Tiāntī) a very narrow steep section of the Wall; Where Even the Eagle Flies Upward (鹰飞倒仰 Yīng fēi dào yǎng) a section where the Wall is almost straight up a very steep peak; The Beijing Knot (Běijīng jié北京捷) where two sections of the Great Wall come together and finally after a long stretch the amazing 9 Eye Tower. Don’t be deceived by the short distance, the 2 kilometer section between JianKou to Zheng Bei Lou took us around 90 minutes to hike up and an hour to return. The section of the Wall from Zhao’s Hostel to 9 Eye Tower took me over 4 hours. In some places your almost rock climbing and definitely scrambling. Even in some places where the wall is still intact the stairs are narrow and the pitch so steep if you fell you’d be severely hurt. And then there is the up and down and up and down, continually as the wall crosses the rocky ridge. Finally there are sections which are too steep to traverse, the wall has crumbled away and only a cliff remains and you have to detour around on side trails.
My previous trip I’d entered in the coordinates of the 9 Eye Tower incorrectly and had turned back around 500 meters from the tower. I was confused by the incorrect coordinates and frankly didn’t believe that a large tower could in fact lie up ahead. On both sides of the 9 Eyed Tower the wall is literally nothing more than a pile of rocks, just a mound of raw stone that runs like the dead spine of an ancient dinosaur through the scrub oak and trees. I couldn’t believe that a large tower would still be intact among such decay. Upon my return from that failed attempt I had discovered a side trail that led down off the wall. I’d become impatient with the trail which makes its way out around a ridge that runs parallel to the road to XiZhaZi village and I’d bushwhacked up over the ridge to Zhao’s Hostel. This weekend our aim was to find the trail head for that trail and make our way up to the wall and then the short hike up to 9 Eye Tower. I bribed MIles into coming along with me (a promise of a Lego toy) and I’d invited a Chinese guy with me from work who was visiting in Beijing, but actually had lived in Canada for four years going to school and working and was going back to Seattle next week. My interview process with him over chat went something like this :
- Me : Are you in good shape?
- Cyrus : Yes I have been hiking before, I have no problem hiking for several hours
- Me : Are you afraid of steep rocky scrambles? The Wall at JianKou can be pretty rough at times (Link to pictures)
- Cyrus : Yes I think I can do that
- Me : Are you ok with getting up at stupid early to leave on the hike?
- Cyrus : Yeah, sunrise is the golden hour for photography right?
I also told him I was taking my son, so after all those questions he still was game and so we met at my house on Friday afternoon at 5pm to head for Zhao’s. He was surprise to see Miles was only 7.75, he thought after all the questions I’d asked him that Miles would be like 15 or something. No I said, but Miles has been hiking with me since he was 6 weeks old and he’s been to Jian Kou with me before. With traffic it took us over two ours to arrive at the hostel; by then it was dark. We drove along the dark almost single lane road with the windows down, feeling the cool air and the stillness of countryside as the cicadas chirped and the hustle and bustle of the city was lost and gone.
Zhao’s daughter greeted us as old friends, this being my 4th time staying there. We put our things in our rooms and ordered up some food : a plate of fried rice a piece, some braised pork and pork and peppers. We discussed logistics with the Zhao’s and finally were able to explain where we wanted to go, yes they knew the trail head and could drop us off. After a quick bite to eat we hit the sack around 9:30 after arranging with the Zhao’s to leave at 4:30 am sharp.
I woke at 4:15 before the alarm went off and got dressed and dressed Miles while he slept. At 4:30 we loaded into the car and were off. A short drive to the next section of the village and we were dropped off at a gravel road. Miles grumpily got out and we started walking. Miles didn’t feel like walking and asked if I would carry him. At almost 8 and being large in stature for his age he is no longer a light easy load. But knowing I was lucky to have him along at all, especially on such a hike in the dark I agreed. I slung him over my shoulders with the fireman carry and we plodded up the road. Here we made our first mistake. I didn’t have my iPhone GPS app running and wasn’t watching our tracks very close. Occasionally I’d pull out my phone to glance. Since I hadn’t really walked out the entire length of the trail before I wasn’t exactly sure where this trail would intersect with the bit of trail that I had traversed. We were trending to the east of the trail that I had walked on but I kept thinking that we’d come to a left hand turn that would lead us back to the trail I’d descended previously.
Finally just as things were starting to get light, after around 35 minutes of walking the road ended in a gully on a small dry creek bed. We weren’t lined up with the other trail. Looking at the geography it looked like we were over one ridge to the east from the trail that led to the wall. Not really wanting to back track I poked around looking to see if a trail might lead on. There was a small boot path that led up the side of the gully and started up the ridge. At the top of the gully I found a few branches had been cut and it looked like a trail might go. Things got brushy pretty quick and after 15 minutes of painfully plowing through thick brittle scratchy shrubs and scrub oak I was about to give up hope when we popped out on to a flatter gentler grassy area. Pulling out the GPS app on the iPhone I could see that the ridge we were on continued up until it joined the ridge where the Great Wall lay, about a kilometer north of the 9 Eye Tower. Lulled into a false sense of ease by the grass we pushed on since it was “only” another kilometer to the Great Wall.
You forget sometimes how beautiful a trail is; a proverbial highway through the wilderness; the brush and branches cleared and a hard packed path of ease. Our grass gave way to more brush and then we ran into a steeper section of the ridge where we scrambled up boulders and rock that at times was a bit loose. This section was thankfully free of brush but was steeper and slower going. These steep sections were interspersed by small sections of open grass intermixed with dense horrible scratchy undergrowth. I plowed forward pushing a path through and breaking down a path; my arms and legs becoming a mass of red scratches. Kids physically have immense amounts of energy and drive, but they often lack the mental toughness to carry on. But the trick is if you can distract them from the “carrying on” factor they can often keep going and going, or at least Miles can. So we talked about Star Wars, the Clone Wars and Super heros. We argued who was stronger Super Man or The Incredible Hulk. We talked about how Batman really didn’t have any powers just gadgets. And we wondered about what the heck was Wonder Woman’s real value as a super hero, internally I concluded she was just an excuse for eye candy with no real purpose. Cyrus who hadn’t signed up for this, didn’t complain a word, though he had every right to.
That one kilometer took us 3 hours to push through. After an hour in you can’t turn back because it would just mean an hour of bushwhacking back down through the same awful bushes you’d just passed. Finally we crested the ridge we were on, and transitioned to north side of the ridge where due to rain fall the foliage changed to more scrub oak forest, the forest floor was free of brush and we walked easily along the open rocky ground. One finally bit of up and we came to the Great Wall a meager pile of rocks. Thankful to be on something other than bushwhack duty we sat down and took a rest where we had a view of Hei Tuo Shan (Black Heap Mountain). Then we headed west down the rock pile of a Wall toward 9 Eye Tower. Soon we came to a trail that ran adjacent to the wall, the entire length was flagged with logos for exbear.com. The 1.2 km we had to go until the 9 eye tower took a scant 25 minutes, a thankful breeze after our bushwhack.
I still couldn’t imagine an intact tower among the rubble, but we rounded the bend a huge three level tower stood at the top of the ridge. The middle portion of the tower has a series of arched windows, at one time there 9 of them on each side, now only two sides remain and only 7 of the arched windows still stand. There were old stele rocks carved with Chinese characters and a steep section stairs that led to the tower. We climbed up to the topmost platform which was flat and in perfect conditions. Here we sat taking in the views down into the village and the wall. Towers dotted here and there out of the green ridge line and far off you could actually see where the Wall maintained its shape and snaked through the oaks.
After our break we climbed down and headed back down the Wall for a half kilometer to where the trail descended off the wall into the valley. The 2.5 km (1.6 mile) trail went slowly as we were tired and our feet were sore. Miles and I continued our discussion of our favorite movies and I recounted the entire Raiders of the Lost Ark movie scene by scene. Finally just a 100 meters before where we’d been dropped off we rejoined the gravel road. We’d started off the day in the dark and missed that first important left hand turn. We called the Zhao’s from a farmers cell, they picked us up and we drove back to the Hostel. A quick shower and we loaded up the gear and head back to the city. Miles immediately fell asleep in the back of the car looking at his Lego Star Wars book.
http://bit.ly/jiankou Map of the wall.