June 2016: For only my fourth dayhike without a child on my back in the 16 months since she was born, I headed out to the far northeastern corner of Beijing Municipality. Deep in the forest, beyond an impressive fort, lies this remarkable gate structure. Complete with the stone framework for the gate raising mechanism, and apparently original dragon face decoration, it’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else on the Great Wall around Beijing.

Click through for more photos of this remote area.

The crew for the day. I am in the blue shirt

By June, I’ve usually given up hiking until the Autumn. But it turns out that having a small child makes it pretty hard to keep up your hiking habit, so when an opportunity presents itself you take it, high temperatures or no. We set out early from the city to try to beat the heat, and in the end it was quite mild in the valley at Heiguancun, or Black Pass Village.

The site is spectacular – a watchtower sits high above a vertical cliff over a large fort. The wall runs away uphill from there, overlooking a steep drop to the valley below. Deep in the forest, almost invisible under the lush vegetation of this time of year, stands the incredible dual arch gate. More about that in a moment.

The gate is in the lower right of this image almost entirely obscured by trees. The clear white line at right is a modern path; the wall is the less obvious line heading up the mountainside and across the ridge at left of frame.

All but the highest towers were overgrown. This tower is ruined above the basement level. The white perpendicular stone is the bottom of the doorway.

This is the only intact tower on this section of wall.

Dotty the Dog

First, we endured a slightly frightening dog attack on the smallest and most dog-like of our hiking team: Dotty, the dog. She’s a little Japanese mountain breed, and she’s joined us on long hikes in the hot months as well as the freezing cold. As we reached an interesting spur wall which veered left of the main line of wall, we heard a lot of loud barking. Dotty, down below the wall, was suddenly set upon by three enormous dogs being walked, unleashed, by a man further down the valley. Watching, horrified, I finally understood the meaning of the term “dog fight”, which I knew until that moment from films like Top Gun and the Battle of Britain. Four dogs became one in a nasty, tightly whirling blur of tails and popping eyes and gnashing teeth, wound together by Dotty’s high pitched squealing and the other dogs’ guttural growling. In seconds, Ben leapt down towards the melee and we started bombarding the dogs with stones from above. At last, and probably just within time, the owner managed to call the dogs off. I had an appalling vision of that happening to my baby daughter, something I didn’t mention to my wife afterwards! Poor Dotty had some serious teeth marks in her face and belly, but seemed otherwise surprisingly okay. It was clear to me, though, that she had been, as my war veteran grandfather said of his flying experience in WW2, “playing for keeps”.

After that excitement, pretty much anything was likely to be an anti-climax, but sure enough, the gate took us by surprise. Words don’t really capture its grandeur, but its double arch structure and dragon face decoration are really remarkable. I haven’t seen anything like this on the Great Wall around Beijing, and I’ve now been to almost all of it.

Unlike impressive and imposing watergates at other sites, this dual arch construction appears not to have been designed to let a river flow out while preventing attackers flowing in. Both archway floors are paved, making it more likely this structure functioned as an access gate for troops or traders to cross the wall under the scrutiny of guards. Similar structures, though less decorated and single-arch, can be found elsewhere around Beijing. But this place is the only example of a dual arch gate that I know of. More than that, it’s also the only example of a gate so nicely decorated with dragon faces, and with such a clear gate opening mechanism.

Each arch has a dragon face on each side.

This remarkably-still-here stone structure seems to have served as part of the gate-raising mechanism.

Seen from below, the slot for the gate is very clear…

…and from the side, too. The hole is for a locking beam.

By now, Dotty had recovered from the attack and was leading the way again.

“We is down among ’em”

A steep and overgrown climb took us away from the archway onto some older style wall, and eventually back down into the forest. We picked up a path down to the road and followed that back up to the fort. Partially rebuilt, this fort is also fairly impressive. A sign at the front states that the fort was built in the Hongwu Reign of the Ming Dynasty, meaning somewhere between 1386 and 1398. If true, that’s quite early, and it is unlikely the fort looked like this until later. In fact, it probably never looked too much like this, other than the strong stone basement and the fact the upper levels may have been clad with bricks later in the dynasty. It has been somewhat poorly rebuilt. Forts that early in the Ming Dynasty looked more like the one at Beilinghua.

The whole hike was a half-day effort, quite simple but for a little bushbashing and scrambling. Not much to ask, for one of the best, and best preserved, sites on the whole Beijing Great Wall.