Far to Beijing’s north, the Great Wall runs roughly along the border with Hebei Province. Just west of the well-known “wild wall” at Gubeikou is a little-visited but wonderful section of Ming Dynasty Great Wall called Beihualing – Beihua Ridge. It has everything: dramatic towers, ridgeline wall, remoteness, beautiful Ming stonework lying just where it fell centuries ago, and a really big fort. Just up the road is the equally impressive White Horse Pass, or Baimaguan.

Click through for photos of this incredible area.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) was perhaps the most prolific builder of the defensive or long walls that have come to be known as “the Great Wall”. This fort complex was built right at the beginning of the dynasty, and is a really nice example of the building techniques used at that time. The large brick towers higher up the wall from the fort date to the later Ming, probably somewhere around the big building boom of 1567-1569. The pictures clearly show the difference. The earlier Ming towers like the huge standalone tower just outside the line of the wall by the fort were made of stones placed over rammed earth cores, and did not have brick cabins on top (there were probably wooden shelters). Later Ming towers used the classic cut stone basements and kiln-fired brick upper levels where soldiers could store supplies (usually the lower level) and live (the upper level).

Early Ming construction: This large standalone tower, made of stones around a solid core, is just outside the wall line, opposite the fort.

Late Ming construction: this tower, with basement of finely cut stone and brick upper levels, is high up above the fort, and would have been build onto the existing wall later on.

The Wall

The wall here appears to date from the early Ming Dynasty, just like the fort. The construction techniques are the giveaway. The wall is made from almost loose stone, not the finely cut and joined stones of later Ming walls which are familiar from the more famous sites. There are few, if any, battlements, and those which exist are relatively crudely made. As seen in the photos above, the majority of the towers – whether intact or almost completely ruined – appear from their construction to come from later in the dynasty.

The wall heading eastwards from the fort, with two towers built later on.

Heading uphill eastwards from the fort

The last stretch of wall beyond the highest tower on the east side of the fort.

The road breaks the wall at the point which once would have been a guarded archway for troops to exit and return. The breach clearly shows the construction technique and relatively crude looking stonework.

Further uphill, one can also see classic early Ming stonework.

The path along the wall was quite overgrown.

“We is down among ’em, Charlie”…just where we like to be.

This – I think – is a Ming firestone bomb. The cavity is filled with gunpowder and sealed. When it explodes the rock shatters: an early fragmentation grenade.

The Towers

Hiking this wall was very rewarding. In places it was quite physically challenging, thanks to the terrain, and the overgrown scrub. In other places, we happened upon the ruins of towers which were invisible on the Google Earth imagery. These were clearly towers when you stood on them, though. There were rooftiles and bricks scattered about, but the most obvious evidence were the enormous door pieces, lying haphazardly on the ground presumably exactly where they fell when whatever calamity caused the tower to collapse. Earthquake, perhaps, or just the weight of one too many winters after hundreds since the end of the Ming Dynasty (373 to be precise).

The remains of the first tower uphill from the fort (east side). It’s a late Ming tower with stone basement and brick upper levels.

The second tower uphill was the only one more or less fully intact.

The interior was in excellent condition…

…and the staircase to the upper level was still there, which is fairly uncommon.

With new hiking buddy TC

This tower still had its door stonework in place.

From the highest tower, a ridge runs down to the Baimaguan – White Horse Pass. That pass is in the deep ravine you can see between the two marked towers.

This is the ruin of the highest tower on the south spur from the fort (seen here from the south side of that tower, not from the fort itself).

Looking south from the highest tower on the southern side of the fort. The village below appears to be an old ruin but was actually relocated and demolished just a few years ago. The wall beyond appears to have no towers but the evidence is clear that they were there.

Decorated stone doorway arch lying near the overgrown basement of a tower.

Further along the wall, at the next tower site.

The arch from the other side of the same tower.

If the wall itself was late Ming, this water drain could have been on the wall, but given the construction techniques used on this wall, it’s more likely this drain was on a tower.

Doorway remnants at yet another tower along this stretch. In total, we added five to our map.

This image is looking north from the furthest southern point we reached. 1: highest tower on north spur 2: most intact tower 3: tower on ridge between high tower and Baimaguan 4: Baimaguan 5: first basement ruins above fort 6: fort (behind ridge) 7: highest ruined tower on south side of fort 8: rubble pile of one of several ruined towers on southern spur

The lower part of our route back down was through these terraces.

Looking back along the wall near the end of the hike.

The Fort

This fort is quite impressive and dates right to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, being built during the reign of the first Emperor, Hongwu, between 1368 and 1398. It has a big, flat open area and a sloped rear area, and probably contained wooden huts for various purposes (housing and servicing troops) and perhaps an area to keep horses too.

The arrow shows the fort; the circle shows the large, standalone tower outside the wall; the lines approximate where the wall would have continued across the valley, with a speculative arch where troops could have passed through.

The impressive front wall of the fort.

It took me about half an hour to bring you this translation of the tablet pictured above:

Located at Baimaguan Village, Fengjia Valley Town, built on the undulating mountain range in a high and difficult to access place, this fort guards the pass entrance under the Ming-era West Ji Town and embankment, and had jurisdiction over the road and Gaozhuangzi, more or less in cooperation with Baimaguan, and formed an advance attack and retreat capability and defence system. The fort was first built in the Ming Dynasty’s Hongwu reign (1368-1398). The fort sits on the west, facing east, is flat and rectangular and the main body of the fort wall foundation is intact due to the large pieces [of stone]; [the] stone steps were built with lime mortar and [the walls had?] an earth-filled core; the wall corner points had watchtower platforms. To the NW is Beihualing Pass; to the W is Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

Inside the fort is now a nicely tilled field.

Ming potsherds are quite easy to find in this fort, some of them lying around on the surface.

Baimaguan – White Horse Pass

Last of all, we drove a bit further around to visit Baimaguan – White Horse Pass. According to the stone tablet there, this fortification also served as an advance/retreat defensive point, and housed a unit of troops tasked with the overall defence of this area. This structure was built later than the fort at Beihualing, during the Yongli Reign (1402-1424). On the southeastern side, beyond the next ridge, there is also a smaller pass.

The main pass at Baimaguan

The smaller pass just southeast of the main one at Baimaguan (seen from the road).

This is a wall at Baimaguan Village, a remnant of that village’s fortifications.