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Twenty two kilometers of rolling hills and clifftops. Glorious views over the reservoir to rugged mountains beyond. And pristine Ming Dynasty stone wall very rarely traversed. As I like to say, if you’re tired of the Great Wall, you’re tired of life.

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Out at Baihebao, right at the northwest tip of Beijing Municipality, a wonderfully remote and untravelled Great Wall swings in from Hebei Province. Known as the “Northern Loop”, it originates at Zhangjiakou far to the west, and passes by Baihebao to finish at the famous Nine Eye Tower. My quest to hike all the Municipality’s walls had no credibility until I’d knocked off at least a good majority of the Northern Loop. The stretch from Dongbeikou to the Nine Eye was completed in one long day back in Autumn 2013, finishing with a planned night-time descent to the village. The two legs at Baihebao were done on day trips either side of Beijing’s long, hot, basically unhikeable summer. Around 35 kilometers in total, they are both difficult walks but rewarding.

Baihebao North

In June my old friend Mr Zhao picked us up at Yanqing station and we drove over the pass to Baihebao reservoir, quite a lovely place and obviously popular for Yanqing daytrippers. Winding our way up the country road I’d selected, we came across some villagers re-concreting the road. Between utterances of “laowai” (foreigner) and “guo bu qu” (can’t pass here) we realised we’d have to start walking a little early. This route is easy and attractive, at first, and we soon came to the old stony Great Wall. It was a Ming Era wall (1368-1644), probably earlier in the dynasty, and may possibly follow the route of a Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) wall.

We reached the wall around here. It continues north into the background about a kilometer; we headed south.

↑ We reached the wall around here. It continues north into the background about a kilometer; we headed south.

↑  Although open and flat, this wasn't easy walking because of the loose rocky surface

↑ Although open and flat, this wasn’t easy walking because of the loose rocky surface

↑  View south east. The wall continues along the sunlit ridge beyond

↑ View south east. The wall continues along the sunlit ridge beyond then up the highest hill and along the ridge to the right

↑  One of the few large towers on this section, loose bricks around the ground suggest it was once covered in bricks

↑ One of the few large towers on this section, loose bricks around the ground suggest it was once covered in bricks

↑ Back over our shoulder. Descending that cliff is easier than it looks

↑ Back over our shoulder. Descending that cliff is easier than it looks

At the end of the first stage, perhaps 12 kilometers from the start, we found a path down a very steep cliffside back onto the small plain behind the reservoir. Across here, we passed a large tower remnant in the valley and made our way to the next hillside. There was no obvious path up, so we followed a pretty marginal goat trail. Clinging to the side of the hill, we could actually hear goats bleating not far away. Then we hit a spur wall and turned uphill.

↑  Crossing the plain

↑ Crossing the plain

↑ Red is wall, yellow is our route

↑ Red is wall, yellow is our route

↑  Continuing uphill on the spur to regain the main wall on the ridge line further up

↑ Continuing uphill on the spur to regain the main wall on the ridge line further up

Beyond here, the route heads south then southwest, more or less continually uphill. Many hours in, it was becoming a bit of a slog on the loose boulders. But the sun was out, the air was fairly clear, and the wall was in pristine condition, with virtually no litter at all. Clearly very few people had come this way over the years.

↑  A beacon tower and a curved stretch of wall, looking back behind us

↑ A beacon tower and a curved stretch of wall, looking back behind us

↑  Another long climb to the tower where the wall suddenl turns

↑ Another long climb towards the hilltop where the wall suddenly turns southwest (right in this image) along a cliff top

↑  This large potsherd is typical of Ming water vessels or pickle jars

↑ This large potsherd is typical of Ming water vessels or pickle jars

↑  We realised after picking this up you're not supposed to handle such things, but nothing blew up.

↑ We realised after picking this up you’re not supposed to handle such things, but nothing blew up.

↑ Beautiful curved wall at the top of the hill

↑ Beautiful curved wall at the top of the hill

From the top of the hill, the wall ran along a cliff top and it was absolutely pristine. This area is a long hard walk from anywhere and there was no sign at all that anyone had been here at all any time in the recent past. I knew one person who came this way in Autumn 2013, but apart from him, it may have been years.

↑  Pristine early Ming stone wall with concave shape, running along a cliff top

↑ Pristine early Ming stone wall with concave shape, running along a cliff top

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↑  Looking back on our route along the cliff top in the late afternoon

↑ Looking back on our route along the cliff top in the late afternoon

↑ I had two friends on this hike: Ben and my little GPS

↑ I had two friends on this hike: Ben and my little GPS

↑ I also had a nice chat with this fellow, who used his horse to drag cut pine logs down to the village

↑ I also had a nice chat with this fellow, who used his horse to drag cut pine logs down to the village

And now we reached the end of the hike. After about 20 kilometers, we faced a bluff, or small escarpment. Ben wanted to continue down the wall, but I thought it was better to backtrack a little, find high ground, and skirt around rather than try to fight our way out of the lower part of that little valley. We went my way, and bashed through some very thick scrub to reach a more open pine forest, then worked our way along the contour toward the small road we’d seen beneath the bluff. Around there somewhere we discovered a path that broke left and right. Pretty tired now, and knowing that Mr Zhao would be waiting in the nearby village (which I could see only as a marker on my GPS), I pushed ahead a little after thinking through the options and plumping for left. As Ben popped up behind me, beneath a power pylon I’d been using as a waypoint, I said with all the nonchalance I could muster, “I give you: the route home”. He smiled, probably knowing full well how pleased with myself I was. Then I got Mr Zhao on the phone. We’d made it, just half an hour over schedule.

On the train back to Beijing, Ben quietly opened a small bag he’d left in Mr Zhao’s van all day. “Fancy a beer, Rich?”

↑ Tired, but very happy

↑ Tired, but very happy

Part Two, Baijebao South, coming soon