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Camping the Great Wall
by Ellen Barth - Apr 2, 2015
Photo by Jonathan Corbet / CC
Chairman Mao once said, “He who has not visited the Great Wall is not a real man! (Bú dào Chángchéng fēi hǎo hàn; 不到长城非好汉！)”
Calligraphy of Chairman Mao
Chairman Mao’s quotation inscribed on a huge stone at Badaling Great Wall
Propaganda poster of Chairman Mao’s quotation
Many tourists take coach buses to Badaling (八达岭), the busiest section of the Great Wall, but more adventurous people - such as my friend Gulnara - opt for a more unique experience: camping on the Great Wall. Over the course of two days, she hiked sixteen kilometers in order to spend the night atop China's greatest monument.
We met over coffee to talk about her experiences.
This was your first time in China. Why did you decide to go?
“My parents didn't understand. They said, 'Why would you want to go there?' Everyone wants to go to America, but China is the next big thing. I wanted to see what life is like there.”
How did you get in?
“I flew from Moscow to Beijing with Air China. It was nice, and the people on the plane were really quiet and polite. My friend, Peggy, flew in from London.”
Actors preparing for a performance of Beijing Opera
You arrived in Beijing in August. What were your first impressions?
“I arrived and right away I had problems. I had trouble finding the subway to the center of town, and when I finally got there and outside I couldn't breathe.
“My hostel was very central, located two stops from the Forbidden City. At first I couldn't find it. I asked people and showed them a map but no one would help me. In the end, a really nice guy came and talked to me. He even called the hostel for me. (It was right around the corner from where we were!) He was so great!
“At the hostel there were air conditioners, and I was really grateful because I could breathe there. The Chinese people at the hostel really tried to entertain me and make me feel comfortable. An American girl working there explained to me how things work and showed me my room. She could speak Mandarin, but she said that sometimes that might not help in China. You might still get stuck or confused. So I thought, okay, this is how it is in China. Just calm down and let it happen.”
How did you communicate with people?
“I had taken a seminar in Chinese, and some things came back to me. The translation app on my phone was really useful. Everyone was always showing their smartphones! After a while I could read some signs, but we used our phone translators a lot.”
What did you do in Beijing?
“We went to the Forbidden City. So big and so many people! That was the feeling: wherever you go, always surrounded by thousands of people. We went to Jingshan Park (Jǐngshān Gōngyuán; 景山公园) and saw people doing tai chi.
People practicing tai chi at Qiwang Lou (绮望楼) in Jingshan Park.
“We also visited a night market. That was really shocking with the snakes and maggots on sticks. We didn't try to eat the street food; I wasn't interested in the rabbit heads.
“I ate Peking Duck for the first time. I'd never had it this way and it was so good.”
Horrifying rabbit heads in Beijing
Delicious local cold noodles
How did you hear about camping on the Great Wall?
“My travel companion, Peggy, heard about it through her Chinese students. It was a good tip because it's not very touristy. We used the website www.chinahiking.cn to plan our trip. We chose the Crouching Tiger Great Wall trip.
This part of the Great Wall is about 60 kilometers outside Beijing. How did you get there?
“We took a minibus to the Great Wall, and then another bus further out towards the Yanshan Mountains (Yàn Shān; 燕山). It was a little frustrating. We weren't sure why we had to take two buses, and it felt like people were trying to take advantage of us. But in the end we got to a hotel, and we could walk to the Great Wall from there. At the hotel were a lot of Chinese people interested in hiking.
“The woman laughed at us when she saw our luggage. 'What do you think you're going to do with those?' she asked. 'Climb up the wall with them?' Well, we didn't know.”
How much did it cost?
“The hotel was about 60 Euros per night, and we had to pay for equipment, like the tent and sleeping bags. They also gave us a phone in case of emergency.”
What about a map?
“No map. We were on our own. They just gave us a drawing, but I don't think it was too accurate.”
You went from the hotel, up the side of the mountain and to the Great Wall. That's 8 kilometers. How long did it take you?
“Three hours to get up. And the last ten meters were really scary. This was the most dangerous part. It was so steep, and the only things to hold on to were old posts. We didn't go that way back. Instead, we walked down the wall a bit to a place that wasn't so steep.”
Camp inside the watchtower
So you set up your tent inside the tower?
“Yeah. We spent the night in an old watchtower. I wasn't sure if it was safe. The walls were damaged and I kind of worried that a wind might come and knock them down.”
What did you bring with you to eat?
“Just sandwiches and chips. Water. We went back the next morning and we didn't have breakfast.”
How did you spend your time up there?
“Drinking wine! And talking. In the morning Peggy walked to the next tower and watched the sunrise. I was too tired from the day before, so I watched it from our tent. It was really beautiful.
“It was the best thing ever. Very different - being alone by yourself.”
The Great Wall
Would you recommend this to other travelers?
“It would be good for experienced climbers and people with no fear of heights. It was scary hiking up, but after we'd done it, it was cool.
“For other people, you can take a taxi to the wall [such as Simatai (司马台) or Jinshanling (金山岭)] and walk for a few hours.”
Where did you go after Beijing?
“Pingyao (平遥), the walled city. That was beautiful. Xi'an (西安) to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. And Chengdu (成都). Chengdu was really fancy. And of course we ate barbeque there. The last stop was Hong Kong.”
Were there any other highlights during your trip?
The Wolong Panda Base. We got medical tests done in Beijing so we could work with the pandas. It took a lot of time, about three days to get it all, but it was worth it.
Panda at the Wolong Panda Base
What do you think about China now that you've been there?
“It's an adventure. 100%.”
Ellen Barth fell in love with China during her first Mandarin lesson when she was sixteen years old. American by birth but currently residing in Germany, Ellen spent a year studying and working in Xi'an, and received a degree in Asian Languages and Literatures in 2008. Since her first trip to China in 2004, she has traveled across Asia and Europe in order to appease her ever-itchy feet.