Camping at the Great Wall

Posted by on May 1, 2011

Setting Outad•vent•ure

  1. an exciting or very unusual experience
  2. a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome

We’ve been in Beijing for three months and while I been lucky enough to get out for a couple of hikes (1, 2)  on the Great Wall I hadn’t been camping for around 6 months, the longest time in many years.  The period leading up to the move was extremely busy and things hadn’t let up much since our arrival; in fact this past week had been my busiest since getting here. Several nights I didn’t get to sleep until 2 am.

My plan for several months was to get out camping with the family as we had a three day holiday weekend. I had brought a huge bag of camping gear and had enough to outfit everyone.  Leading up to this weekend things weren’t working out with my plans. Stac’s arm still wasn’t feeling well and my attempts at recon feel apart.  My one hiking partner here in Beijing from work was busy and out of town.  But I was determined to get out camping with at least Miles and me.

Amid the busy work I had been searching for where to go and even looking for a guide. There are many websites offering tours of the Great Wall, but most of these are cattle cars that take bus loads to BaDaLing and then take you to see jade and tea shops where you get sales pitches.  There is a Beijing Hiking group but they only take guided day trips.  There are even several sites that offer to guide you camping at the Great Wall. One I contacted looked interesting but everyone was out of town.  Another informed me that the Wall was closed to camping but through connections with a villiage near the wall he could take our family for 4500 rmb ($700 US).  We’ll skip that.

They say knowledge is power and in the circumstance of unfamiliarity its difficult to decide where and when to go. With limited time I made the decision to go to Jiankou, based on my hiking partner’s recommendation.  He gave me directions to the village of XiZhaZi. I had grand plans of doing more research but was so busy I ran out of time. I barely had time to pack Friday morning while on two con-calls with Seattle.  Given that this was the first time breaking out the gear I hadn’t found a source for fuel yet so this would be a “cold” camp.  I packed some bread, some peanut butter, jelly and honey.

The CampCamping on the Great Wall and the destination Jiankou both are controversial subjects.  The Wall has been designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site; however the wall is over 4000 miles long and there are only a very few places that have official government presence (BaDaLing is one of these).  Villages along the Wall profit from tourism that brings visitors and funds.  Unrestored sections of the wall are called “wild” and there are government regulations that imply these sections of the Wall are closed.  Jiankou is renowned for amazing scenery and its steep and precipitous geography.  There have been several people killed there from lightening strikes and falling to there death.  The Wall at Jiankou is supposedly closed and I’d been told conflicting stories about camping.  I was unsure what we were getting ourselves into but that was part of the adventure to be.

After a full day of meetings Mr Wang picked me up with Miles from work at 3pm and we headed north east out of Beijing. I found the village on my iPhone and made sure we took the right turn offs. As we began winding along the narrow road the mountains rose above us. Along the way we passed many mountain retreats with hotels and restaurants. Eventually we took a sharp left on basically a single lane road and we pulled up in front of the gate of XiZhaZi. The ladies at the guard house were fascinated with Miles who hid shyly from them. Several months prior I’d emailed Robert a small hotel, Zhao’s Hostel at XiZhaZi and Mr Wang inquired the location and we headed up the road.  Right at the roads end on a small hill sits the hostel.  There is a courtyard, a couple of squatter toilets and a half a dozen rooms.  Mr. and Mrs Zhao were very friendly.  I called Robert from their land line (my cell had no service) and he chatted with Mrs. Zhao’s daughter who said it was no problem to guide us to the Wall to camp.  Mr Wang elected to stay behind in the hostel for the night.

Heading for CampAs we past the field we walked past a large big blue sign that announced this section of the Wall was unrestored and was closed to the public.  I asked her about this and she said that because the local village had “guanxi” (connections) that it was no problem.  The fact that I paid her 80 rmb to lead us to the wall, and their livelihood depended on visitors probably also explained a great deal.   After a 40 minute hike we arrived to the top of the wall where a large tower had many places we could camp and several fire pits.  Miles and I opted to carry on; we headed  east another 10 minutes over a crumbled tower to a small rise in the Wall on the flat top of the ridge.  We dropped our packs and scrambled back down to see if there were any more towers.  The next tower had no flat ground and beyond that we could see the Stairway to Heaven section (straight up) and so we returned to the ridge.

Wall DogAs we hiked up the valley to the Wall a local dog joined us.  I asked our guide its name, and she said she wasn’t sure what it was called but that it loved people.  The dog stayed with us and Miles and he played while I set up our tent on the flat tiles of the Wall.  The weather was mostly foggy and we’d been lucky to not have any rain.  Just after I finished pitching the tent the, suddely the white fog turned pink from a setting sun unseen behind the haze.  The entire experience was surreal.  Here we sat upon the wall built hundreds of years earlier by 1000s of forced laborers.  We climbed through towers with holes in the ground for passage ways, and along the top of the wall where the ramparts crumbled at the touch and trees and shrubberies filled the lane.  Great piles of bricks lay in heaps where the mortar had loosened and fallen by gravities pull.

Fire at the WallHaving passed the tower and the other fire pits, Miles and I decided to build a fire near our tent.  We climbed over the wall and gathered a bunch of dead brush.  We scraped out spot in the dirt where the bricks were missing and gathered many of the bricks to pile a circle of stones.   We lit our fire and enjoyed the light and warmth on a cool night at the end of April.  The next

On the Edge of Foreverday before we left we’d removed all the ash and scatter it over the cliff on the other side of the wall; rearranged the bricks in a scattered fashion and filled in dirt in the pit.  Leave no trace we left none.  (Reading later on the Great Wall Forum its generally frowned upon lighting fires because it can weaken the already crumbling bricks and mortar; we’ll be better on future visits)

Pink Fog SunsetWe climbed into our tent and made up our sandwiches for dinner. I always load my iPhone with movies before we take trips and Miles and I watched a few minutes of Goonies before we turned off the lights and snuggled down in our bags for the night.  My alarm went off at 5am the next morning to catch the sunrise.   I unzipped the tent to blowing fog, completely socked in we couldn’t even see the next tower.  Our friend the dog had slept outside all night and greeted us with wagging tail.

Heaven's LadderWe decided to go on a short hike that morning and left camp around 6 am.  We headed back towards the Staircase to Heaven.  The Wall here is almost straight up and narrows to a width less than 4 feet.  You can reach your hands out and touch either side.  This section requires concentration as you inch your way up one step at a time.  At the top we rested for a bit and hiked for a few more minutes until we came to another very steep section where the steps had crumbled and there was just the sheer face of the rock cliff.  We opted to stop here and return to camp.

As we relaxed back at our tent a group of 4 Chinese guys climbed up from the west.  They said they’d been hiking since MuTianYu.  They were waiting for a friend who they must have left behind as they kept calling his name.  The wind really began to pick up and I wandered down the wall a bit to take photos of the fog blowing across the ridge line.  Upon my return the hiking group said it was too far to return to MuTianYu and asked how they could exit the wall. I gave them directions and then with the weather turning cold from the blowing wind we broke camp and headed down.

Back at Zhao’s hostel we found Mr. Wang waiting. Miles and I were hungry so we ordered some noodles and egg fried rice.  This took foreever cause Mrs Zhao had to make a huge pot of rice up before they could stir fry it.  Eventually we got our food and wolfed it down.  Joining Mr. Wang at the car we settled in for our return drive of 2 hours to Beijing.  I was definitely in love with Jiankou and we’ll be back to see the Zhao’s and to explore more of this gorgeous section of Beijing.

Photos on Flickr
GPX of the Route
Google Map of Great Wall Locations

Camping at The Great Wall from mbgriffi on Vimeo.

18 Responses to Camping at the Great Wall

  1. Rulon Brown

    This is the coolest movie made by a dad… ever! Miles is a lucky boy.

  2. Seth

    What a cool opportunity. A very unique way to engage with so much history…

  3. Shari Zollinger

    Amazing Mark. What memories for Miles!

  4. Teresa

    Thank you so much for sharing that! The video is great and your description of the trip had me glued to the computer screen….

  5. Rod H

    That looks phenomenal!

    • Sandy

      Loved it! Mark, thanks for sharing!

  6. Annette

    What am amazing experience! Can we come next time? Give my love to Stacy–we miss you guys!

    • Stacey

      We miss your family Annette. How are Jackson and Cody doing? I bet Cody keeps you on your toes. What a cutie.

  7. Stacey

    love it Mark. I’m so glad you and Miles had a little trip out of the city together. Both of you are blessed to have each other in your lives. He’s got a great dad!

  8. Bekki

    I’m glad a dog joined your for a bit. I bet it made Miles’ day. He would have probably preferred Hope but at least he got to play with a nice dog on his first campout in China. Glad you guys are enjoying yourselves there.

  9. Dean

    Loved the video, the fog gives it that mysterious quality. Pretty cool that you had the place to yourselves…aside from the dog of course.

  10. Kelsie

    Amazing opportunity. What a location for hiking! I always enjoy watching your videos Mark, they continue to inspire.

  11. Bryan

    Great stuff!

  12. florian

    awesome. will go there tmw 😉

  13. Katie Hunt

    I am working at the US embassy this summer and my friends and I were wanting to go camping but are set on not going with a led group. This camping adventure you went on sounds perfect. Do you have a contact or suggestions on how we could go about doing a trip like this?

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