The Great Wall of China – Free Camping on the Wall Part 1
July 21, 2016
Follow my adventure hiking along and sleeping on the Great Wall of China.
One of my favourite travel experiences was an amazing night spent on the Great Wall of China. I was trying to decide what made this such a memorable experience for me and I think it is the mixture of the amazing scenery, historic landmark and the fact that this was totally a self-lead, slightly risky, hair brained adventure. Either way, it turned out to be one of my top three travel experiences of all time. It was certainly more good luck than good management. I would like to tell you that this was one of our earlier backpacking adventures before we learnt better, but I’m afraid it’s just not true.
After a week in Beijing, the big city and complex transport from our couch surfing hosts to the popular destinations was getting us down. I knew I wanted to see some of the Great Wall while we were in the area so I jumped online to see how to make it happen. There was a mass of touristy bus tours with photo stops and matching T-shirts. Then I found a thread in the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum. It talked about how several backpackers had linked the old unrestored parts of the wall together, hiking along and sleeping on the wall.
There were only two problems.
1- it was frowned upon by the Chinese authorities to sleep on the wall. (Other campers had been leaving a mess)
2- Because of this, it was super hard to get info on where the different sections of the wall were and how to get to them. We later found out that"frowned upon" was backpacker speak for highly illegal which was why there was little info to be found.
These small issues and the fact we had no camping equipment per say, did not sway us in the slightest. Our couch surfing host assured us he had had surfers do this kind of thing before and offered to lend us his sleeping bag. So we set off with instructions on how to get to the base of the wall copied straight from the forum. Two girls, one sleeping bag, several bottles of water and a big bag of trail mix type treats. (I know eh. What were we thinking!)
We caught a public bus to the local town and then a taxi out to the wall, which was an adventure in itself with our non-existent Chinese and a trout farm as our only guiding landmark. With more luck than good management we were deposited outside the trout farm and circled cautiously behind it where we found our path and, with a trickle of local tourists, wandered up into the low bush. The local’s casually walked under a huge “keep out” sign so, with a shrug, we followed the path for several hours ending in a scramble to the base of the wall.
The wall was huge but a part had fallen away allowing us to clamber up onto a flat section that stood alone, decaying away from the rest of the wall. The feeling was amazing. We could see for miles. Dense green foliage hugged the steep mountains and portions of the wall snaked away into the distance like a bone white dragon from Chinese mythology. I always get a feeling when I am surrounded by history, especially when there are few tourists to spoil the illusion, that time stands still to admire these superhuman feats of construction and workmanship. Anyway, I was impressed. Enough said.
We were running out of day, however, so when the small handful of tourists were looking the other way, we slipped down off the wall and followed along its base. Bare in mind that we only had a rough idea of where we were. One direction the wall seemed to fall away completely and if we were right, the restored part of the wall was in the other direction, so we headed that way. The plan was, if we got lucky, we would come out further down the wall. If we got stuck we would retrace our steps and come out the way we had come. We got lucky.
Now, this may seem obvious in retrospect but the wall isn’t in very good condition. There are some parts where it marches down the hillside with nothing but a couple of weeds and some broken stones to show that it has not been restored. In other sections the bush is now growing on the top of the wall itself. So it’s like being inside a glowing green room where you can’t see the other side of the wall five meters away because of the foliage. Still other parts of the wall have fallen away altogether leaving gaps where we had to walk alongside. As the wall often follows hillsides and the cliff face, to be most defendable, some of the worst damage was caused by small landslides and erosion.
At one point the Wall stopped abruptly at a cliff face that went straight up 20 meters before carrying merrily on its way. We could only scale this with a combination of short climbs and a bamboo ladder so old that it only had a third of its rungs. You could only climb it with your hands on the outside supports and your feet on the actual rock.(please note rock-climbing in the middle of nowhere, with no ropes and a sleeping bag and water bottle dangling off your day pack is not advised) This is the point I should mention I don’t like heights - right?
Despite the risks we could see that the wall improved considerably beyond this point and not wanting to turn back we decided to give it ago. My main fear was not being able to climb back down if we got stuck further along. (That’s not true. My main fear was falling to my death but it was a close second)
At the bottom of this ladder determined, but scared witless, I made some joke about the fact my mother would not approve. (I can usually judge how stupid the thing I’m about to do is by my mother’s ability to project her disapproving face directly into my head) So intrepid adventure I am, I’m climbing this ladder at snail pace, shaking and cursing, and just as I reach the top and my friend drags me back onto level ground my phone rings. In the middle of nowhere, with my heart still beating 1000 miles an hour, it’s my mother. She’s ringing from NZ to wish me a Happy Birthday.
“Happy Birthday hun, what are you up to?”
“Oh just walking the Great Wall of China. It’s a bit of a scramble in some places”
“That’s good dear, just calling to say happy birthday and I hope you're keeping safe”
“Yeah Mum, totally safe…”
I looked out over the rolling hills and the crumbling wall twining away into the distance. How do Mothers do that???