When I first inquired at China Culture Center (CCC) about the possibility of camping on the Great Wall, I had my doubts. Many people, including other tour operators, had informed me that it was illegal to camp at the Great Wall in the Beijing area.
When I expressed this doubt to Iris Wu at CCC, she confirmed what others had said. She must have sensed my dejection at this news, because she quickly explained that CCC could take me to overnight at the Great Wall outside of the Beijing area. The more we discussed the trip, the more I was sure I had found the answer to my quest – I was going to sleep on the Great Wall.
To be fair, the quest was not really mine. I was scouting a trip for an international client, and frankly, I had not given any thought to camping in years. Still, this assignment piqued my interest.
It was a gloriously sunny day when I met with a couple of CCC guides and a handful of other intrepid travelers for our overnight excursion to the Jingshanling section of the Great Wall. We departed from the CCC office just north of Chaoyang Park and, two hours later, we arrived at Chejiapu Village just below an unrestored section of the Great Wall. This 500-year-old village was previously a fort and a supply station for the workers who built this section of the Wall, and later for the soldiers who kept watch along the Wall.
To reach our destination, we hiked up to the Wall, then along the ridge line, descending in and out of the forest a couple of times to avoid particularly difficult stretches. After a couple of challenging hours, we arrived at a relatively flat section at the apex of a narrow valley. Our local guide from the village started immediately preparing a Chinese barbecue and everyone enjoyed cool beverages to celebrate our arrival at the campsite. Then, we set about choosing sites for our tents for the night.
Seeing as this was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (twice in my case), I set up my tent on a flat and very hard section of the Wall, while most of the group opted to sleep on the relatively softer ground beside it. As we ate our meal and enjoyed the sunset, I was surprised to find that the flies all departed for the night and no mosquitoes came out to greet us. The entire landscape seemed lulled into sleep as if wrapped in silence by the night. Not until our group went to sleep, and several started to snore, was this silence broken. Fortunately, the wind picked up after 10pm and the rustling of my tent flaps drowned out the snores.
As I lay awake in my tent, I imagined what the lives of the guards must have been like as they manned the watchtowers on this remote section of the kingdom’s borders. However difficult it may have been, I only hoped they slept more comfortably than I did on my night upon the wall. It wasn’t comfortable, but I’ll never forget the experience.
To learn more about hiking or camping on the Great Wall, visit www.chinaculturecenter.org or call 6432 9341.
All photos by Chris Lay