Since coming to China four years ago, I had a yearning to go camping but could never find the time. I was envious of some of our friends who had camped the Great Wall, so I jumped at the chance to camp for beijingkids.
In early May, I joined an overnight camping trip with China Hiking to Long Valley Castle Great Wall, around 7km past Badaling. This was advertised as a 15km hike to an altitude of about 1,400m.
Founded by Heidi Liu seven years ago, China Hiking is now run by Liu and her partner Frederik Halewyck. They alternate between two hikes and two camping trips each week. The excursions are child-friendly; Halewyck told me that he once took a group of 40 teens up the Great Wall – one of the hardest things he has ever done.
On the morning of the hike, we met at Jiangguomen subway at 9.30am. Our group consisted of both tourists and expats. The former were backpackers from Hong Kong and South Korea. The Hong Kong party included four friends who put the two-day excursion on their itinerary based on a word-of-mouth recommendation. Only one person among the locals, a freelance writer, had been on the camping trip before. As we hiked, he recounted stories from his travels in China.
This time, Halewyck shared guide duties with a man named Jan Robben. Usually, Liu and Halewyck take turns leading trips; Robben started working with them this year.
We got into a van, picked up one more person along the way, and drove for two hours. We arrived at a quaint little village where we stopped for lunch; it was also the starting point for our hike.
Some of us wanted to do a little exploring while we waited for the food, but rain nixed this plan. There were some murmurs of concern after we glimpsed flashes of lightning, but the rain stopped by the time our Chinese meal was served. The sun was out again by the time we finished eating.
Before the hike, each person received a dinner of fried pork noodles from the restaurant and an almond pastry for breakfast. The first 400m were a steep climb on a very narrow path. We reached the Great Wall about 45 minutes later. There were many loose rocks and bricks; to get through some of the steeper sections, we detoured through the bushes on the side.
At the top, we had a wonderful 360-degree view of the surroundings. We could see the village where we set off, the path of our ascent, and lush green mountains all around us. After a ten-minute break, we set off on the next leg of our hike.
In four hours, we reached the campsite. It was a bit windy by this time – albeit still sunny – and there was dust blowing in our direction. Luckily, it took only 15 minutes to pitch the tents with everyone’s help.
The campsite was located at the base of slope with a guard tower nearby. The area was leveled by the villagers, who continue to maintain it. We set up camp away from the wall but close to each other. Closer to the wall, there was a campfire with logs for seating.
Feeling accomplished, we asked Halewyck if we’d covered 15km as planned. He replied that we’d only done 8km and that, due to the winds, it would be impossible to set up camp at the planned destination.
It got pretty cold with the wind; I quickly put on the fleeces and warm cap I’d packed. Before retreating to our tents, we explored other parts of the Great Wall. About 20m away from the campsite, there are makeshift pits that you can use when nature calls.
When the wind become too strong, we took refuge in our tents. Inside, our sleeping mats and backpacks were covered in dust. Though we shook them out outside, they were covered in dust again within five minutes – along with ourselves. This made eating a rushed and challenging proposition. After talking through the cracks in our tents for a while, we finally fell asleep.
At one point during the night, the wind blew our flysheet wide open, sending a cloud of dust through our tent. It took nearly 30 minutes to close the zipper. A quick dash to the “bathroom” two hours later resulted in us having to fix the zip again for 45 minutes.
Around 7.30am, we answered the morning call for coffee by drinking quickly in case it became cold from the wind. After breakfast, we took down the tents, collected all the trash, then took photos for posterity. The descent only took about 30 minutes, but we had to watch out for loose rocks on the path. I fell down in slow motion – one of the highlights of my trip.
The van was waiting for us at the foot of the mountain. We unpacked and emptied the backpacks borrowed from China Hiking. We were dropped off at Yonghegong Lama Temple, but you can arrange beforehand to be let off anywhere along the way.
My only regret is that the high winds made it impossible to indulge in one important camping ritual: roasting marshmallows. Despite being sore for days, I will be going camping again just to eat marshmallows and feel that my Great Wall camping experience is complete.
- On the day before the excursion, check the weather report. Some hiking companies charge a late cancellation fee, so notify them well ahead of time if your plans change.
- China Hiking’s hikes are suitable for ages 6 and up, or younger if the children’s parents carry them. However, that may not be true for all hiking companies; for example, Beijing Hikers’ excursions are suited to ages 10 and up.
- Pack light. China Hiking provides sleeping bags, tents, some food, and even backpacks if necessary.
- We recommend taking energy bars, sufficient water, allergy medication if needed, layers for the summit, sunscreen, a hat, insect repellent, and wet wipes.
Photos: Nimo Wanjau