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An indie guide to camping on the Great Wall of China


No matter how big or small, every one has a travel dream. That dream can range from sampling every brewery in your home state or climbing a local mountain to running with the bulls in Pamplona, joining the mile high club (the new Airbus does not count), getting wasted at the Rio Carnival or being romanced on the Eiffel tower. One of my most compelling travel dreams has been to sleep on the Great Wall of China.

China Great Wall

Hiking China's Great Wall

The first time I walked the Great Wall was at Simatai a few years ago during China’s Spring festival with a tour group from a Beijing youth hostel. While admiring the view from an ancient gate house after a several hour walk on the wall, I was struck by the idea of just how cool it would be to sleep on the wall. From that moment on I’ve been slightly obsessed with the dream of sleeping on the wall.

This travel dream became reality when after two months planning with my friend and travel buddy K American girl, the sleep over trip to the Great Wall kicked off Sunday night. Would have started Saturday night but train tickets from Changchun to Beijing were sold out.

Preparation – First plan was to go to Mutianyu because Simatai is closed for restoration and no serious traveller in their right mind would be seen on Badaling. Spoke to a friend who’d been to Gubeikou and after doing some research, decided that go for Gubeikou. More isolated and less crowded with a large unrestored section of the original wall.

Equipment – Sleeping bags (K2 rated for -18C and a Colombia rated for -20C), foam jigsaw mats for a mattress, sturdy hiking shoes, large back pack, camera and spare batteries, bag of Muesli (gods gift to campers), Chinese under armour thermals, Australian sunglasses and two liters of water

Day One

We caught the Z62 over night sleeper train from Chang Chun to Beijing and arrived at Beijing train station at 6:00am in the morning fired up and ready to go. Took the subway at the Beijing train station subway stop to Dongzhimen subway stop where we exited the subway at the B exit and headed east to Dongzhimen long distance bus station. The plan was to catch either a Luanping or Chengde bus and get off at the GubeiKou stop.

We ended up at an enormous bus stop just outside the Dongzhimen subway exit and caught a 980 quick bus to Miyun where we planned to change buses for Gubeikou. Our bus driver dropped us of in Miyun 70 minutes later amongst a very welcoming group of touts. The bus driver must have been on the touts payroll. Luckily the touts were busy harassing a bunch of Chinese tourist so K and I made a quick escape.

A really friendly shop keeper nearby gave us directions to a local bus that would take us to Gubeikou. His directions were solid and we arrived at the bus stop after a 10 minute walk. Caught the bus 30 minutes later and arrived in Gubeikou around 11am after a two hour bus trip. Yaaayyy, finally at the wall!

Sleeping out on the Great Wall of China

Sleeping out on the Great Wall of China

The Wall

The Gubeikou wall is around 20 kilometers long and is divided in to four sections. Wohushan, Panlongshan, Jianshanling and Simatai. The Gubeikou township is located in a valley that runs from north to south between Wohushan and Panlongshan sections and splits the wall in two.

The Wohushan section to the west of Gubeikou township is shorter than the Panlongshan section to the east and is entirely unrestored. Most of the longer Panlongshan section has been partially or completely restored. K preferred to hike the unrestored part of the wall so we headed west to climb Wohushan. The official translation of Wohushan is crouching tiger mountain. It can also be translated as bed or bedroom tiger mountain. I prefer the second translation.

The Wohusha section of the wall has had no work done on it since 1567 and is in a completely unrestored and deteriorated condition. At the starting point of this section at the edge of the township, there is no wall at all. Only the crumbling remains of two watch towers. The condition of the wall generally improves as you travel west ward.

The wall is in such bad condition that much of the trail is on a path on the side of the wall because the actual wall itself is either in ruins or is a pile of bricks and rubble. The second last section of the wall that climbs to the peak of Wohushan is in reasonable condition and the guard tower near the summit that is almost complete with just the entrance part of roof caved in. From the rubble on the ground, the collapse of the roof was very recent.

In the last part of the trek after the summit, the wall all but disappears as it cross over a very narrow ridge is no more than roughly 60cm wide. The wall tail stops abruptly and finishes at a peak that leads to a precipitous drop. The wall starts again on another peak on the other side of the drop. There is no way to cross the drop so the only way to continue to follow the wall would be to back track most of the way down Wohushan mountain and take a several hour detour.

Sunset over the Great Wall of China

Sunset over the Great Wall of China

The views from this part of the wall were awesome with ridges and mountains on three sides and distant views of the wall straddling mountain peaks to both the west and east. K and I decided to camp there for the night where we had grandstand views of the sunset and sunrise over the surrounding mountains.

The sunset was not colourful but just sitting on the great wall with just K for company watching the sun sink behind the mountains was profound and incredibly satisfying.

Day Two

After a night spent huddling in the sleeping bags trying in vain to stay warm, we woke up to the alarm at 5am. The surrounding mountains were covered in mist and the distant sections of the wall were not visible. This provided an eerie and poignant backdrop for the sunrise.

We ate breakfast, rested than rolled up the sleeping bags, packed our bags and set of down the wall back towards the Gubeikou town ship. Like cats climbing up trees, we found the hike down much more difficult than the hike up.

The trip back

There is a large police check point straddling the high way that runs north through the valley. All buses to Beijing stop at this check point so catching a bus directly to Beijing is easy. The first bus we tried had no seats and the driver basically swore in his mother’s grave that we should take his bus because all the buses would be as full due to the grave sweeping festival/holiday. Not convinced, we decided to wait for the next bus. Sure enough, this bus had plenty of empty seats. Unfortunately at this point I needed to go to the toilet so K and I lost our seats. The next 2-3 buses were full so K ran out of patience with the buses (and me) and took a car to Miyun where she then caught the 980 bus back to Beijing.

I stuck it out and took the next bus that had only standing room. Luckily I managed to get a seat after half an hour. The bus trip took two hours and we were dropped off right next to the Sanyuanqiao subway stop on line 10. From there it was just a 20-30 minute subway ride back to Beijing train station were I waited for 30 minutes for K to arrive.

Costs
460RMB Train fare from Changchun to Beijing and back
320RMB Colombia -20C rated sleeping bag
160RMB 1 night at the hotel
60RMB Fares from Beijing to Gubeikou and back
50RMB Food and water
1050RMB The total for an awesome night sleeping on the Great Wall

More about China – and the rest of the world – on Brendon’s blog.

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