THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA. What can I possibly say that would do this experience justice? It’s on everyone’s bucket list and mine is no exception. I can’t believe it’s crossed off!
When you’re planning a trip to see something you’ve wanted to see your whole life, you don’t want to half-ass it. You don’t want to go out there with a throng of tourists, spend a few hours, get back on the bus and rely on a few photos to remember what just happened. You really want to take time to absorb your surroundings, make memories that will last a lifetime and maximize the time you spend there.
With that in mind, I carefully researched my Great Wall options. The wall currently has multiple sections within driving distance from Beijing – some are restored and some are not. All of the well-known sections are also known for their massive crowds, especially at peak travel times in China. So when I decided to visit Beijing and the Great Wall during China’s Golden Week, the week of National Day, I knew I needed to plan carefully. Golden Week is said to be the busiest travel week of the year.
Through some expert googling, I stumbled upon chinahiking.cn. I could tell by the informal tone on their website that this was a small operation and was subsequently impressed by the rave reviews Fred and Heidi received on TripAdvisor and travel blogs alike. A Welsh husband and Chinese wife duo, Fred and Heidi offer day trips, as well as overnight camping trips to various sections of the wall from Jiankou and Jinshanling to Fairy Tower and Chen Castle. The only trips they don’t offer are hiking and camping on the best known and most touristy sections of the wall, like Badaling and Mutianyu. (Side note – on the day we returned to Beijing from our serene Great Wall trip, the cover story on Beijing newspapers was about the record breaking crowds at Badaling Great Wall during National Week. The photos of people packed onto the wall like stacked ants were absolutely terrifying.)
Scheduling issues made my trip selection easy and I was booked for a 2-day, 1-night hiking and camping trip at Gubeikou, a completely unrestored section of the Great Wall, North of Beijing.
On Saturday morning, we arrived at the meeting point just outside a Beijing subway station and loaded into a large van. I was impressed to find that our group was limited to ten people accompanied by Fred, Heidi and a Chinese intern we affectionately called Charlie. After about a 90-minute ride, we arrived in Gubeikou for lunch. It was basically a few houses surrounded by mountains and farm fields. After a delicious lunch, we set off on our journey, despite the periodic raindrops.
At the start of our hike, we were greeted by a sign in typical Chinglish that warned, “You have entered the Gubeikou Cultural Heritage Tourism Area, Please cooperate with staff ticket no ticket for visitors ticket please.” No one seemed to notice the sign and giggle except me. We trudged ahead and into the brush.
My biggest recommendation for anyone doing this hike is to wear long pants, even in the middle of a hot summer. There is no foraged path, so you are truly pushing through brush for a good half hour to get up to the wall. Talk about non-touristy and authentic! It was so thick and tall in some places that I wondered how Fred could possibly know where he was leading us. Nonetheless, we emerged from the brush at the foot of an uphill path and caught our first glimpse of the wall, which resulted in lots of ooohhh aaahhhsss and gasps from myself and my fellow hikers. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this in real life. It’s even more breathtaking than the photos let on.”
Our group consisted of 20 and 30-somethings from various countries. We had a few from England, Canada, Australia and the US, of course. The most interesting members of our group were a couple of 70-year old newlyweds from Arizona. They told us about their lives – he took a mid-career break in his 40’s to pack up his family and sail around the world, while she’s spent segments of her life traveling in South America, Europe and Russia. Now that they’re officially retired, widowed and remarried, they’ve planned a few months adventure in Asia. At 70 years old, they easily kept pace with the rest of us throughout the entire hike. I aspire to reach their level of cool when I grow up!
Once we reached the wall, there was not a soul in sight. I took a few minutes to hang back from the group, snapping photos and taking it all in. At first, we headed to the right as far as we could before the Chinese government would stop us. Then we backtracked and headed toward our destination. We saw a few other hikers along the way, but it was mostly just us for the entire afternoon. It sprinkled on and off and the air was cold, but the views were unbelievable. There were a few times where I stood on the edge of the wall and looked down thinking about how effective the wall must have been for the purposes it was designed. It’s a long, steep way down – there’s no way anyone could climb it from the outside!
We reached our campground at sundown to find our tents already set up and gear waiting for us. That’s my kind of camping! We hiked down to a nearby farmhouse to pick up baskets filled with awesome Chinese food for our dinner and a few crates of beer, naturally. The house seemed to be about 5-bedrooms, 1-bath, but I noticed multiple beds in each room. I can’t guess how many family members must reside there.
That night, we ate and drank around the campfire until we were joined by a few of the Chinese family members. They sang traditional Chinese ballads and laughed with us, even though they speak no English at all. We felt obligated to sing something in return and one of the British girls started us off with Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. Who doesn’t love The Titanic soundtrack?!
I can’t think of many things more magical than waking up on the Great Wall of China to watch the sunrise. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have done it. This was by far, the coolest thing I did during my week in Beijing. It’s the coolest thing I’ve done since arriving in China. And it’s quite possibly the most memorable travel experience of my entire life… but then again, I’ve got a lot of life left to live.
If you’re considering a visit to the Great Wall and hoping to make it unforgettable, don’t waste your time at Badaling. Let Fred and Heidi take you off the beaten path.
To see more photos, don’t miss the video at the top of this post. You can also watch it on YouTube. In my humble opinion, the last forty seconds of the video is the best part – don’t miss it!