More than 10 million people visit the Great Wall of China every year, and when Emmie and I arrived in Beijing we were determined to do something a little different to the majority.
Experiencing this majestic architectural wonder is not just about climbing, touching or ticking it off a must-see list. The magic lies in spending time at the wall in the silence of the forest, far away from the crowds, feeling the weight of its’ history, imagining the lives of the people who built it and the one million soldiers who lived on it, guarding China from her enemies over centuries and across Dynasties.
After some investigation I found a company called China Hiking that runs small-group camping tours on quiet sections of the Great Wall outside of the main tourist hub, where appreciation and immersion is at the forefront of the experience. Where you carry your own gear up the mountain and along the authentic remains of the Wall to sleep in the Jade Watchtower - or on top of it, as in our case. Where you awaken to silence as the sun rises to watch the Great Wall of China as it curls below you, up mountains and down valleys, like a soft ribbon unwinding into the distance.
Our night on the Great Wall of China remains a highlight of our adventures so far. Here’s our Top 10 reasons why you should do it too.
1. An amazing adventure It is really the most incredible adventure - and hiking up to the wall along small worn pathways through the forest is a fabulous start to an amazing experience. We carried our own gear, but water is delivered to the campsite (one man, one backpack, one massive hike). The walk is challenging enough to make you appreciate the adventure of getting there, and the Wall is more fascinating than you could imagine. We were really well looked after on this trip - with a fresh meal cooked for us on the Wall when we reached our camping spot, and marshmallows for the kids to toast on the fire.
2. Night time on the Great Wall of China Night time on the wall is quiet and peaceful yet heavy with the weight of an incredible history - Genghis Khan, Chinese dynasties, Mulan...China has so much natural beauty to offer tourists and the Great Wall in a remote forest is a crazy visual collision of man-made wonder and beautiful nature. It's definitely something to write home about.
3. Once in a lifetime Camping on the Great Wall of China is an adventure of a lifetime and one that is different and unusual to any other kind of China - or world - experience. How many people do you know who've slept on the Great Wall? Chances are, not many.
4. Away from the crowds It’s remote, quiet and magical. Many people who visit China simply take a quick tour package out to the rebuilt wall at the tourist area at Mutianya. They climb up and then slide down beside the wall on a toboggan! On this trip we went to a remote part of the Wall and we didn't see any other people the whole time. If you’ve made effort to travel to China then push yourself a little more and experience the authentic Great Wall of China.
5. Watch the stars as you fall asleep on top of an ancient watchtower You can see the sky and stars through your tent on top of one of the original watchtowers. The sky in Beijing isn't too clear even on a good day, but just a two hour drive away on the Great Wall at Jiankou you can lay in your tent on a watchtower on the Great Wall of China and watch the moon and stars pass you by.
6. The perfect family adventure It can sometimes be difficult to engage kids in history, but Emmie was the one who asked for see the Great Wall after watching Disney’s Mulan. With its incredible stats - like being 2300 years old for and 21,000 kilometres long - the adventure to get there and the incredible camping spot, it’s easy to excite and engage children. This is definitely a trip for families.
7. A challenge to be celebrated Completing a three hour almost vertical hike up to the wall will give you a huge feeling of accomplishment and make the overnight stay even sweeter - it was a fabulous bonding trip for me and Emmie.
8. Learn history and fun facts There are lots of fun facts to learn while you rest and chat with your guide over dinner on the Great Wall. Rice glue and wolf poo are my two favourites. The wall is held together by a white rice glue concoction, and back in the day when armies were spotted approaching wolf poo was burned to alert the soldiers on other watch towers and send a message to mobilise the army. Wolf poo is the uber smoke maker of all poo. I didn't know that.
9. A unique atmosphere The feeling on the wall is spine tingling and goose-bump inducing. It’s hard to describe how overwhelming the experience was for us. We felt a strong, heaviness of history and a sense of wonder and privilege. It’s so very quiet on the Wall, its fascinating to think about the guards who kept watch from the tower, how they lived every day and how they felt, watching for the enemy and being so isolated. It’s an almost spiritual experience.
10. The best experience Pitching a tent, sleeping on a watchtower, watching the sun set and rise over the Great Wall of China, falling in love with the history and the majesty of the Chinese dynasties and the beauty of our surroundings - it’s truly an adventure that you have to experience to see and feel for yourself. Make sure you do.
CAMP: We booked our trip with China Hiking. Co-owner Heidi was our guide.
STAY: We stayed at the Shangri-La Beijing after our camping adventure. Shower and bath was desperately needed.