© 2009 Steven Wong

5 of 10,000 – Climbing and camping at the Great Wall

Most people who come to visit Beijing will make a trip to see the Great Wall. You probably spend an hour there, and climb up a little section of the wall that’s been cleaned up and restored. If you’re a bit more into it, maybe you go to a section of the wall like Mutianyu where you can climb around a kilometre of the wall for a couple hours and then slide down from the hilltop.

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However, if you’re adventurous like me, sometimes you’ll get the opportunity to go to a rather remote section of the wall and spend 4 hours hiking up the hillside through the forest, then across a long section of the wall and then settle in for the night at a makeshift campsite in one of the guard towers.

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While we call it the Great Wall, the Chinese themselves call it a name that translates to “the long wall of 10,000 Li”, where Li represents a character that is used as a unit of distance equal to about 500 metres. For those of you scoring at home, that makes it out to be about 5000km. We probably covered 5 of the 10,000 Li (or 2.5km) during our climb (hence the numbers in the title of the post).

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Badaling and Mutianyu are the most popular spots to visit, but we went to an area called Jiankou, which was a bit further away and much less touristy. We weren’t the only ones there, but the only people we saw were some Chinese hikers and photographers, and a few other foreigners who were camping as well.

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We started off trekking from a small village near the wall, through the forest and up the hillside. It wasn’t that difficult, but I didn’t help myself by lugging around my big camera gear in addition to the sleeping bag and mat that we had borrowed. Most people had to carry their own tents, but I decided to carry less stuff and brave it out in the open.

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We hiked along some parts of the wall, climbed up others and there was one part that was virtually vertical. The views were amazing, spectacular even. Unlike the other sites, the Jiankou section isn’t well maintained. In fact, there was one part of the wall that was more or less impassable, so some of us scaled up the side while others managed to find a route that skirted around the section entirely.

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We eventually settled on one particular guard tower to camp at. It was still in a pretty good state, and the surrounding area was suitable for tents. Luckily we arrived pretty early, because there were other people who arrived after us looking to camp there.

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Dinner came quite early, around 5pm, courtesy of some of the village locals who were unbelievably kind enough to deliver a meal up the mountain to our campsite. It wasn’t anything to write home about, just some meat and veg on rice, but given the circumstances, it was welcome nourishment. Unfortunately, we actually ran out of food and the poor fellows had to make another trip up.

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Of course, eating that early meant we had a lot of time to kill. It’s not too hard to entertain yourself, especially when you’re in a group of 30 people. We had some campfires going, some card games, some Mafia games… some of us were quite content to just sit and gaze at the stars, something you don’t get to see in Beijing.

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A lot of people went to bed early, after the day’s exertion. Of course, being the slight insomniac I am, I stayed up later than most people, chatting with other late-night owls and even going with Simon to venture further up the wall to the next guard tower. Eventually though, I got sleepy and settled into my sleeping bag with a couple extra layers of clothes and my indispensable silk sleeping bag liner. A lifesaver!

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I didn’t think it was cold until the next morning. The campfire had gone out long ago, and the crisp morning air bit at my face and managed to slip into the sleeping bag if I didn’t scrunch up the mummy hood. Thankfully, it hadn’t snowed like some people had said.

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We made it back to Beijing quite intact – no major injuries (though someone sprained an ankle on the descent) and we all had a night full of good memories. I’m not sure mid-October was the best time to go… in fact, I’m quite sure that September would be perfect. Still warm though not blazing hot, and nighttime wouldn’t be as cold. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again!

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Check out the video below that I compiled during the hike, and as always, check out the entire photoset on Flickr.

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