Jordan asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday and without missing a beat I told him I wanted to spend it on the Great Wall of China, as it was one of my bucketlist items. And then I learned you could actually camp on the wall – so I upped the ante and proclaimed that I wanted to camp on the Great Wall of China for my birthday.
Easier said than done.
Technically, it’s not entirely legal to camp on the Wall. It isn’t illegal either, per se. It would likely be frowned upon, and if you did it on one of the restored parts you’d probably get caught and thrown out before you could so much as unpack your tent.
But I had read a bunch of tour companies that take you on camping trips to the wall for something like $150USD/person. So, in keeping with the ongoing theme of our entire adventure, I decided we could DIY it, and do better.
I started researching what parts of the wall I wanted to see, and copied one of the most popular hikes (and consequently, camping trips) from Jiankou to Mutianyu.
Jiankou is a part of the wall that’s considered the “wild” wall – it’s un-restored. Mutianyu on the otherhand is part of the restored sections. It’s been reconstructed to look like the wall would have originally, while Jiankou has been left to decay with the passage of time. Because of this, Jiankou is considered a dangerous part, and is actually not supposed to be visited by tourists.
There are signs everywhere that tell you it’s forbidden to walk on Jiankou, and in fact many people have died doing so.
It, like all the other unrestored parts, is full of loose stones and unsure footing, incredibly steep (in times almost vertical) inclines, and areas that are completely broken and uncrossable.
So after we returned from our visa run to Hong Kong we had exactly 1 day to figure out how to get where we needed to go to start our hike (Xizhazi village), rent the necessary equipment (tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, etc), plan and pack our meals, and figure out where to ditch our big bags while we were gone.
Jordan hates it when we do anything without what he considers to be ‘sufficient prep time’, so he was kind of grumpy right up until we reached the trailhead (and a little after since he didn’t know how long we were meant to take or exactly where we were going). But I’m happy to say flying by the seat of our pants (relatively) worked out!
We lucked out and were sharing our AirBNB with another guest, a girl named Garfield, who happened to speak perfect English. She did us a few solids: she called the outdoor supply store to ask them about rentals so we knew exactly where to go, she wrote out what we wanted to ask in chinese characters in case of a language barrier, and she booked us the chinese-equivalent of uber so that we wouldn’t pay western prices for the ride from Beijing to Xizhazi (which was about 215 yuan, as opposed to 350 yuan as a westerner).
So after a whirlwind trip to Sanfo, the outdoors company in Beijing, we were stocked up on gear and ready to rock. We rushed out to get groceries on the morning we were leaving – which proved difficult and we ended up with bread, cheese, and green pepper. Those three things do not a great sandwich make.
It took about 2.5 hours of driving to get to the trailhead in Xzihazi village. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place and our driver spoke no English, so we wandered up to a farmer on the road and tried asking him by repeating the name of the watchtower that we were meant to arrive at to start our hike (Zhengbeilou) and pointing in the direction we thought we were meant to go. But that didn’t get us anywhere so our driver called Garfield, and we passed the phone to the farmer and somehow through all that we figured we were in the right place.
The start of the trail didn’t look like much of a trailhead and wasn’t signposted, but a few hikers came down from it shortly after we had finished the whole phone fiasco, so we felt a bit more confident and started walking.
The farmer had pointed to this little square on top of a mountain in the distance when I had asked about Zhengbeilou. There it is. We were walking to THAT.
The hike wasn’t particularly brutal – I had expected it to be much worse as all the reading I had done had made it sound terrible. But in about an hour we walked up into a clearing and found ourselves at the foot of the Zhengbeilou watch tower.
There was only a rickety home-made ladder to get up there. So we climbed it, and found ourselves finally standing on the Great Wall of China.
We had planned to spend the night in the Zhengbeilou watch tower, but there were other people already in it. So we kept hiking west, checking out the nearby watch towers to see if any of them had a flat enough surface to set up our tent and hunker down for the night.
After checking out 3 different ones, we came back to the one closest to Zhengbeilou, and climbed up on the roof of it to set up our tent. We ate our sandwiches of cheese and green pepper, and were asleep by 6:30pm.
We woke up again at 9 pm, read for a while, and passed out again. We awoke at 6 am to Jordan’s alarm, as we had wanted to catch the sunrise.
There was fog rolling in, so after a few quick shots of the sunrise we broke our camp and started walking. We were heading to the highest point in the section of wall we were doing – the Ox Horn.
A lot of people skip it by climbing down off the wall and getting back on a little ways down, choosing to hike through the forest instead of the crazy incline that this wall segment has. But I figured there was little point to coming to the Great Wall of China just to walk beside it.
Jordan joked that I wasn’t the woman he married – me, who always tries to get out of hiking had not only chosen a hiking trip for her birthday, but also was deliberately going the hard way.
All joking aside, I actually loved hiking the Ox Horn. It was steep, but it was so cool to be carefully scrambling through lose stones that had been placed there hundreds of years ago and had kept the Mongolians at bay.
The incline was pretty crazy (look at the horizon, and look at the path we’re on) but when we reached the top we had an epic view of all the distance we had covered. We could see our start point of Zhengbeilou, proudly standing on a hill above the clouds, and the rest of the crumbling wall stretching as far as your eyes could see.
We scrambled through several old watch towers, some whose roofs had caved in, others who had no walls left.
We walked through parts of the wall where the wall no longer existed, and all that was left was just enough cobbles for one person to cross at a time.
And eventually, after more hiking, we came upon the beginning of the restored wall. It was marked with a tree covered in red ribbons.
There was an obvious difference in the two sections. Mutianyu, the restored section, being complete, with no loose stones and no overgrowth of trees.
Truth be told, I didn’t like it as much. It didn’t have that wild savageness of Jiankou, and there were also tons of people on it (and I much prefer exploring when we have the place to ourselves).
Nevertheless, it was an achievement to reach the end of the Mutianyu section, so naturally I had to celebrate!
We kept walking until we made it all the way to the start of Mutianyu, and headed down via the cable car.
For those who love the nerdy stats with altitude gain and distance, here’s what we clocked:
Xzihazi village to Zhengbeilou Watch Tower:
Zhengbeilou Watchtower through the Ox Horn and all the way to Mutianyu:
After getting off the wall we hopped in a cab to the nearest subway station, took that back into the city center, dropped the gear at Sanfo, picked our stuff up from the AirBNB who had kindly let us leave it there, and checked into our next hotel. That took the better part of a day, so we were pretty pooped.
I’d like to take a moment to say goodbye to my horrible Colombia hiking shoes, that had a hole in the sole since Machu Picchu 7 months ago, and I still wore them this whole time, thanks to the wonders of duct tape. They burned through 3 pairs of socks due to friction, and after this little adventure it was finally time to bin them. It felt good.
So for anyone thinking of replicating this adventure without spending money on a tour group, here’s the cost breakdown:
- Cab from Beijing to Xzihazi Village: 215Yuan
- Rental of tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camping backpack and headlamp: 250 Yuan
- Cab back from Mutianyu to Subway: 150 Yuan
- Subway back into Beijing: 8 Yuan
- Groceries for dinner, breakfast and lunch: 120 Yuan
Total: 743 Yuan, or $110USD, which is less than a tour would cost for one person, let alone two.