We live in South Korea; a flight to Beijing is less than two hours. We knew we couldn’t leave here without seeing the Great Wall of China, but we wanted to be sure we had an experience we’d never forget. That’s when we discovered we could actually camp in a watchtower, under the stars, on the Great Wall. We were sold. Needless to say, we booked our tickets the next day.
We had high expectations for this adventure, and reality totally blew us away. Sure, there was some luck involved for us to have the incredible conditions we had, but we also took the time to research and plan.
*Tip: Pick your season carefully. We cannot emphasize this enough! Go at a time that is conducive to your activities. Before every trip you take, think about what you’ll be doing and the kind of weather you’ll need in order to have a good experience.
In Beijing, spring and fall are both beautiful times to visit the Great Wall. In spring, the scenery is green and blooming, and the temperatures are mild. In fall, the leaves are changing colors, the air is crisp, and the skies are particularly clear. For a camping adventure on the wall, we highly recommend October. The winds from the surrounding mountains come in and blow off the ever-present haze and smog, leaving you with clean skies and wispy clouds that look sublime as you walk along the wall. We chose the second week of October: we definitely needed layers with all the chilly wind, but the expansive, rich blue skies were completely worth it. And it made for a great, clear night for stargazing.
However, try to avoid the first week of October, as it’s a national holiday and you’ll have a nightmare of a time getting around. Beijing in a HUGE city with over 6 million cars. Yes, you heard me correctly, 6 million cars. You’ll experience a lot of traffic no matter what time of day it is.
*Tip: If you want to stargaze on the Great Wall (or anywhere for that matter), check the lunar calendar! You won’t be able to see much with a full moon filling the sky with light.
We spent a Saturday night on the wall, just two nights before the new moon. We were able to see thousands of stars — it was absolutely incredible. Words cannot describe the awesomeness of sitting on the Great Wall of China, wrapped in a blanket with a beer in hand, and looking up at a sky littered with stars. You must experience this in your lifetime.
So, on to the actual two-day tour:
You are welcome to strike out on your own, acquire the correct tickets and permits, and hike the wall as you please (respecting the restricted sections, of course). However, we highly advise booking a guide for this activity. A guide will take care of your tickets, transportation, routes, supplies, meals, and any other details you may overlook on your own. Also, guides are typically very knowledgable and enrich the experience with historical information along the way. Personally, that was one of our favorite parts!
*Tip: Hire Justin Wan. Seriously, he was the best. We found him through The Great Wall Adventure Club & Co. Check out their website. You can see all the different routes and itineraries to choose from. But be prepared; these tours aren’t cheap. We paid 350 US dollars per person – all food, camping supplies, and transportation provided. However, Justin told us he also works freelance for less. We recommend you email him at email@example.com. He will be able to set you up with a custom, spot-on adventure based on what you want to see.
We chose route 2AA, and our adventure began when Justin and the driver picked us up from our hotel on Saturday morning. We drove for two hours: initially through the city, and then our vistas became progressively more scenic, mountainous, and rural until we felt like we were in Chinese Breckenridge, Colorado. Justin provided interesting facts and snippets about the city, the countryside, and Chinese culture along the way, so we had a very enjoyable ride.
He look us to lunch at a local village. He kept saying we’ll have a “simple” lunch, which turned out to be anything but simple.
It was the most delicious lunch. We had sliced potatoes roasting at the table with onions, peppers, and spices — they were divine. We had the best kung pao chicken I’ve ever tasted. And we had pork and tofu wraps along with various vegetable dishes and rice. All I can say is thank goodness we had a three hour hike ahead of us!
Bellies full, we departed and drove about 20 minutes to where we would begin Saturday’s hike. The trek began on an old section of the wall called Jiankou Great Wall at Watchtower 23 (or North Tower). Jiankou means ‘arrow rock’ because of the steep, jagged mountains atop which the old wall sits. So to get there, we first had to hike about an hour uphill, which made everything following it seem like a cakewalk. We were more than justly rewarded when we reached the watchtower. Built over 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, Jiankou Great Wall remains in its natural state. It was my favorite section. Whole sides of the wall are crumbling, the walkway is dusty, and trees are growing up from its center. It’s not pretty or easy to hike on — it’s worn, gritty, and wild, which, for us, only added to the mystique and appeal of it all. It was incredibly impressive to walk an original piece of this feat of engineering and see first hand how massive an undertaking it must have been. Also, the old sections are much less touristy than the new ones — we saw a total of three people on Jiankou.
We hiked this section for about an hour, until we hit Mutianyu new wall — which is immediately evident. The new sections of the wall were restored in 1984 — these are the tidy, pristine sections you generally see in everyone’s photographs. They are attached to some sort of park with food, restrooms, parking, and small vendors catering to tourists. The lovely thing about hiking from the old wall to the new was that we arrived on Mutianyu at about 5:30 p.m. Conveniently, 5:30 p.m. is also the time that the park stops selling tickets and allowing people on the wall. We had this notoriously stunning (normally packed with tourists) section of the wall all to ourselves. We were running around taking pictures like kids in a candy store hopped up on dreams and adrenaline.
And for the cherry on top (as if we needed one), we saw the most breathtaking sunset I have ever seen. Ever. And we’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of sunsets. It was a truly magical evening. We all stood together, trying to soak up the moment, knowing we were witnessing something spectacular — once in a lifetime even.
*Tip: Bring or wear layers! Especially in the fall, the wind on the wall can be quite intense. Also, the temperature drops considerably at night – we were glad we brought enough clothes to stay warm.
After the sun set, we made our way to Watchtower 10 and down through Mutianyu Park where our driver was waiting for us. We piled in the van and drove another two hours to a different section of the wall where we’d be eating dinner and camping. Dinner was at a local truck stop. Don’t be fooled; again, it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. About three minutes down the road, we met a woman who had all the camping supplies ready for us in her garage. She lived close to a nearly-finished park under construction with a path running up through the mountainside to the East Watchtower on the Gubeikou old wall (about a 30 minute uphill walk). Once there, we were able to set up our pop-up tents, bed rolls, and sleeping bags.
We sat outside for a bit, stargazing and reflecting on how awesome the day had been. Again, it was two days before the new moon, and the strong winds had blown off the clouds and haze; we couldn’t have asked for a clearer, more beautiful night. We were all exhausted from the day’s adventures and decided to turn in. After the adrenaline from all the ‘is-this-real-life moments’ I’d been having subsided, I was able to fall asleep. I slept more comfortably that I’d initially envisioned.
We woke at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise from a hill about 50 yards up from the watchtower. It wasn’t as unparalleled as the previous night’s sunset, but it was worth the early wake-up nonetheless. The ladies who gave us the camping equipment showed up just after sunrise with cakes and bananas for breakfast, then broke down the campsite and carried the supplies back to the house. We packed up our stuff and started Sunday’s trek along the old Gubeikou Great Wall.
Gubeikou was very similar to Jiankou, though Jiankou may have been a shade more scenic in our opinion. We trekked about five watchtowers until we came upon a restricted section of the wall that the Chinese military had blocked off. Justin said he didn’t know why it was closed, but said there are some really fun theories held by the locals. So from here, we left the wall. We trekked down a small path leading through the jungle and farmland that run along the base of the Great Wall. The autumn colors were on full display in the valley below.
I have to say, while still pretty cool, this was my least favorite part of the wall experience. Trekking through the brush and farmland was not easy, and I was so glad I had on long pants. However, it was unique to see the small farms and to get a look at the wall from the perspective of someone who’s lived within sight of it likely his whole life. We took a snack break at a little farm house and played jianzi (Chinese hacky sack).
From there, we trekked back up through the hills to reach the wall again where the military restriction ended. We came up through a watchtower and found ourselves looking at another section of new wall called Jinshanling Great Wall. Jinshanling looked similar to Mutianyu, except that, being there just before lunch, we saw considerably more tourists on this section of new wall. We walked about six more watchtowers and reached Zhuanduokou Pass — an area where tourists can access the wall via fully amenitized park. We ate lunch at one of the little restaurants on the paved path to the parking lot and met our driver at the bottom of the hill. After a three hour drive back to the city (which ended up being four due to Beijing traffic), we arrived at our hotel, feet considerably more tired and minds thoroughly more stretched than when we left.
As we wearily climbed out of the van, totally exhausted from our Great Wall adventure, I realized that most people come to Beijing and see only the immaculate sections of the wall — the parts that are rapidly accessible and attached to tourist parks. In truth, everyone who visits the Great Wall should experience the old sections with all their history and character, step on the same rock and rice mortar as was laid 600 years ago, and walk along a seventh wonder that, over the centuries, has been beautifully blended with nature. I hope reading this post makes you rethink a trip to the Great Wall — I hope you’re encouraged to be adventurous and do something different! The Great Wall deserves to be an experience, not just a check in a box during a day of touring.
Questions or comments? Leave them below. We’d love to hear your Great Wall story!
Travel on, Beaches 🙂