What happens when a couple of foreigners play barbarian and occupy a piece of the Great Wall of China for a weekend? Prison Break, anyone?
Crouched in a corn field, we scanned the moonlit shadows for an escape route. Only a hundred meter sprint to the bridge across the river and we'd be free. Seconds before we made a mad dash for it, we spotted him. Beneath a tree by the bridge, the movement of his lit cigarette was the only evidence of his presence. Another guard. All exits from the tiny town were being watched. We decided then that even if we had to sleep in the corn fields that night, we wouldn't let them hold us captive.
My Norwegian friend Thor and I had been housemates in university in South Africa before going our separate ways. Both avid world travelers, we crossed paths in China a year later and almost immediately began scheming to spend a night on the Great Wall.
While package day trips from Beijing to various parts of the Wall (Badaling, Mutianyu, Juyongguan, Huangya, Jinshanling and Simatai) are wildly popular, we hoped to find a deserted stretch of the Wall where we could sleep in an old guard tower.
Entrepreneurs have turned hot spots like Badaling into Disneylands of parking lots and cable cars leading up to modern brick reconstructions interspersed with souvenir stalls, fast-food stands and flooded by invading hordes in matching hats brandishing cameras. Poorly executed restoration efforts have left sections of the Wall near Beijing looking as historical as a Hollywood set. However, the further you get from the capital, the easier it is to avoid the onslaught of tour groups.
Going on advice from other travelers, we bought a blanket and some basic supplies and caught a public bus three hours from Beijing to Jinshanling, arriving just as the sun was setting. The steep hike up to the Wall left us gasping, but when we finally stepped onto the ancient flagstones and looked out over miles of watchtower-dotted Wall snaking across jumbled mountains as far as the eye could see, the views proved truly gasp-worthy.
The setting sun tinted the Wall pink as we cracked open—what else—a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon and sat resting our bare feet on the worn sun-warmed stone, euphoric at having all to ourselves an architectural masterpiece that took 18 centuries to build.
We'd done our homework, and we realized just how lucky we were to be there. Though 30 percent of the wall is estimated to be in ruins today and 50 percent has already disappeared, 20 percent remains in remarkably good condition, having withstood assaults by the elements, the Huns and the war with Japan over the course of the centuries. Today, the greatest modern human threat to the Wall comes from farmers in rural areas using chunks of Wall for landfills and building projects.
In other cases, ill-conceived "restoration" projects have turned stretches the Great Wall into the Embarrassingly Bad Wall. For example, in Gansu province farmers "restored" the Wall by covering it with cement and installing a gate so they could charge admission.
Finally, the Wall, built to keep out foreigners, is now the number one tourist attraction for the increasing number of international tourists visiting China. This, of course, contains its own threat—rogue tourists clambering all over the ancient stones could hardly be good for hopes of its continued preservation, right? That's where Thor and I come in. On that September night, it was our turn—two foreigners launching a private invasion and one-night occupation of the Great Wall.
The moon rose, casting enough light to silhouette the mountains for miles around. We hiked up uneven steps, skidding on loose stones and slick grass that grew tall from between crumbling bricks. We explored each guard tower along the way. Out here in the moonlit darkness with not a soul around and no modern facilities for miles, we felt the uncanny echo of history. For centuries, guards had spent solitary nights in these very watch towers, freezing their fingers and toes off as the wind gusted through the mountains.
Being this far out, our needs were fairly basic—finding a place to pee, wondering if we brought enough water, hoping the blanket would be warm enough and debating if it would be wrong to light a fire. After hiking for a few hours, we set up camp in the highest tower we'd yet come across. The ancient stone platform leading to the door was crumbling, so it was a bit of a struggle to make it up. But it was worth the effort: The views through the wide arched door of our tower were the best the Wall had to offer.
Thor and I sat on our balcony under our blanket, backs to the Wall, roasting sausages on sticks over a little campfire (the cold settled the debate). Sausages were followed by copious amounts of red wine, chocolate and a few well-rolled smokes. Leaning back against our stoney perch, Thor put it perfectly: "This wall really is great. It couldn't get any greater than this." We stayed up late, staring out over miles of monolithic defenses that now functioned as accommodations for a couple of curious twenty-first century travelers keen to "rough it."
It was the perfect moment to snog, but we refrained. Shoulder to shoulder and sharing a blanket, we were far from prying eyes and humdrum daily reality. I'd always secretly fancied Thor since our university days, but he'd always been happy in a relationship. Yet the thought of spending the night cuddled up under a single blanket on a bed of stone in an ancient tower in the wilderness on one of the greatest wonders of the world...it had a powerful allure.
Nonetheless, I managed to douse my cave woman urges by performing such practical tasks as washing my face with (very cold) bottled water, brushing my teeth and arcing mouthwash out the arched stone window before donning every item of clothing I'd brought before hitting the sack. Three hoodies, two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts would keep me warm—and protect Thor from getting jumped.
Looking up at the rough brick ceiling, moonlight pouring through the stone window above our heads, it was hard to believe where I was. Thor slept like a baby, but sleep eluded me. My head was clouded with thoughts of the ghosts of guards who had once been stationed in this tower and my family far away in Canada—not to mention my frozen toes and the pain in my hips as they pressed through the blanket into the Wall's cold stone.
* * *
As the early morning sun scoured our retinas, we drank canned Nescafe and ate chocolate muffins on our crumbling balcony. After our healthy breakfast, we donned the Chinese silk bathrobes we'd brought to wear as "tourist costumes."
Thor wanted a Great Wall haircut, so I obligingly sheared his messy curls while a lone peddler—the only other living soul who had hiked as far as we had—badgered us, pulling a seemingly endless supply of Great Wall T-shirts, postcards and cans of Coke out of her handbag. How foolish we had been to think we could escape the commercialization of the Wall.
Nonetheless, Thor was delighted at the chance to stash his pile of hair clippings in a nook of the crumbling Wall, waiting to mystify—and perhaps horrify—future generations of tourists. Thor was here.By the time we reached the town of Simatai, the weather was so warm that we descended from the Wall to go for a swim in a reservoir, drying off afterward by lying in the sun. That evening we hiked up to the Wall above town with a few bottles of Tsingtao beer, arriving at one of highest points on the Wall in the area. Towering over the surrounding hills, we watched the sun set and then descended into town for dinner.
We'd planned to stay only one night on the Wall and had abandoned our cheap blanket back in the tower midway between Jinshanling and Simatai, but after such an amazing day, we decided to spend a second night in our old tower. But things didn't go as planned....
* * *
It's 11:00 pm and I can feel Thor examining the bags under my eyes. "Should we just give up and crash in a guest house tonight?" Since finishing dinner four hours ago, we'd been kept under house arrest by a drunk and verbally abusive martinet who was trying to keep us from the Wall by forcing us to check into a guesthouse for the night. We hadn't set foot more than 30 meters from the restaurant when he accosted us. I'm not certain what his actual job was—perhaps local police chief—but regardless, he proved a force to be reckoned with.
The more we protested, the more erratic he became. Obviously there was the language barrier, but it was more than that. Simatai was his territory and as long as we were in town, he was the boss. He assigned a guard to follow us with instructions that we were not to leave town and, as we discovered later, he'd also put guards at all exits from Simatai. It became rather obvious that he was unpopular with everyone—we figured his habit of roaring within inches of your face might have something to do with that.
And for us, our night had become much more than just wanting to sleep on the Wall, it had become about escaping from what I came to think of as "Simatraz" and its obnoxious self-appointed warden. It became a matter of beating this man, of winning. Fortunately, his lack of popularity gave us a way out.
After sitting outside on the sidewalk for a few hours, we made friends with our appointed guard, who seemed quite pleased to get to practice his English on us. We gave him a paper cup of wine from the convenience store and, sure enough, he rewarded us by tipping us off to a secret route out of town. His guard shift was over at 10 and, after that, he said he was not responsible for us. When he finally left, we crept to the outskirts of town to try the escape route, only to discover that it was guarded by cigarette-puffing watcher in the woods.
We hid in the bushes for half an hour before finally making our break for it. We sprinted down the dark road out of town, with, for all we knew, a pack of Simitai sentinels on our heels—probably all direct descendents of the Wall guards who had fended off Huns and Mongols back in the day. All we could hear was our own heavy breathing and the crash of our footsteps. We expected at any moment to be taken down, kung fu warrior-style, by the screaming chief and his squad.
But no one stopped us. We imagined that the fearsome chief had passed out drunk somewhere and would wake up the next morning to tear verbal and physical strips off his hapless underlings. The barbarians had breached the Great Wall! (Again.)
We ran until we reached the crest of the hill about a kilometer out of town. Still fearing pursuit, we took one look into the valley between us and the Wall, shining in the moonlight a couple of kilometers in the distance, then plunged forward, skidding madly through wet knee-high grass and fighting our way through the sharp-stalked cornfields. By the time we reached the Wall, it was midnight. Once we stopped racing, we realized how cold it was and as our adrenaline rushes wore off, exhaustion set in.
Winning started to seem less exciting as the reality of being stuck in the cold all night sank in. We had at least another three steep kilometers to hike up to our tower and our blanket. My knees were shaking with every step. In just 24 hours, we'd traversed over 20 km, almost all of it uneven steps and rugged hilly terrain. After hours of painful hiking, we finally reached our tower, dying for shelter and the little bit of warmth our cheap blanket promised. But...the blanket was gone.
It was 2:00 a.m. We were still midway between Jinshanling and Simatai, at least six kilometers in all directions from anything other than stone, mountains and trees. With almost no supplies and no bedding we were tired, cold and grumpy. It was far too late to go back to find a cheap hotel, and even if we tried, we risked a second detention in "Simatraz"—or worse. We were stuck and we knew it, so we tried to make the best of it. We'd made this bed for ourselves and now it was time to sleep in it.
Thor tried to light a fire. No luck. Finally, we were reduced to collecting grass and twigs from the Wall to create a bed on the cold stone. I cracked open our last bottle of Great Wall wine while Thor sprayed our "bed" with bug spray. After donning every item of clothing in our packs, we cuddled up tightly and tried to stop shivering...unsuccessfully.
Soon, my body was shaking from head to toe and I'd lost all body heat. I couldn't tell if Thor was sleeping or not. 3:00 a.m. I needed to move to warm up. I woke Thor. We threw our stuff together and started the long hike back to Jinshanling, back to the where we'd started, eight kilometers off and about three or four hours of tedious hiking at a brisk pace. The only consolation was that our pursuers had no doubt all long given up and gone to bed.
We arrived at Jinshanling with the sunrise, having spoken hardly a word along the way. My thigh and calf muscles burned and my whole body ached but at least I wasn't freezing anymore. After our adventures and misadventures, on and off the Wall, it was strange to enter the stage-managed scene at Jinshanling.
After traversing rugged ruins in the dark, haunted by thoughts of imperial guards from centuries past as well as of our own personal "Simatraz" sentries of the night before, the newly reconstructed Wall looked unreal, with its cable car station set to disgorge tourists.
As for the backpacker's ideal of camping out and "roughing it," what did we see on the smooth surface of the reconstructed Wall but eight pristine orderly tents. It was 6 a.m. and a German tour group was rising cheerily with the morning light to dig into picnic hampers full of bread, cheese, milk and fruit, with strong European coffee brewing on a utility camping stove.
It was all Thor and I could do to crawl into the tower next to their tents and collapse on the stone floor in one last attempt to get some rest. Then the Germans started singing. Yes, singing. And laughing. We hated them and their shiny tents, pitched two feet from the cable car station. And their story would, at least on the surface, be the same as ours: "We camped on the Great Wall!" The only thought that saved me from succumbing to a massive fit of irritation was: We're coming down from Everest to base camp.We had really done it. These Germans with their fancy tents are the tourists who stop at base camp and tell the story for the rest of their days of climbing Everest.
We gave up on sleep and hiked down the well-worn trail from the Wall, hitching a lift to the main road in the cab of the garbage truck. You German tourists move en masse in air-conditioned coaches, we go smoky garbage truck-cab. Fine. On the main road flagged down a bus headed for Beijing. The trip back was silent. I hadn't slept in two nights and looked like hell. That's how you look when you escape from Simatraz.
Ultimately, we'd achieved what we'd hoped to achieve—we took the Great Wall of China on our own terms. We'd outwitted the Wall's modern-day guardians, occupied our own tower, and communed for a moment with a truer spirit of the Wall, spending two lonely wind-swept nights wondering what was out there beyond the perimeter of our tiny secure zone, experiencing a fraction of the daily discomfort that countless Chinese soldiers must have felt night after night alone in the cold, defending the length of a stone dream that they, like us, may never have fully understood.
Tips for travelers
You don't need to risk arrest and hypothermia to enjoy the Wall. Here are a few recommendations for doing Great Wall in style with far less hassle.
Learn from our mistakes! Much of what we did on the trip, we later found out you're not really supposed to do. As signs in Simatai state: "No staying overnight on the wall," "No Swimming," "No smoking," and "No fires." We were careful to follow good camper's etiquette, leaving nothing behind (other than our blanket, which the wandering souvenir vendor no doubt made good use of, and Thor's memorial locks of hair, which he assured me were 100% organic and biodegradable), but it's easy to understand how thousands of reckless campers could further damage what's left of the Wall.
That being said, conscientious and careful exploration of the Wall is well worth the adventure, and I'd be a hypocrite not to recommend it. There's a whole lot of Wall out there, and they can't really keep you off of it. But while most rules may be meant to be broken, it's important to be respectful. If you smoke, take your butts with you, and if you camp, follow the rule of leaving your site in better condition than you found it.
Getting there: Jinshanling is 87 miles (140 km) outside Beijing. Simatai is 75 miles (120 km) outside Beijing. The hike between Jinshanling and Simatai is 12 km of steep, uneven steps. Take a public bus from Beijing or a minivan with a tour service or hire a taxi from your hotel around RMB 300 each way.
Cost: Admission passes for both Jinshanling and Simatai will cost RMB 65 each.
Best time to visit: Spring and fall (summers can be too hot and winters are too cold, not to mention the likelihood of snow and ice).
If you don't want to camp, pick up a tour package that leaves early from Beijing. It takes about two hours by minivan to get to Jinshanling and your minivan can pick you up in Simatai to take you back to Beijing. Avoid tours that feature detours to "jade factories" or any other scheme to get you to purchase overpriced souvenirs, and avoid the massive "friendship stores" and roadside restaurants that cater to huge tour groups. Choosing your own adventure is much more fun.
Tips: Start at Jinshanling and end at Simatai. The hike is better that way and it's easier to pick up transport back to Beijing from Simatai.
There is an old guy who runs one of the few shops in Jinshanling who will happily rent you tents, sleeping bags and gear to camp on the wall for a reasonable price.