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Back in 2008, I spent one year living in Beijing, China attending the Beijing Language and Cultural University, in a vain attempt to master the Mandarin language. During my time there, friends and I would plan short trips to explore this magnificent country, usually on the spur of the moment. Living there as a ‘local’ and with knowing the language, it was a lot easier to get things organised – and you would be surprised to see how many locals travel within China itself.
Perhaps one of my most fondest and incredible experiences in China was the night we camped on the Great Wall of China. Throughout the year I saw amazing sights, met kind hearted and warm people and experienced a side of life that perhaps most travellers visiting China would not – but this one topped the list.
The trip was designed by a small group, but through the wonders of Facebook, word got out of this fascinating expedition and about 70 people were eager to join. On a sunny October afternoon, we gathered the masses and set off on buses to the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall, perhaps one of the few sections of the wall that hasn’t been restored and remains well preserved.
Gubeikou is located in the Yanshan mountain range in the north east of Miyun County, approximately 120kms outside of Beijing. We finally arrived into a small village as the sun was about to set to embark on our trek to the Great Wall. With sleeping bags, camping mats and back packs in tow, we began the hike up in complete darkness – with a few torch lights and a buzz in the air, trekking through the night didn’t seem so bad after all.
After about an hour and a half of trekking, clambering over boulders and ingrained roots, with sweat soaking our shirts, we reached the Great Wall. Some who were exhausted from the gruelling climb decided enough was enough and decided to call it a night and camp there and then. But with so many people, there was hardly enough space for all of us to settle down. Many of us decided to keep trekking up the mountain, when we reached an abandoned watch tower, some people found spots and spent the night there, it was magnificent being able to stand on top of the watch tower and catch a cloudy silhouette of the mountain ranges.
With still not enough space to settle in, we ventured on, traversing more and more terrain. After what seemed like an additional hour or so, we finally reached yet another abandoned watch tower. However, to even get inside this one, we had to clamber up a five foot high rubble of rocks followed by another six foot reach to get up to the entrance itself – and being only 5”7 myself – this was going to prove difficult. But with the exhaustion of the punishing trek, I was determined to sleep inside the tower - I hadn’t come this far for nothing. About eight of us managed to get inside while the remaining ten or so slept scattered outside. With the help of some tall strong gentlemen we were lifted and scooped up into the tower.
This particular watch tower was built in Emperor Hong Wu period (1368 – 1398) of the Ming Dynasty, and was the headquarters of the local military forceswith one main entrance and two arrow windows facing east and west. The tower would hold up to 50 soldiers, however even with eight of us, it was a tight squeeze.
I slept like a baby that night – worn out from the evening’s trek. I managed to pick a nice spot nearby an arrow window and curled up in my warm sleeping bag for some much needed rest. The next morning at dawn, I awoke to the most magnificent and breathtaking view I have ever encountered – it is definitely one that has been etched in my fond memories of China.
The view was a spectacular picture of the mountain ranges, and a faint outline of the Great Wall itself, overgrown with trees and shrubs enveloped in a mystical mist. I looked down to see the watch towers in the faint distance and was amazed to see how far we had come on our trek - I also remember thinking how fresh the air was there, so crisp and clear, a vast contrast to the air we get in Beijing’s city centre!
All in all, a highly recommended experience for anyone to embark on, and an unforgettable one at that.