Camping the Great Wall: Escape from Simatraz – China, Asia

The couple

The couple

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 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 (Balading, Mutianyu, Juyonqquan, Huangya, Jinshanling and Simatai)
are wildly popular, we hoped to find a deserted stretch 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, 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 – but a bottle of
Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon. We 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; 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 it for landfills and building projects.

In other cases, ill-conceived "restoration" projects have turned
stretches of 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 watch towers, freezing their fingers and toes
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".

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 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. 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.

Simatai

Simatai

By the time we reached the town of Simatai, the weather was so warm we descended 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
the 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. Things didn’t go as planned.

It was 11:00 pm and I could 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. 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.

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. Sure enough, he rewarded us by tipping us off to a secret
route out of town. His guard shift was over at 10:00, 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 a 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 direct
descendents of the wall guards who had fended off Huns and Mongols way back. All we could hear was our own heavy breathing and the crash
of our footsteps. We expected to be taken down, kung fu
warrior-style, by the screaming chief and his squad.

No one stopped us, though. 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 kilometers,
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. Butthe 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. We were tired, cold and grumpy, with few supplies and no bedding. It was far too late to go back to find
a cheap hotel. 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, 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 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. Three o’clock in the morning. 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 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 long given up and gone to bed.

View of Great Wall at Jinshanling, early morning

View of Great Wall at Jinshanling, early morning

We arrived at Jinshanling with the sunrise, having spoken hardly a word
along the way. My thigh and calf muscles burned, 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 6:00 a.m. A German tour group was
rising cheerily with the morning light to dig into picnic hampers full
of bread, cheese, milk, fruit and 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. 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 we 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: 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, 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 kilometers) outside Beijing. Simatai is 75 miles (120 kilometers) outside Beijing.
The hike between Jinshanling and Simatai is 12 kilometers 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.

For more information, check out ChinaTravel.net

More photos can be viewed here.

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