Sometimes dreams come true! this is one of those occasions. Camping on the Great Wall of China is almost beyond words.
After spending 2 months of backpacking adventures in China, I left the very best for the end of my trip.
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Ever since I read a few years ago that it was possible to go camping on the Great Wall of China it went high on the top of my bucket list of things to do when backpacking the globe!
There are many myths and legends around the Great Wall. One of the most known is that it can be seen from space with the naked eye (this is not true).
Also, the most common images of the wall are always the restored sections which look magnificent, but, spanning thousand of kilometres, there are lots of unrestored sections, some in better shape than others and some of them simply in ruins.
Camping on the Great Wall is a bit of a grey area. With some sections explicitly forbidding it and some others not mentioning much about it.
NOTE: if you’re planning to go to China you need a VPN to keep using the internet as you know it (with Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc). There are lots of VPN providers out there. Some of them free. I got mine with Surfshark after doing some research and it worked really well for me and it was pretty cheap. Feel free to contact me if you have further questions on this 🙂
After reading a few useful blogs out there, I decided to tackle one of my solo camping dreams in the Gubeikou section of the wall which is a stunning unrestored wall where the development has not fully arrived (but it’s happening!)
How to get there
1- In Beijing, go to Donzhimen Station and take the bus 980快 (980 KUAI) to Miyun
2- Get off the bus at the very last stop
3- Walk 100m outside the station in the direction that you came with the bus and the first bus stop will have signs for bus 25
4- Get on bus 25 and ask the driver to drop you off at Gubeikou
The detailed Camping on the Great Wall trip:
From Beijing it will take about 4 hours to get to the town of Gubeikou. Check online the stops for the bus 980快 (which translates as 980 Express or “fast”).
The route starts in Dongzhimen Station, which can be reached with the underground lines 2, 13 and Airport Express.
There are just a couple more stops in Beijing so depending on the area you’re staying you may have the bus stopping nearby instead of making it to Dongzhimen.
Get a travel card at the underground station if you have not done it yet. The card costs 20 RMB which is refundable when you return it, load it with at least 40 RMB.
MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS
By using the card the bus journeys will cost you about half price than paying by cash. To use the card you just need to touch the card reader when getting on AND off the bus.
Once on the 980快 bus, you can get off at the very final stop*. Upon arrival, walk back around 100 meters in the direction that you came from or ask a local to point you out on the direction of the stop for bus 25.
Ignore the taxi drivers that will start offering you a trip to Gubeikou.
*Alternatively, keep an eye on the bus stops as soon as you enter the town of Miyun as I saw several times bus stops for the bus 25 towards Gubeikou. The sooner you board the bus the more chances to get a seat on the 2 hour long journey.
Be prepared to wait for a while as the schedules of bus 25 are not very regular.
I was lucky enough to wait only for a few minutes but this could be up to 40 minutes (as I experienced on my way back)
On the bus 25 you can also use your Bejing travel card. If you didn’t get one you can still pay by cash but almost double the price (it’s not too expensive, but why to pay more if it can be easily avoided!?)
Ask the driver to drop you off at Gubeikou and after about 2 hours you will arrive.
For the first hour and a bit the bus was super full and I was standing whilst moving my rucksack around to let people move to and fro…so prepare yourself for this scenario.
Based on all this, I’ll recommend to start your trip from Beijing relatively late. (10 or 11am) so you start walking on the wall when there’s less people.
You also don’t want to set-up your tent too early as that may bring unwanted people that may try to kick you out or demand some money. Prevention is always good when wild camping anywhere in the world.
Arriving to Gubeikou and finding the Great Wall
Once at Gubeikou you will already be able to see the Great Wall on the surrounding mountains!
Check on maps.me as there are a couple of “free” trail-head entrances just 5-10 minutes walk from the bus stop.
Although these trail-heads are indeed “free” eventually when you’re walking on the wall you will find locals checking if you have a ticket.
The ticket is only 25 RMB and I didn’t get any questions about my rucksack even that they probably knew my intentions.
What I think it’s the main benefit of starting the walk on these trails instead of the official start is that you may not raise suspicions or unwanted questioning on your bulky rucksack right at the start of the adventure.
I followed the path shown by maps.me to one of them and then some locals pointed into a small path straight up to the mountain which I followed.
After a few hundred meters I found a sign mentioning that this part of the wall was closed to the public, I didn’t encourage anyone to still take it right? 😉
I was walking in the direction of Jinshanling which is a more developed section, you can expect to walk the entire Gubeikou section in 1.5 to 3 hours.
It’s not really a long walk and that’s why I recommend to start the journey late from Beijing.
After about 45 minutes walk, in one of the watch towers a local asked me if I had a ticket. As I didn’t, I just had to buy one from him. No questions asked about my plans, this was about 14:00. If you get asked if you’re Camping on the Great Wall you could always say that you have a hostel booked at Jinshanling or that you’re going back to Beijing.
From the very first step I took on the Great Wall I couldn’t believe I was finally there. An old dream of mine and a huge tick on my bucket list!
The walk is not only stunning but can also be demanding at times, with some steep sections but only for short distances so it was not too strenuous.
If you happen to start the walk on the official Gubeikou gate it will be much more demanding as there will be quite a bit of climbing to add on the route I took.
As I was not checking the GPS as there was simply nowhere else to go apart from following the wall. I ended up walking past the Wulituo military restricted area, which is crumbling and seemingly abandoned.
At this point, as it is restricted, you get on a trail on the side of the wall and go down the mountain for about 30 minutes.
I found one of the gates of the Jinshanling section but there was no one there, so I kept walking ahead without having to buy any extra entrance tickets (same wall, different management)
As this section is more restored and receives more visitors it was quickly clear to me that I had walked too much as here there were already signs forbidding to camp Great Wall. Although the map of the area does show a camp site but out of the Wall itself.
I headed back and past the restricted area again towards the Gubeikou section.
Since I started walking a couple of hours before, I was playing with the idea of setting my tent on the wall itself instead of one of the watching towers but I dismissed the idea when I saw a helicopter flying low following the wall.
I have no idea if that helicopter was looking for campers or just a routine inspection but I decided to go on the cautious side and camp in one of the towers I passed earlier.
Coming back from Jinshanling and passing the restricted area, the first tower you find has no roof and it’s full of rubbish.
I never understand how can someone walk to these places (or up a mountain) with a full bottle and then when it’s empty they cannot carry it back. Do they think a recycling truck will come here!!?
Please do a favour to Our Planet and always take your rubbish back and if you can, take some of the ones you also find on the road, someday we will be able to have a clean planet again!
I ended up pitching my tent on the second tower after the restricted area (as you come back from Jinshanling), this one is partly restored and well covered by the walls which I’d appreciate later in the evening as it got super windy!
Once the tent was set it was time to enjoy the scenery. I was rewarded with a stunning sunset and lots of thoughts were passing through my mind as I was trying to understand what it meant to be on this historical site.
I have been able to camp in many wonderful places around the world but this one was definitely the most imposing one from a historic point of view.
I couldn’t believe I was about to stay Camping on the Great Wall!!!
In this particular section many battles were fought and this just added more layers of complexity to my thoughts. Simply incredible, and I was going to spend the night there!
Provisions to take for your camping adventure
Aim to bring all your drinks and food from Beijing as in Gubeikou there are only a couple of small shops.
As there are always “airport-style” security measures when taking trains or the underground, I had my gas canister taken out at one of the stations before coming to the wall, so I had to forget about cooking something myself.
On the second day you can always have lunch when you go back to Gubeikou or Jinshanling.
Waking up on the Great Wall
I have never been happier of sleeping (literally!) on a rock solid bed! after the magical sunset it was time for a well deserved sleep.
The night was very fresh as it was quite windy (I went in mid April 2019)
I even overslept a little bit which didn’t really make me feel bad about missing the sunrise.
Just after 7 am I was already packing up my tent as I didn’t want any unexpected visits or questions asked.
I think I did well, as just 20 minutes or so after I started walking I already found some workers restoring one of the towers and right after another local asking me if I had an entrance ticket.
I decided to go back to Gubeikou instead of via Jinshanling as the little bit I saw the previous day was too civilised for my taste and I preferred to stay on the unrestored section of the wall.
By the end of the hike I stayed on the wall (you will see pink dots marking the route) instead of taking the closed crumbling section where I started the previous day and left the Great Wall of China by the official Gubeikou gate (where, again, I was asked for my ticket)
Are you ready to solo camp on the Great Wall of China?
As I said initially, camping on the wall is a bit of a grey area. There are organised tours in case you don’t have your own tent or don’t feel too confident going on your own.
I have not tried them, neither I met anyone that have done it yet so I cannot judge if it’s as cool as just having the wall for yourself as I had it!
This has definitely been an incredible experience and a dream adventure come true.
One of those things you don’t expect them to be possible to do in these days and age and sound like those stories from the 70’s and 80’s when there was more wild tourism in remote places.
When I was back in the small town of Gubeikou I could see that they’re preparing themselves to make this a touristy area. Rebuilding not only the watching towers on the wall, but also in town they’re re-developing the houses to make them look “old traditional Chinese” which is very common in touristy areas of China.
So, hurry up!!! I’m sure that in a couple of years it may also be forbidden to camp here.
Feel free to drop any comments if you’re planning to go camping on the Great Wall or share your experience! 🙂