When I was little, my favorite movie was “Big Bird Goes to China.” I must have watched it several dozen times, because I can still recite a song the giant yellow bird sings about learning Chinese. Serious props to my parents for dealing with that.
I loved the movie not only because of my obsession with Sesame Street, but because of the curiosity it evoked. Everything seemed so foreign, so different. I couldn’t believe that those landscapes, the buildings and the people belonged to the same planet where I lived. And, like most children, I dreamt about digging a tunnel and winding up on the Great Wall of China.
A few months ago (I know, I have sucked at posting), a friend from Travelers Society asked me to join him and a few others for a weekend camping trip on the Wall. High on my China Bucket List since I found out it was possible (only through groups like his), I of course said yes.
After an overnight train ride from Shanghai to Beijing (which wasn’t that bad, actually), we headed for breakfast and to pay a quick visit to Mao at his mausoleum (a must-see and super weird). Then it was time to make our way to the wall (a 3-hour bus ride).
As you can see from the pictures above, we had quite a tough hike to get to our camping spot. Most tourists taking a day trip from Beijing will opt for the closer, more restored section of the Wall, called Badaling. This is the section I went to on my first trip to China, but I would not recommend it, as it’s extremely crowded and lacking authenticity. (There’s even a toboggan slide that runs from top to bottom!) Jiankou, on the other hand was wild–seemingly untouched in parts, crumbling from decay, and unimaginably beautiful.
When we got to our site, we were given tents and sleeping bags and a mat to cushion us from the rocky surface. A bonfire was started, meat and vegetables were thrown on a grill, and we drank beers while watching the sun set over the mountains. As the sky turned pink, I looked around at the vastness of the wall. I looked down at my feet–at the structure of one of the great wonders of the world. My new friends and I talked about how lucky we were.
That night, after turning in and zipping up our tents, the wind picked up. The howling sounds circled around me and poked and pulled at the fabric. With the wind came cold, despite being summer, and I folded myself into a child-like position, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth, waiting for the sun to rise.
Before dawn, I emerged from my tent and crawled on top of one of the lookout points. I was the only one awake, and I took the time to listen to the silence–to enjoy the vastness that seemed to be reserved only for me.
When the sun peeked over the mountains and its beams bathed the ancient wall, tents began to rustle, and soon everyone was gaping over our majestic surroundings.
We spent the next few hours making toast and coffee, taking silly pictures and sharing stories from our windy nights. When it was time to go, I looked back at our campsite–at our little part of the Great Wall–and smiled. That was a pretty good trip.
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