We were told on the way to the wall, “Bù qù chángchéng fēi hǎohàn” which means, “he who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man”. Well guess what folks?? I can safely say that we are now true men!!
A few weeks ago, you saw us explore the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. As we were driving back, we got to know a teacher and her son also from the United States. She told us that she had found an amazing trip for foreigners, where they hike and camp on the Great Wall. It was so cheap, only 320.00 rmb per person which is roughly $45. I had looked a little into other groups and was amazed by the price difference, one cost almost 1,600 rmb per person. We knew nothing about this trip other than what this teacher had told us, but we were in! The guide group that we used is called FCN China- or Foreigner China. They have a Facebook, WeChat, and Instagram, so finding them isn’t an issue. For our price, we got the bus rides to and from, food for the 2 days, camping equipment, and travel insurance. The tour group all spoke English and I felt safe with our group of almost 100 people.
The trip was being offered during our school’s three-day weekend for the mid-Autumn festival. We were leaving Friday morning and coming back Saturday afternoon. This left us enough time to recover on Sunday before heading back to school on Monday. The tour group had three pick-up points and we chose the one a 20 minute didi ride from us. We showed up 30 minutes early and saw a food stall right outside our meeting location. We saw the jianbing griddle and asked the vendor to make us one, since we haven’t had the chance to eat any street food since being in Beijing. The vendors really enjoyed us taking pictures of them making our food, so they returned the favor by taking pictures of us while we ate. The jianbing was only 7 rmb, or $1, but it was HUGE. It was made from flour and egg making the tortilla-like shell, and stuffed with bean paste, chili oil, cilantro, scallions, and a large cracker. Calvin loved it!
Our tour bus finally came and was filled with teachers and students from all over the world. One of the guides had a microphone and went around to each person to find out who we were and where we were from. We had group members from China, Thailand, Mongolia, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, etc. Most of them were college exchange students just trying to get out of their hotel rooms for a night. Others were teachers like me (some were from Kaiwen) trying to use our long weekend to our advantage. They did Calvin last and he was so cute telling everyone he was a student in Beijing, they were all impressed. The bus ride was about two hours, but I think it took that long because of traffic leaving Beijing for the holiday. The bus was comfy so Calvin and I slept most of it anyways. Finally, we started to see the Great Wall from our bus windows!
As we got out, we were told we would have to grab our food and water for the next 24 hours and our camping gear (that we would carry up ourselves). Because there is no flame allowed on the wall, all of our food was stuff that could be eaten without warming it up. We all got a mixture of things, but I got bread, chicken sausage, a Twinkie-looking pastry, a mooncake, chocolate, 1.5 liters of water, and milk. Our camping gear wasn’t too heavy, but more numerous then I realized. We each had a sleeping bag, a roll-up sleeping mat, and a tent. Luckily, Korey and I were sharing so he carried it up for me! 🙂 Calvin would end up sleeping in the tent of his friend we met at the Temple of Heaven and his mom carried that up. We brought up a jacket, toilet paper, and extra underwear as advised by the group beforehand, so we were all ready to go. Most of the people went to the bathroom out in the trees before we set off but I had too much difficulty. BTW I have never gone to the bathroom in the wild before…I will explain that gem later.
When I had signed up, I had believed that most of our hike would occur on the actual wall. I didn’t realize we would be climbing a whole giant mountain to get to the wall! It was going to be two hours of hiking to get there and I was determined to do it! We were a little lucky because it had rained the day before and the weather was round 75 degrees Fahrenheit with some cloud cover. With the weather on our side, we began to hike with our large group. It started off as a paved road for the first 20 minutes or so. Then we passed a last set of trash cans and started on a muddy path. We were towards the front of the group when we began, but with two kids, we decided to pull off and let the college students go ahead of us for a bit. About 45 minutes after we started, the hike started to get a bit difficult as the path became steeper. Some were slipping and sliding due to the mud and the fact that we were going up at a 45 degree angle (or steeper, I didn’t exactly get out a protractor). We continued to slow our pace the higher we got up, enough time to take pictures of the view. The experienced hikers that we were with figured it was a Level 3 or 4 hike up. It is pretty impressive to accomplish considering we had an eleven-year old with us! He took it like a champ by the way, even helping encourage me to keep going! After two hours, we finally saw our destination ahead. We made it to the Great Wall!
We couldn’t believe we had finally made it! We took 10 minutes or so to rest and take off our heavy packs. I asked where all the people were that had made it before us and found out they had continued down the wall another half mile to the camp site. I am very proud to say that we weren’t the last people to make it up to the wall! I was so amazed not only by the wall, but the trip it took to get to the wall. What were the Chinese afraid of?? No army was making it up and down those mountains! But it was still amazing to think that so many Chinese had climbed up and down those mountains to make the wall along the highest ridges. Eventually our guides told us to continue on to the camp site further down the wall where some people were already setting up their tents. The college kids nicknamed it “the refugee camp”.
We had worked so long to get up there but the work still wasn’t over. We now had to set up our tents and eat before the sun went down. We went up and down stone stairs, crossed a guard house, and ramps. We finally got to the other tents and set up beside some other Kaiwen teachers. We picked our spot and set up the tents pretty quickly. Well, after all these hours, I had to go the bathroom. I thought, “I have made it this far, I can do anything!” So I headed to the little area right off the wall that was meant for that sort of thing. Some people had already done their business there but I wasn’t grossed out or anything. This is camping right? So I tried…twice. I kept getting spooked by people walking on the wall. It was broad daylight after all and not a lot of tree coverage. I figured I would wait until it was a little darker and kept moving on. We walked up and down the wall and getting pictures. It was even more beautiful than I thought it was going to be. Towards sunset, the guides ending up throwing us a little party and had carried up a bunch of soda for us. Some college kids brought up a speaker system and it was hopping before you knew it.
Once the sun had set, I was ready for bed. We had hiked so long and even though the mattress and pad didn’t create a ton of cushioning, I knew I was going to be out soon enough. Calvin and his friend were playing card games and I tried to slip out into the night to use the restroom with no one watching. I swear to god I tried!! I am out there feeling the breeze on my booty and just couldn’t. And I really had to go too! I don’t know what my mental block was but I was unable to continue with my mission. If the wall was going to make me a man, now was a good time to make good on that promise! I didn’t think it would be this difficult to do what everyone else was doing so easily. Anyways, I gave up and went to bed. The college kids were taking advantage of the party atmosphere and started pulling out their private stashes of liquor and beer. An hour after sunset they were serenading us and the wall with songs from all over the world. It was to those songs that I finally fell asleep.
I awoke to people talking outside my tent before dawn. A bunch of people had set their alarms to take pictures on the sunset and with all the noise, I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep. I think Calvin and I slept the best of the group, because most people said they could only get a few hours on the hard surface. We were so tired that we slept through the night unless someone was getting a little too loud near our tent. Anyways, we got up for the sunrise and I am so glad we did. The sunrise wasn’t as pretty as the ones we have in Phoenix, but seeing the sun light up the mountains was an amazing sight to see. I also took advantage of everyone watching the sunset to try my bathroom skills again. I was a tad more successful, but with people talking and being around in general, I just decided I was going to spend this whole trip having to pee. Oh well.
After eating some breakfast from the food they gave us, we packed up our tent and sleeping bags. Because they had another group coming in, they asked a few of us to leave our sleeping bags and stuff behind for the next group…thank god. We brought the kid and they picked us to leave our equipment behind to help ‘him’. I thought it isn’t him that needs the help but I will take it. Yay! Our group guide told us we would be walking over a big section of the wall before hiking down and heading to a farm for a hot lunch. The hiking was tough, but the wall was actually a bit scary! Hiking was steep and muddy, but the wall was steep and stony with steps being different levels (man-made after all). Calvin was practically wanting to run down these things but I asked him to take it a little bit slower as I held the wall going up and down. My lovely Korey was there every step of the way, holding our friend’s sleeping bag so she could do the same.
We finally saw at the base of one part of the wall that some trees had been moved away. We were towards the end of the 100 people group and sat and watched them climb down a rusty, metal ladder one at a time. Because there were so many of us, this meant we had time to sit down and watch everyone else go first. We were there so long that we saw a tour group come from the other side that we hadn’t yet hiked. Even though it was a holiday weekend, this remote part of the wall didn’t have people on it most of the time we were there, so we were surprised. After 20-25 minutes, it was finally our turn to climb down the ladder. Korey first, then Calvin (after throwing his backpack down), and then me! I wasn’t scared at all though the broken ladder next to it probably should have worried me a little.
We finally began our hike down the mountain and it was so awesome compared to the rigorous hike we had taken the day before. Sure there were still patches of mud and slippery bits, but at least gravity did most of the work here. There were parts of the trail covered by bushes and bugs flying everywhere, but it was calming at the same time. Like we were actually in the wilderness. We couldn’t believe how fast it was compared to the 2-hour hike up! I think we made it down in a little more than an hour. When we finally saw our buses from the last hill, we quickened our pace to make it to the bottom. They had piles to throw our trash bags, equipment, and backpacks so we could get on the buses. One bus took off as we showed up and we had to wait for the stragglers that would eventually come in behind us. After they got on, we continued into the little nearby town for lunch. They had clearly been waiting for us and had ten tables fit for ten people each. Because our bus had arrived late, my family and I ended up eating at different tables. At least we finally got hot, authentic Chinese food right? The pork rice noodles were to die for.
As we were about to leave, I read words that I swore came from heaven itself. Bathroom. I was jumping with excitement. Finally, I could do what I have been needing to the past 16 hours. I quickly got in line and passed out my toilet paper to other excited ladies in the party. Finally it was my turn. I walked into the most odorous bathroom I had been in in a long time and looked a the squatty potty in the floor. FINALLY! Eastern or Western toilet I don’t care, I was finally happy. I have conquered the Great Wall and the Chinese squatty potty. I got on the bus, fell asleep, and road home as happy as a clam. For anyone wanting to climb and camp on the wall, just remember that it is an adventure. You will see and do things that you have never seen or done before. But if you are with the right people, trust me it is worth it.