Wonder if you can see this tent from space? A camping area on the Great Wall. Photo: Courtesy of Jason Wang
Though the rural areas surrounding Beijing's city center aren't exactly known as rugged enclaves of untamed wilderness, there's a camping trip out there waiting for you if you're willing to take it, and what Beijing may lack in forest, wildlife and clean air, it makes up for in one respect: the Great Wall, a destination of unparalleled cultural cachet and historical significance. As one might expect, however, the iconic nature of such a site often gives rise to controversy about using the Wall as your own personal bed and breakfast.
"CET arranges a bi-annual Great Wall camping trip, once in the spring and once in the fall," said Jason Wang, an American expat who as a college student participated in CET, a Beijing-based Chinese language school for foreigners that also arranges cultural excursions, and has since become CET's director of programming. "Our usual program includes a 10-kilometer hike from Simatai to Jinshanling and camping overnight on the Wall at Jinshanling, but in 2009 right after our spring group went, a totally unrelated group came and made an absolute mess, which resulted in the Wall being closed for camping until just recently."
Wang said that though the Wall has officially reopened, their spring 2010 camping trip - scheduled for the weekend of May 8 - was cancelled as well due to inclement weather.
"As you can imagine, if there's any chance of thunder, lightning or heavy rain, the trips are cancelled and campers are lodged in nearby guesthouses," he said.
Other tour groups provided contradictory accounts of whether the Wall was open for camping.
"According to current government regulations, the only place we're allowed to provide for campers is an area next to the Wall at Jinshanling, not on the Wall itself," said Chen Binchao, the operations manager of Botrip Tours. "The reasons we were given include trash and litter from previous groups - danger is another concern, especially due to summertime storms."
Chen said that noise, vandalism and graffiti have all been problems in the past.
"There used to be a lot of graffiti on the Wall but it's much better now due to stricter enforcement," she said. "But we've had to deal with all sorts of issues - people throwing dance parties, for example. The Wall has attendants who help clean up after campers but people still make a mess sometimes."
A representative of the China Cultural Center, which provides Great Wall excursions for foreigners, said that the Wall is currently open for campers at Jinshanling and that they've never had issues with unruly guests.
"Our guides are very strict about graffiti and litter," said the representative, who asked that her name not be published. "And almost all our guests have good manners - the only trouble is bad weather."
Wang said that though the students at CET do not receive any additional training about camping etiquette or cultural sensitivity, it's generally understood that the Wall is a particularly delicate area. "You could tell other people hadn't been respectful, though," he said. "There were crevasses where people had pooped, and garbage thrown off the side - it's a shame, because camping on the Wall is a really amazing experience."