A few years back, I decided, along with a few friends, to spend the night on the Great Wall of China. We asked some locals in Beijing if this was allowed. They thought it was strange, but as far as they knew, it shouldn’t be a problem. The question arose as to where. Badaling was out. It was too close to the city, the main spot where tourists take their snaps of the wall. After studying a map, we decided on Simatai, a small section of wall about 75 miles northeast of Beijing. It’s one of the steepest areas of the wall, renowned for its ‘Fairy Tower,’ one of the last watchtowers on a precipice known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ not to be confused with the Led Zeppelin song of the same name.
Most of the tourist buses run in stages or leave in the morning or on the weekend. Wanting to arrive in the afternoon, we decided to rent a microbus. Lots of people hire taxis, but generally head out in the morning in order to reach the wall before closing time. After negotiating a price with our driver, we explained that we wanted to leave in the afternoon. He told us the wall would be closed, but we insisted on taking our chances. After explaining that we wanted to sleep on the wall, he mumbled something about ‘strange foreigners.’ He picked us up later that day and we set off.
Upon arrival, our driver told us that he’d wait for us. He didn’t think we’d be allowed onto the wall at night, but if somehow we succeed, he’d sleep in his microbus and take us back the next day. It was all the same to him. When we came to the gate we found a solitary guard getting ready to leave. He told us to come back in the morning. A German friend of mine explained to him that we wanted to see the wall at night. He noted our sleeping bags. We asked if we could sleep on the wall. He said that he couldn’t let us pass while still on duty. So we sat. We sat and talked and he smoked a few cigarettes with my German friend. Then his shift was over. He smoked another cigarette and sold us our tickets and then left for the parking lot.
Simatai was great. Parts of the wall were ruined and decayed, but the views were spectacular, green hills and mountains faint beneath a setting sun. We hiked as far as the seventh or eighth tower and then laid out our sleeping bags. A clear night sky blossomed overhead, full of stars, not a soul in sight. We stayed up talking and woke with the dawn, hiking to last watchtowers and then back down again. We passed a few vendors on their way up to sell their wares. They seemed surprised to see us on the wall before them. When we reached the parking lot the tour buses and taxis had already arrived. We didn’t except to find our driver, but there he was, smoking a cigarette and reading the morning paper. As we approached, he called out ‘gong xi, gong xi,’ congratulating us on our success.