Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Every time there's a holiday (and with Western and Chinese festivals to celebrate there seem to be a lot) Charlie and I try and go on a trip, taking the kids, now aged 6, 5 and just-turned-5, with us.  Here is my list of the best things we've done so far:

1. Hike along the Great Wall from Gubeikou to Jinshanling and finishing in Simatai. Includes one-two nights of camping.

Conveniently, one of the very best hiking destinations in China is just a 1-2 hour drive away from Beijing. We've explored a number of places along the Great Wall, but this is our favourite. You start in Gubeikou, walk to Jinshanling and end up in Simatai. It's a total of 18km. Along the way you can camp for one (adults) or two (if you're going with small children) nights in the watchtowers. This is actually not allowed on the Great Wall so you do need to be a bit subtle and might need to dodge guards, but well worth it to experience a night on the Great Wall of China. (Tip: camp in less restored watchtowers -- guards only patrol the pristine parts).

The view from Jinshanling, back over all the towers we walked along. 

Reading to the kids in the watchtower in Jinshanling we slept in the second night. It's just a little bit beyond the restored/touristy parts of the wall, so no guards check it at night.

Dawn in Jinshanling

The first part of the hike, from Gubeikou. The Gubeikou part of the hike is quite gentle.

Gubeikou section of the wall, quite an easy hike.

Gubeikou section of the wall

After Gubeikou, you need to leave the wall for a few hours as there is a military zone that you're not allowed to walk across. This takes you past an abandoned house and well and through the fields belonging to a village. It's actually a really nice part of the walk. 

The part of the hike that's not on the wall, through a village's cultivated fields. You have to turn right where we're sitting (you'll see a stone with markings on it, telling you not go to straight) 

There is a guesthouse directly after the walk off the wall, just before you start up to Jinshanling. You can buy water and possibly other things there. The kids played badminton. 

Dawn after the first night, right at the start of Jinshanling Great Wall

View from our first camp (the first tower in Jinshanling)

Dawn at the first camp

Dawn at the first camp. If you look up you can see we unwittingly slept under a hornets nest. 

Walking along the wall

The more restored part of the wall at Jinshanling. It gets very touristy, but is very beautiful nonetheless.

At this watchtower you could buy drinks, cold and hot, and even ice cream. 

The very last part of the walk, the bridge that takes you across to Simatai. You may be intercepted by a very entrepreneurial guesthouse owner, who looks out for prey using his binoculars and comes to meet you. We had breakfast at his guesthouse. 

The bridge again.

Additional tips for Great Wall hikers:

a) Especially if you speak Chinese, it's useful to chat to hawkers and gather information about where guards are posted. The guards can be difficult and insist you have a ticket for the different parts of the wall (Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Simatai), even though, given you've walked all the way along the wall and haven't come down from below, you haven't come across a ticket office. Also, by talking to hawkers, you can find out where you can camp without being hassled. Generally, the view when we were walking is that the guards don't come on duty till 8am, so you can get past anything at dawn. This is how we got down to Simatai which was still closed to the public when we did the hike. At night, less restored towers don't seem to be patrolled so are fine to set up a tent. 

b) PICNICS...If you don't live in Beijing, you may not know that you can get delicious baguettes, salamis and cheeses in Sanlitun at shops like Jenny Lou's and April Gourmet. (Plus chocolate, which can be useful for bribing children to hike a bit further...). Stock up on delicacies, bring a bottle of red wine, and you can have a great picnic on the wall, sitting in the sun.

c) WATER....Carry as much as you can. Hawkers on the wall do sell water, so we stocked up several times en route as well. The key thing is that you don't want to be caught without it on more deserted parts of the wall, especially if you need water for cooking too. 

d) THE BEIJING HIKERS Charlie and I organized this trip ourselves (the day before departure Charlie went and bought a tent and sleeping bags and a cooking stove at a hiking shop located at the end of Zhuzhong Hutong in Beijing). However, especially if you are new to Beijing or just visiting, you can also join a group, who will take care of everything for you: act as a guide on the walk and arrange food and transport from Beijing city centre. The Beijing Hikers is one group that I know of. In fact it was their book, Hiking Around Beijing, which alerted us to this particular hike. I also suspect that it was the Beijing Hikers who put down the markers on the trail which prevented us getting lost when we were doing it...In short, we owe them a big thank you for their enthusiasm and efforts, and I get the sense that they would do a great job of looking after you if you did want to hike with a guide and group. 

2. A trip out West to Xinjiang: camel-riding and camping in the Taklamakan Desert.

Western China is quite a long way from Beijing so it may be worth doing other things on this trip, e.g. visiting Kashgar or Tianchi (the Heavenly Lake near Urumqi). I have not visited Tianchi since 1996 and I felt Kashgar had been rather ruined, so I'm just focusing on the highlight of our trip, which was camel-riding and camping in the Taklamakan desert. We only did it for one night, but you can take a trip right across the desert, from south to north, on a camel. It takes 28 days.

We started our trip in Khotan (Hetian in Chinese), accessible by direct flight from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. We did not have any camping gear with us -- all that can be arranged locally. Our guide who arranged food, tents and sleeping bags -- and, critically, is friends with the camel owner -- was Kurban of Southern Silk Road Tours (mobile number 137-7929-1939, email: treklab@gmail.com). Like many Uighurs we met he speaks very good English and I couldn't recommend him more highly. Out in the desert, we ate lamb skewers and the round flatbread that Xinjiang is famous for.

Running down sand dunes, hours of fun for the kids

Buying carpets - please contact me if you're interested in the contact details of any carpet sellers.  We met one who spoke good English. 

Riding camels in the desert

Playing on sand dunes


Our campsite

The camel train

Izzy outside our tent

Kurban, our guide, is on the left, the camel owner is on the right. He is the oldest of 8 brothers and together they own 250 camels. Apparently they are only family in the area who rent out their camels for tourism. Kurban speaks excellent English, so communication is not a problem. 

One of the highlights of Khotan/Hetian for the kids -- Marco's cafe. They ate spaghetti bolognese, cupcakes, and generally were in seventh heaven. They wanted to go back again and again. The owners are Malaysian Chinese and lovely. They also serve delicious curries and beef and chicken puffs.

3. Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

As Charlie had to go back to Beijing for work, I did not actually do the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, though I would have loved to. Instead, I went by car along a rather scary mountain road, finishing just beyond the endpoint of the hike in the middle part of Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was all arranged by the best hostel at the end of the hike, Sean's Spring Guesthouse (email: tigerleapinggorges@gmail.com), which is a really nice place to stay. Sean's daughter, Lucy, was absolutely lovely to us, and fed us lots of walnuts while pointing out that the place we were staying is called Walnut Village. Later I found out Sean can actually arrange mules to take you along the hike, which I would have probably done if I'd been a bit better organized. 

Lijiang is a lovely town -- accessible by direct flight from Beijing. Very touristy and on the twee side, but definitely still worth visiting. It's filled with dozens upon dozens of very cute guesthouses, which is highly unusual in China, where most hotels are horrid depressing institutional affairs.

Along the road in the "middle" section of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lucy took us for a walk along the road near the middle section of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Sean's guest house

Sean's guest house

The middle gorge, just along the road from Sean's guest house

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this briiliant post and all the lovely pics--Your pictures are amazing. Just looking at those pictures make me want to climb the Great Wall of China now. I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers.