Sara and I have been fortunate to learn, time and time again, that if you do some serious planning and take the extra time, you can always get away from the crowds and find yourself in truly breathtaking situations (and you can read about them here, here, and here). But in China, a country where the crowds themselves are breathtaking, we weren’t sure if that feeling of solo exploration would be possible.
Spoiler alert: it is. But I’d be lying if I said we never doubted ourselves.
Being 6,000 miles long, there are many points from which to access the Great Wall, each with different amenities: some are fully infrastructured, with restaurants and shops on the wall itself, while one section features a toboggan slide (which is something that I would totally do on a return visit!), but also, of course, major crowds. However, far along the eastern end of the wall, where the Chaohe River flows in from what was once Mongol territory, is a little town called Gubeikou (‘old north gate’). It has a very weird internet presence in that many travel sites mention it, but few offer any concrete details about how to get there or what to expect. The two stretches of wall on either side of the river are called ‘Crouching Tiger’ and, you guessed it, ‘Hidden Dragon’ (okay, technically it’s actually ‘Coiled Dragon’, but why else would a dragon be coiling unless it was hiding??). All of these seemed like good enough reasons to give it a try.
Finding our way to the bus through Beijing’s massive Dongzhimen station was technically uneventful, though it felt like an adventure because it was our first time being completely on our own in China, having to memorize the characters for our destination and then search for them on literally thousands of buses. One perk of being in the most populous country in the world is that the buses leave every 10 minutes, but even then we found ourselves sardined in the far back between our backpacks and the collection of shiny new kitchen appliances that someone had bought in the big city and was taking back home with them.
After three hours we arrived at the city of Miyun, at which point Sara used some very impressive bartering to get us a spot on a van that was going to Gubeikou. The van was filled with Chinese tourists, and knowing that Gubeikou was not a large place, we figured we were all going to the same hostel.
Forty minutes later, however, the driver pulled over, shouted ‘Gubeikou!’ and we found ourselves on the side of an empty highway, alone with our backpacks. To our right, there was a town that did vaguely resemble a photo I’d seen (a decorated arch, an ornate stone building, and beautiful winding canal), but that photo had clearly been taken before some kind of zombie apocalypse that had evidently occured since. The ornate stone building now had padlocks on the doors and boards over the windows, and the canal was literally clogged with logs and branches. Worst of all, there was not a Great Wall in sight.
I got the sinking feeling one gets when one finds themselves in a Chinese ghost town without internet or a vehicle and it’s getting dark and there isn’t even an unlocked building where one might spend a chilly, disappointed night. We wandered up the cobblestone road, only to find more of the same, when suddenly a single taxi came trundling out of the shadows. We stood shamelessly in the middle of the road, hellbent on getting into it and going ANYWHERE.
The driver (who already had a passenger, but seemed pretty chill) didn’t seem to recognize anything on the map we showed him, but kindly let us in and drove us a couple minutes out of the ghost town to what seemed like a sleepy but inhabited town and stopped outside of a building that said, in English, ‘Teachers residence’. Very appropriate, but no luck at actually finding someone inside willing to take us in for the night.
It was pitch black by now, and we had lost all sense of direction as the cab meandered through an uphill labyrinth. We stopped by some sort of field, and suddenly the driver was talking to an older gentleman who had come running from the void. From their facial expressions (which we are apparently terrible at reading), we thought that they were both equally confused. Suddenly, however, the driver let us out and the other man led us to a low building, opened the gigantic square iron door (classic China!), and welcomed us to our hostel.
I woke up the next morning still hesitant about where we’d ended up. But when I set out to find some eggs for breakfast, breathing in the relatively smog-free air, my doubts were immediately assuaged.
At this point, we had to choose which section of the wall we were going to attempt. ‘Coiled Dragon’ was lower, gentler, and marked on a detailed GPS map. ‘Crouching Tiger’, meanwhile, was steep, winding, and accompanied by the following instructions: cross the bridge and look for some steps on the right.
We deliberated for a moment…then set off towards the bridge. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We had hoped to get away from the crowds…we never dreamed we’d manage to get away from all of humanity entirely. I alternated between feeling so incredibly connected to history and feeling like a kid on the world’s biggest play structure. Even though the modern Mongolian border was hundreds of miles away, the sense of being on the very frontier of something ancient was palpable. Awe is usually a momentary state, but this lasted the entire six hours we were on that wall.
Gubeikou, you had us worried for a moment, but you were truly unforgettable.