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Outside In

Serious Intent for Nature

A camping trip to the mountainous outskirts of Beijing is a good way to steer clear of the crowds and visit off-the-beaten-track destinations

By Leila Hashemi Updated Aug.1

A dammed lake at Longyun Shan (Dragon Cloud Mountain)

Dog-friendly campsite on Longyun Shan (Dragon Cloud Mountain)

Having lived in Beijing for five years and, more recently, unable to get too far from the capital, it was high time to try and get out of the concrete jungle and connect with nature. With summer knocking on the door, some friends and I decided to gather our gear and head to the mountains for a camping trip.  

I had been camping before at the Ming Tombs Reservoir. While there was excellent infrastructure such as a campground, grills, a meat shop, restaurant and even a petting zoo, we wanted a more authentic experience. When you search for “camping in China,” you usually get page after page of camping on the Great Wall or campgrounds with reviews like, “We ended up getting set up in a parking lot.” So, I asked around and was directed to James, who organizes wilder camping and hiking trips in and around Beijing. We chose Longyun Shan (Dragon Cloud Mountain), located between Huairou and Miyun districts.  

We were told there were bathrooms on-site, but other than that, it was primitive camping. We would need to provide everything else ourselves, tents, grill, food, water and lights. Our group already had many of the things we needed, but if you want to take a trip, make sure you are prepared. Once you are situated on the mountain, there are no shops, restaurants or facilities around if you end up forgetting something.  

The morning started with a pickup at my apartment. The van pulled right up to the front door, and the driver helped us pile in our gear. When looking at the map, we were two hours from our destination, so we turned on some tunes and headed out of the city.  

It was a clear day, so it wasn’t long until the light blueish mountains in the distance started to rise up and take form. On the way, we passed a small section of the Great Wall, and then the twists and turns began. The drive soon became a slow crawl up the mountains through switchback after switchback. Just as I was starting to feel a little carsick, we came out through a tunnel and in front of us was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever experienced. The mountains towered around us in a circle as we drove the winding road around the inside of a canyon. A river snaked through the gully of the valley and after another turn, we spotted a waterfall spilling over the side of a mountain in the distance. I snapped up my phone and recorded as much as I could before sitting back and taking it all in.  

As we came around the other side of the canyon, a small visitor center appeared, and we asked the driver to stop. The bathrooms were clean and there was one ramshackle shop with a sweet old lady selling drinks and packaged noodles. After this, there was no other civilization nearby – so make sure if you pass the old lady, you have all you need.  

We were only 10 kilometers away from our destination when a small overlook area appeared where we could pull over and take pictures. We weren’t the only ones taking it in. Motorcyclists and other tourists gathered around the edge to get the perfect shot. Even the locals took advantage of the vantage spot, selling peaches and plums to the shutterbugs.  

The engine on our large van strained as it made its way the top of the mountain. Soon we came to a stop, and our guide came to meet us. He opened a small gate and we turned onto a one-lane mountain road. It felt as if we were going straight up into the sky. The road was tight and lacking guard rails on the side. I couldn’t look, so I just shut my eyes until I felt the engine turn off. We made it.  

The camping spot was at the tip-top of a mountain. The van drove right up to a flat area with soft dirt perfect for pitching our tents. Walking to the left of the camping area about 200 meters was the summit. There was a fence for safety, but the spot provided an unobstructed view of the vast canyon below and towering mountains.  

A five-minute walk from the site, and up a very large hill, was a dam. The dam created a lake and there was a walking trail around the entire thing. There was also a concrete slab where you could sit down to relax and enjoy a picnic lunch while gazing at the water and the beautiful karst mountains framing the skyline around it.  

Once we got our bearings, we headed back to the site and set up our grill for dinner. For only 150 yuan (US$22), the charcoal grill was perfect for cooking everything over the two days and nights. We had ordered meats and bread and brought pots and pans to make eggs and fry-ups in the mornings. There’s nothing like cooking your food outside as you watch the sun disappear and the sky turn shades of pink and red.  

We played music, laughed, talked and most of all enjoyed the quiet of nature. Once night fell, we turned off our lanterns and turned our eyes upward. Since there is no light pollution, twinkling stars, which are rarely visible in the city, filled the black inky sky. The more our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the more stars would appear. It had been a long time since I saw the Big Dipper in all its glory. The night was a little chilly but a perfect contrast to the warm days, so you will be fine camping with just a mat and your sleeping bag.  

If you want to check out the area for the day without camping, you can pay 20 yuan (US$3) to visit the scenic spot and hike around from the top of the mountain to the bottom, where you can play around a small meandering river. Across from our site, we noticed a scenic tourism area. We found out it is called Qingliang Gu (Cooler Valley). The area has chairlifts, hiking and a glass bridge.  

At the end of the trip, we were tired, tan and happy. As we drove down the mountain, back through the switchbacks and around the canyon, I felt a sense of accomplishment and release. While camping takes a lot of effort, the views, memories and good times are worth it. I was even impressed the camping area has a strict policy on trash separation and keeping the grounds spotless so everyone can enjoy its natural splendor.