In my fantasy world, away from the brutal practicalities of everyday life on the road – camping by the roadside, cold showers in a space the size of a broom closet, sleeping in a too-short bed, wearing dubiously dirty clothes because the clean ones have run out – I imagine us occasionally driving to a real life camping ground where stunning natural beauty sits side by side with toilet and shower facilities, running water, and maybe even mains power. Maybe.
But a dream it remains, because proper camping grounds are in very short supply in China. My good friend JW, who helped enormously with the Chinese language research for this trip (and translates these posts) spent two full weeks compiling a list of Chinese camping grounds for us, then calling them one by one to ensure they were still in operation.
I won’t labor over the details, but suffice to say that the official list (the one you’ll find on the Ministry of Tourism website) and the actual list differ a great deal, perhaps because there were many camping grounds that accepted hefty government tourism subsidies to open up then closed down a short time later.
I’ll just tell you how many were on the short list – fourteen camping grounds, in all of China. One for every 93 million people. Not so many huh?
Many of them are clustered around Beijing’s outskirts, but there is one in the area we’re traveling in right now as we head north towards Inner Mongolia, so we decided to make a detour to northern Tianjin Province to stay in it, right next to a remote and mountainous section of the Great Wall – it sounded perfect. I thought we might even meet some like-minded Chinese campers!
I looked on their website and was thrilled by mains power! water! and something that looked like a homemade RV! JW called ahead for us the day before and confirmed. No reservation needed.
Pick the bought one!
The anticipation of staying somewhere actually legal where we didn’t have to worry about being moved on in the middle of the night, spurred us on to a mammoth eight hour day of driving through a fierce storm that saw most other vehcles pull off the highway. Not us. We pushed on. We had a camping ground to get to.
Finally, around dark, we arrived at the tiny winding mountain road of the campground’s address, but somehow missed the entrance the first and second times we drove past. There was a black and yellow bar boomgate across the driveway and the sign on the gateway was a little overgrown. Small nagging worries needled me.
We opened the boomgate ourselves and drove in. The whole place seemed a little low on the maintenance side and there were no other campers at all, but we pulled into a bay with its own electricity and water box just as the caretaker arrived.
“Hello! What are you doing here?” he asked. As if he didn’t already know!
“We’re travelling! We’d like to camp here for the night!” we said.
“You know we’re closed down? We don’t have any power or water. But you can stay overnight if you really want to.”
CLOSED DOWN? Like, NOT OPEN?? And NO POWER and NO WATER???
Somehow JW had failed to mention this in her text message. I read it again. “Ucan go to the campsite directly, free now, and is not a site for rv but parking is okay.”
I seem to have glossed over the important parts of that message when it first arrived, particulary the ‘is not a site for rv’ bit. I tend to ignore bits of information that don’t fit with my perception of any given sitution, it’s a dreadful flaw and now it had come back to bite me. I guess that’s why I had interpreted ‘free now‘ to mean ‘plenty of space’, rather than ‘free of charge because with no electricity, water or facilities we can hardly make you pay.’ Bugger. Bug-ger.
After having a quiet little weep to myself I looked around me. The kids were running about having a ball and making as much noise as they wanted. It had stopped raining. We were in one of the most beautiful locations imaginable – a natural amphitheatre in the cradle of a ring of pink granite mountains now glowing orange in the light of sunset. It was stunning.
So the electricity box was fake, and the water taps were all dry, and the camping ground was falling apart from neglect. So what. We had a private peaceful spot to sleep and there would be other camping grounds to visit in other places. A whole twelve others to be exact.
Morning brought sun and clear blue skies and we set out to explore our surrounds. The campsite had been glorious until quite recently with an attached Mountain Sports Centre complete with obstacle course, groves of apricot trees, a camping field, a picnic terrace overlooking the valley, a rope bridge and small huts. A terrible shame it closed down, but like all businesses there has to be money in it, and clearly camping hasn’t yet reached that stage in China.
Luckily we’re on a mission to change all that!
Looking a bit overgrown since the last photo.
Giant rock-climbing wall and massive skate ramp to keep you busy when you’re bored with blowing up the air mattress
The tent camping field, lush, level, and ringed with trees.
And the rusting home-made RV, up on bricks, forever in the same spot
The entrance – just in case you ever decide to make a visit.
Campsite Notes: Northern Tianjin Jixian Village Mountain Sports Ground
The campground is technically available for overnight ‘parking’ although the caretaker turned a blind eye to outdoor cooking and other camping activities. We weren’t charged for our overnight stay, but it was made clear this was one night only.
Name: Tianjin shi Ji xian Xiaying zhen Shanye Yundong jidi campsite
Address: Jixian Xiayingzhen Qianganjian cun
Co-ordinates: Lat 40.227401° Long 117.429789°
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: High echo factor. Evening karaoke session in neighbouring valley crystal clear
Nearest water/groceries: Jixian Village <2km
Outlook: In the cradle of a ring of mountains. Unbelievably beautiful.