When nightfall comes, the Great Wall of China should be empty and silent. But some tourists, upon realizing no one is guarding one of the world's greatest treasures, decide to make a night of it on the wall. And do so without fear of arrest.
A young man sleeps at Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Huairou, Beijing.
The question is being raised over the legality of sleeping on the ancient stones of China's sacred monument after photos surfaced online last month showing around 100 foreigners slipping out of sleeping bags, wearing boxer shorts and sweatpants, surrounded by garbage, to a misty morning sunrise from atop Hotel Great Wall.
The images have unleashed a wave of outrage from Chinese and foreign wall-lovers alike who argue tourism exploits of the ancient relic are relinquishing it to a wasteland of crumbling rocks and trash.
"Just their tents and sleeping bags alone required a truck to transport up the mountain," said a posting translated into English on the website chinaSMACK in reaction to the camping, which took place on Aug 3 at the Jinshanling section of the wall in Hebei province, according to online reports. "Looks like 'protecting the Great Wall' is not worth mentioning next to colorful cash."
The Great Wall is a series of stone and earthen walls built and rebuilt from the 5th century BC to the 16th century. They roughly run along the southern border of Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Several parts of the wall that are open to the public draw millions of tourists each year.
The August slumber party is not the first time extracurricular activities on the Great Wall have enraged the public. Over the past decade, a number of incidences, ranging from barbecues to wild dance parties, have been held on the monument, leading some to question whether the Chinese government should be doing more to protect it.
"It is no good to feel angry but you can't help it because it is such a massive problem," said William Lindesay, a Brit who founded the International Friends of the Great Wall, a Beijing-based organization dedicated to promoting conservation efforts of the ruins. "The current situation of the 'wild' wall is absolutely chaotic, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better."
The term "wild wall" refers to sections of the Great Wall that have not been restored, are not open to the public, are not monitored by guards, and are in more remote areas.
A number of laws have been put in place to protect the Great Wall.
In 2003, the Beijing municipal government issued a set of regulations prohibiting the use of the wall for tourist activity without permission. The Badaling and Mutianyu stretches of the wall are popular tourist destinations around Beijing.
In 2006, the State Council released a similar set of mandates.
In theory, the regulations implicate that other, more endangered, parts of the Great Wall are closed to the public. However, in practice, they are rarely enforced, largely because implementation is left up to local governments without the manpower to monitor every meter of the monument running through their backyards.
Yet even with the regulations, rules regarding access to wild sections of the wall remain unclear, if not decidedly gray.
"It is messy," said Lindesay. "What other World Heritage site are you allowed to camp on?"
In 1986, the Great Wall was designated as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
UNESCO spokesperson Roni Amelan said in an e-mail that the organization "has received no information about camping and partying on the Great Wall."
He provided a statement with guidelines for "safeguarding" World Heritage sites: "Negative impacts on values that must be avoided include the physical deterioration of the property as well as the disruption of the atmosphere and spirit of the place and of its traditional uses," it read.
A spokesperson from the Hebei Provincial Tourism Bureau told China Daily that while they do not encourage it, it is neither legal or illegal to camp or hike on any stretch of the Great Wall running through the province.
Another spokesperson from the China Great Wall Association also said it is up to local authorities to decide what activities to allow in their jurisdictions.
The Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage could not be reached for comment.
Regarding would-be campers and partiers on the Great Wall, Lindesay said, "There is no one really stopping you."
His organization has hired rangers to clean a portion of the wall called Jiankou, located two hours north of Beijing near Huairou District.
"The amount of visitors is really increasing, and it is reflected in the amount of garbage left behind," Lindesay said. "Our team of rangers brought down 300 kg of garbage from the wall during the month of May."
On a recent weekend, dozens of campers - both Chinese and foreign - could be found at Jiankou, despite signs warning the stretch is closed. More signage has been erected over the summer after a Chinese couple was struck and killed by lightning on the wall on June 13. The family of the newlyweds is suing local authorities for poor management of the section.
Those who hike on wild sections of the wall acknowledge that while it is more dangerous than restored parts, it offers an experience that is also more authentic.
"I don't think there is a problem with exploring wild parts of the Great Wall," said the co-founder of a company that leads camping trips on the relics. "As long as you are not destroying the wall, I think there shouldn't be any reason why people can't enjoy it," said the man, who declined to be identified.
The key question is, "how can you engender a culture of appreciating cultural heritage if it is forbidden and remote and is behind a fence?" said Lindesay.
"Protecting the Great Wall is not about knowing its history. It is the art of appreciating how this ancient and enormous system of cultural relics collides with modern China and how it is used and whether the use is exploitation or rational sustainable use," said Lindesay. "It is a very complex subject."
Hu Yongqi and Xin Dingding contributed to the story