Updated: Sep 18, 2019
Here's how to find the Beijing skies filled with stars and not skyscrapers. My advice: do it when it's freezing.
Let me first preface this by saying Beijing has so much to offer both culturally and industrially. Nothing wrong with all those skyscrapers in the big city! But how amazing is it that with how large and ubiquitous all those buildings are, the same city is home to little oases such as the Imperial Summer Palace and the Great Wall?
Last minute, my amazing friend Merlin (@merlinmerlz) invited me on a Beijing tour. Good thing, as the only way to camp on the Great Wall is with a tour guide. (read: do not try this alone. Chinese jails and breaking international law are no joke) We took a soft-sleeper train to Beijing from Shanghai and I got to make best friends with another few travelers, Merlin with a little boy named Li who loved the fact that she could teach him English. (also read: make friends and talk to people, they can be super fun)
We met Amber from The China Guide. so if you get the chance to request her, do that. She's amazing at her job and is pretty much your only ticket to sleeping on the Great Wall legally.
Here's why you should visit the Great Wall while it's freezing closer to the winter months: it will give you something to remember it by. I couldn't sleep at all but after hiking all the way up to a section of the wall that isn't manned or frequented by tourists, it was like holding a piece of history all to ourselves. I took my camera out and my first shot got the moon and stars so perfectly I had to run around for hours taking as many as possible.
Now, because I'm human and I was overly excited to go, I left my tripod at home. So I have a bunch of blurry pictures of the most beautiful night of my life. Luckily, I have some nice ones too. It's definitely worth it no doubt.
As I was running around trying to train my fingers to deal with below freezing temperatures for my long exposure, Merlin was trying to train herself to stay still in the cold so the shots could come out clean. By the time the stars were at its brightest, we were so still in awe that freezing didn't matter. We were numb anyway.
Another reason why going in the cold season is a plus: you can't sleep. We stayed up until the sun rose. The stars faded and the Wall was bathed in the beautiful colors that can only be acquired by a sunrise outside of the city. A poetic reminder that beautiful things fade, but beautiful things are also cycled by more beauty.
In conclusion: go to the Great Wall in the cold months, August through November are great bets for off-season in tourism and cold temperatures to bring out the stars and make it memorable. Bring a camera (and a tripod!) a bunch of jackets and a few friends. If you're lacking in that department, find someone in the train station or airport that wants an adventure.
The tropical girl in me couldn't stand the cold, and in the moment I was frustrated with the freezing temperatures. But as I look back, the cold was what made it memorable. It kept me awake and gave the view something different from the other places I saw stars. For my first time shooting stars, I couldn't have asked for better.
Shot on a Canon 5D mk ii, 17-40mm lens.