At first, I thought the faded pink pillow on the crumbling stone floor of the watchtower was a remnant of a previous camping trip.
“Are we coming back here to sleep?” I asked our guide, Joe Zhang, at the beginning of a two-day hike last July along the Great Wall of China, which I was making with my husband, Robb Kendrick, a photographer, and two teenage sons.
Joe shook his head and guessed that the pillow belonged to a local farmer passing through. When I asked where we were going to camp, he pointed out the window to the snaking wall that sliced through lush Panlong (Coiling Dragon) Mountain, part of the Yanshan Range, which stretches across northern Hebei province.
“If we camp tonight, we’ll set up tents inside a watchtower that way,” he said in good English. “If we camp.”
That “if,” which he felt compelled to repeat, bothered me. My family had signed up with the tour operator Great Wall Adventure Club to hike this remote part of the Great Wall because I loved the idea of actually sleeping on the wall. I envisioned drifting off to the same sounds and scents that a Mongol-fighting soldier would have experienced centuries ago. I imagined watching the sun burst over peaks crowned by ancient crenelated watchtowers in the morning.
Plenty of tour operators take visitors on half-day tours from Beijing to the Badaling or Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall, which are 40 to 50 miles north of the capital; with travel time from Beijing, that leaves about two hours on the wall. But I wanted to escape the crowds and get a wilder, deeper experience. On its website, the Dallas-based Great Wall Adventure Club guaranteed we’d camp on the wall, but in subsequent communications, I learned the guarantee held as long as the weather was good. As we prepared for our outing, I tried not to think of the forecast I’d heard for our first day: chance of thunderstorms, 80 percent.
At 8 that morning, Joe — a lively young man who’d studied Great Wall history in college and on his own — and a driver picked us up in a van at our rented Beijing apartment. After getting through snarls of city traffic, we made our way about 90 miles northeast, much of it on a new highway that wove through increasingly mountainous terrain, arriving in the village of Gubeikou about 10 a.m. When the driver dropped us off at a ticket booth where Joe bought our entrance permits, we took only what we needed that day — water, sunscreen, cameras — and Joe carried our lunch. Our overnight bags stayed in the van with the driver, who would meet us at the end of our day’s 6-mile hike in the town of Jinshanling, a 20-minute drive away.
The Great Wall — 5,500 miles by some counts, longer by others — is not one wall but many that were built starting in ancient times and were consolidated and reinforced during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The purpose: keeping northern raiders from swooping down into the heart of China. The stretch of wall between Gubeikou and Jinshanling, which we hiked on the first day, is considered a prime example of Ming dynasty construction, built from 1568 through 1583 on top of a 1,000-year-old relic of a wall from the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577). Because the Gubeikou area was a strategic passage to Beijing, the more than 40 watchtowers we passed are closely spaced, and the wall was especially strong and well reinforced, constructed of brick up its 23-foot height.
As we began our hike, I was struck by what felt like an eternal loneliness and loveliness; as far as I could see, nothing but that golden line careening across the crumpled mountains and standing guard alone, whether needed or not, for centuries.
Early in the hike, Joe pointed out a “character brick,” where the stamp of the maker is still visible after almost half a millennium.
“You couldn’t see that at Badaling,” Joe said, referring to the most visited and photographed part of the wall closer to Beijing.
The throngs of tourists are so thick, he said, that you feel like a “dumpling in a pot.” He also said that Badaling was heavily restored and not always authentically, with part of renovations dating back to the 1950s. The wall there is so modernized that much of it has metal handrails.
The wall around Gubeikou has been untouched (except for spot repairs on unsafe areas), and part of the thrill is to see this man-made section surviving the war that nature has been waging against it for hundreds of years. Weeds have taken over much of what was once a 13-foot-wide surface, with only a narrow path in places formed by hikers before us. While many watchtowers were merely ghostly shells with window holes, some were surprisingly intact. On several we saw artful brickwork surrounding the arched windows; one tower had a complete domed ceiling.
After a scramble up a rubble-strewn incline, we rested in a large watchtower, each sitting on a sill of one of the several windows. Joe explained that, according to one theory, the first floor is where weapons were stored. Then he took us behind a wall to a narrow steep staircase; I climbed it on all fours and exited onto the second floor, where Joe said the soldiers might have slept (and, I thought, where I hoped we’d sleep).
In a watchtower, over a simple picnic lunch of bread, bananas, sausage and a Chinese version of Lay’s potato chips, Joe told us we were coming to a forbidden section: a part of the wall we couldn’t walk on because it was still used today as the northern boundary of an army compound. Along the top of a 2-mile stretch of wall, timeworn brick met shiny razor wire. In the distance, Joe pointed out a modern concrete watchtower, woefully artless compared with its ancient counterparts. Joe said that the base’s purpose was a mystery but guessed it was an ammunition depot. I later read that it could be an outpost for military exercises.
But no matter what goes on at the base, we hiked the next 90 minutes in the brush below the wall to avoid it — passing by farmers’ cornfields, pear trees and irrigation canals, by old cottages surrounded by bluebells and tiger lilies. Then we spent the rest of the day back on top, not getting down again until we came to Jinshanling, which means Gold Mountain Ridge, having seen only two other groups of hikers the entire day. The stretch of wall in Jinshanling has a wonderful variety of architectural styles and has been restored to what it might have looked like 500 years ago — at once elegant and forbidding.
If the weather had been good, our driver would have taken us back to the area around Gubeikou to camp and then returned us to the same spot in the morning to continue on. But I noticed clouds moving in while we walked the half-mile down into Jinshanling, a farming area that has fully embraced Great Wall tourism. The town has been spiffed up with restaurants and shops, including a gallery displaying impressive photos of the wall in all seasons. My husband and I drank beer at an outdoor picnic table as our boys browsed the stores and Joe consulted with the tour company to decide if we were going to camp.
Finally the word came down: No.
“You don’t want to be in a watchtower during a thunderstorm,” Joe said.
I maintained that we would be sheltered from the rain and I didn’t mind getting wet in any case, but Joe was firm. I felt the company might be copping out. Maybe some attempt at permission had been unsuccessful or setting up tents would have been too much of a headache.
I sulked while we drove to the nearby town of Ba Ke Shi Ying to spend the night at a farmer’s house. This was a smart farmer who had built a strip of rooms on his property (and called it Kang Da Homestay) to take advantage of the newly prosperous Beijingers flocking there on weekends as a refuge from the city.
“Tourists from other parts of China go to Badaling; foreign tourists go to Mutianyu, but people from the city come here,” Joe told me.
He estimated that a farmer could earn 100,000 renminbi (about $16,700) a year renting rooms, on top of the 10,000 renminbi he might make farming.
Our very basic rooms — hard twin beds, bare floors, scratchy towels — faced a dense garden bursting with eggplant, kale, cucumbers and green beans, and our disappointment at not camping was assuaged by the exquisite meal we ate outside under an awning as the rain and thunder began. A seemingly nonstop parade of heaping plates arrived — beans and pork, squash and egg, hot pots of potatoes and peppers — all homemade with the ingredients growing right in front of us.
By the morning, the rain was gone, replaced by humidity and fog. After a short drive to Jinshanling, we walked back up to the wall to go onward over three tough roller-coaster miles (on one uphill my sons counted 102 steps). The wall became more deteriorated as we approached what’s known as Second Valley — our adventure’s ending point. Along the way we met a perky Chinese woman with decent English who called herself a Mongol and seemed to insist on accompanying me, grabbing my hand on inclines, fanning me after climbs and chatting about her life.
Joe later explained that people who live north of the wall — an area the invading Mongols once occupied — often use that term in jest and that she was probably a displaced farmer from an area near the Simatai section of the wall informally offering her services as a guide in hopes of a tip. (I ended up buying a fan from the woman and tipping her.)
Back on the wall that morning, we marveled at the eerie splendor the fog brought to the ruins. Clouds swallowed the wall at the top of ridges. At one watchtower, Joe told us a legend of Hei Gu (Black Girl), who came with her father, a Ming dynasty general, to take care of him as he worked.
“One day this tower was hit by lightning, and she died in the fire trying to save it.”
I half-suspected Joe’s story was a justification of the decision not to camp until I noticed a plaque that confirmed the legend’s details. I then saw another sign that warned people to get off the wall during thunderstorms. The wall, it said, was the highest point on the ridges and, as such, was especially vulnerable to lightning strikes.
Not camping on the wall, I thought — that was the best idea of the whole trip.