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.