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.