Eerie splendour of the Great Wall
I ASKED our guide, Mr Joe Zhang, where we would camp on the day we began our two-day hike on the Great Wall of China.
He pointed to the snaking wall that sliced through the 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," he said.
I envisioned drifting off to the same sounds and scents that a Mongol-fighting soldier would have experienced centuries ago.
On its website, the Dallas-based Great Wall Adventure Club guaranteed that we would camp on the wall, but only if the weather was good.
My family's adventure began when Joe - who'd studied Great Wall history - and a driver picked us up in a van at our rented Beijing apartment. We made our way about 145km north-east, much of it on a new highway that wove through mountainous terrain, arriving in the village of Gubeikou.
After buying entrance permits, we began hiking. Our overnight bags stayed in the van with the driver, who would meet us at the end of our day's 10km hike in the town of Jinshanling.
Climbing up a steep paved path, we were electrified by the first glimpse of the imposing wall above us. A watchtower, poking over the trees, was haunting in its deteriorating state. The Great Wall - 8,850km long by some counts - is not one wall, but many that were built starting in ancient times.
The wall around Gubeikou has been untouched, except for spot repairs on unsafe parts. While many watchtowers were merely ghostly shells, some were surprisingly intact.
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. Arrows were once shot from windows and slots in the towers. Below, we found openings through which rocks were rolled onto enemies. The defence system worked until 1644, when the Manchus finally crossed the wall and took Beijing, ushering in the Qing dynasty.
In the run-up to World War II, Japanese invaders marched from their base in Manchuria, hoping to expand their territory, and the old wall allowed the Chinese to hold them off temporarily.
Over a simple picnic lunch, Joe told us we would be passing a forbidden section: a part of the wall we couldn't walk on, because it was still used today as an army compound. We hiked the next 90 minutes in the brush below the wall to avoid it, passing farmers' cornfields, pear trees and cottages surrounded by bluebells.
We then spent the rest of the day back on top, arriving at Jinshanling, which means Gold Mountain Ridge.
We didn't get to camp as clouds were rolling in.
"You don't want to be in a watchtower during a thunderstorm," Joe said. We stayed instead in a farmer's house at the nearby town of Ba Ke Shi Ying and, by morning, the rain was gone, replaced by humidity and fog.
Returning to Jinshanling, we walked back up to the wall to go onwards; the wall got more deteriorated as we approached what is known as Second Valley, our adventure's ending point.
We marvelled at the eerie splendour of the ruins amid the fog. At one watchtower, Joe told us the legend of Hei Gu (Black Girl), whose father was a Ming-dynasty general.
"One day, this tower was hit by lightning, and she died in the fire trying to save it," said Joe.
I half suspected his story was to justify the decision not to camp, until I noticed a plaque that confirmed the legend's details. I then saw another sign that warned that the wall was the highest point on the ridges and was especially vulnerable to lightning strikes.
Not camping on the wall was the best idea of the whole trip, I thought.
The writer is author of the memoir The Unlikely Lavender Queen. She booked her tour with the Great Wall Adventure Club (www.greatwalladventure.com).