Postcard: Hitting the wall

Scarred face: The Great Wall of China is beautiful and revealing. Photo: Fluer Bainger
Scarred face: The Great Wall of China is beautiful and revealing. Photo: Fluer Bainger

I don't sleep around. Except on very special occasions. Like when I took the Great Wall of China as my bedfellow, turfing out my fiancee so I could snuggle up to a mattress of solid rock.

My love and I had spent the day snapping shots of giant stone lions on the Sacred Way and exploring the Ming Tombs, where 13 emperors are buried not far from their 290 concubines. While I could argue their fate inspired me to endure a night on a slab, in truth I'd planned to sleep with this famous stranger.

The place is Jiankou, a remote strip of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that shows the wear and tear of the past 700 years. But its scarred face is beautiful, revealing layers of marble, rock and rammed earth beneath what was once a flat finish.

The tour we join is aimed squarely at the intrepid (thechinaguide.com/sleeponthewall). Once you've hiked along a forest trail and puffed up a steep hill of shale, you're invited to pitch a tent, roll out a mattress and snooze on stone.

Pillows are absent, and there's nothing more than a paper-thin mattress between me and the marble. The windowless tent may keep mosquitoes out but it keeps humid air in. It becomes so much that, with his bug-proof skin, my other half is forced outside, while I toss and turn in my humidity crib.

Stiff, puffy-eyed and sporting matted tresses, I poke my head out of the tent just as the morning sun peeks over a mountain crest. The 6000-kilometre-long wall resembles an illuminated white ribbon flowing along the spine of forested peaks and gripping near-vertical drops like a waterfall streaming over a cliff.

It's starkly different to the section of wall at Mutianyu, which we reach via ski lift hours later. With tourism undoubtedly in mind, it has been entirely restored. Rising as high as 10 metres in parts and as sheer as a skyscraper, it sweeps up steep rises topped with rectangular watchtowers. We only make it to two, so taxing are the blocky steps. Cool air blows through unusually shaped holes along the wall's sides. "The stone was fashioned to look like the shape of soldiers' helmets," Liu Jianjun, or Jack, our guide, says. "They would shoot arrows from their positions at the holes." Looking out to the stretch we spent the night on, it's remarkable how much remains with no restoration work. "It is believed that egg whites were mixed with cement, and are what keeps it so strong," Jack says.

We return to the base of the valley on toboggans, arriving at a busy street of brass trinkets, Chinese hats and wooden carvings that are being auctioned off by persistent sellers. But after a half-hearted barter I realise they don't really interest me: all I can think about is my plush hotel bed and getting a good night's sleep.

This story Postcard: Hitting the wall first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.