GUBEIKOU — Mountain peaks grew higher and lusher as our driver headed through a tunnel, ascended a freshly paved road, and stopped abruptly at a driveway. After two hours on buses and 45 minutes in a taxi, we were a world away from the crowds of dusty, frenetic Beijing. My daughter, Laura, and I climbed out of the sedan as our driver carried our bags, refusing to take a tip. He left us standing before a handmade sign that said, “Great Wall Box House — Breathe, Smile, Go Slowly.”
We exhaled as instructed, smiled, and walked down a sloping brick pathway to the hostel where we were staying. We passed a garden, tall with crops that would yield ingredients for our meals, and entered a courtyard. The surrounding single-story structures, with roofs of traditional Chinese tile, completed an arrangement known as a “siheyuan,” dating from the Han dynasty, in which four buildings are arrayed around a courtyard. Elsewhere in the village, such areas served as gardens, eating areas, or animal pens. Here, the courtyard had tables, lounge chairs, and a swing. A hill loomed just beyond the roofs, topped by remains of the Great Wall and a watchtower. In another direction, a scattering of trees stood sentinel on a misty ridgeline, creating a shadowy effect that was every bit as dramatic as the watchtower’s.