NEVER let them see you shake or feel your fear.
“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a Happy Tune…..so no one will suspect—I’m Afraid.”
The wind was unforgiving and dark clouds were hanging low as I reached the top of one of the highest mountains outside Datong. Exhausted, I knew it was time to call-it-a-day. My watch read 5:00 PM but my body said it was much later, probably because of the early darkness.
As I unfolded my tent, I felt some concern that the strength of the wind could carry my tent--like a parasol--up and over the mountain’s edge. Making the decision to move closer to a small mountain of rocks for protection, I hurriedly connected the aluminum poles with the ground, hoisted the tent into place, and put my belongings inside.
Within minutes heavy rain began falling, forcing me inside for-- what appeared to be--a black and stormy night. As the tent fluttered and swayed around me, I prayed my weight and that of my possessions—would be enough to anchor my nylon shelter.
Using my flashlight, I followed my commitment to write each day’s activities in my journal. Proudly, I entered today’s mileage of 36 miles, noting that most of those miles were uphill! While checking the map for tomorrow’s trek, I realized the sounds of rain—rhythmically dripping off the tent---had triggered my need to pee-pee.
What an inconvenient time for a bathroom call! Going outside on such a stormy dark night seemed too much of a challenge. Smiling, I thought--- if I had male parts, I could just open the tent flap, take aim-- and in a few minutes--be settled-in for the night.
But, thinking of the “what ifs” only prolonged the evitable. Taking a deep breath, I climbed out of the tent and into the riveting, cold rain, pulled down my tights and squatted. I made the bathroom visit as short as possible so I could return to the security of the tent.
Then, as I was zipping the tent’s flap closed--I heard it--a long-winded, high-pitched cry. It reminded me of a childhood visit to the St. Louis Z00, watching a tiger endlessly pacing back and forth, howling the same cry. There it was again... a loud, anguished scream!
I panicked. The cries were coming from a high place near the tent. The next cry seemed even louder and closer. Cautiously, I pulled the zipper on the tent flap and aimed my flashlight into the blackness. I slowly aimed my light on the rocks nearby-- then stopped. There, encased in the light, were two slanted yellow eyes, a wide-opened mouth, and a full set of long, white, pointed teeth. Looking farther-down, I could see two muscular legs, dominating a platform of rock, approximately 15 feet above me. Temporarily stunned by the bright light, the massive cat appeared statuesque, as if molded from black marble. I immediately turned off the flashlight and closed the flap, my brain wildly seeking solutions to the dilemma around me. I had to do something soon… but what?
Remembering a picture book I’d seen of China’s famous animals, now extinct, I recognized the animal as either a Black Panther or Black leopard. Whichever, this was a dangerous animal that could destroy my shelter and me with one swipe of his powerful paw. Unprepared for such an encounter, all I had was a whistle and a Swiss Army knife. My heart beating wildly, I reviewed my options.
For some crazy reason, I remembered the dogs in Beijing. Outside for a daily run, I often talked to the dogs in my usual “hi, sweet puppy, you are so cute,” voice but, unlike American Dogs who wanted me to pet them, the dogs in Beijing always squealed and ran away.
I laughingly remarked to one pet owner “I’m sorry your dog doesn’t speak English.” The same pattern kept repeating itself on my journey of The Great Wall. Entering villages in search of food and water, I tried to befriend village dogs but, they ran from me just like the dogs in Beijing. Dogs, everywhere, were always my friends.....but not in China! I knew this was a dangerous animal, certainly not the same challenge as a dog but--just maybe--my look, my smell, and my voice could scare him, much-like the Chinese dogs.
I unzipped the tent opening. The faint spotlight showed the unwelcome visitor now at ground level, only a few feet away. Placing the whistle to my mouth, I blew…again and again… with all the breath I could muster. The Leopard appeared startled and ran back to his rock perch. The slanted eyes never shifted from my face. Remembering the dogs, I tried talking in my usual “sweet baby” voice. The animal twisted his head from side to side, puzzled at the unfamiliar sounds.
Five minutes later, wet and cold, I clicked off the flashlight and closed the tent opening. Both frightened and cold, I shivered as I tucked my sleeping bag around me to consider my next plan. I would open the tent flap every ten minutes and, in addition to my “doggy” dialogue, I’d interject some singing and whistle-blowing. The idea would be to keep the animal startled, confused, never-knowing what to expect. I trembled like a convict strapped in the electric chair—waiting for the warden to pull the switch!
Sensing movement outside the tent, I didn’t have a minute to spare. The animal had climbed from his ledge and joined me….with only a wall of polyester between us. I began singing, moving the flashlight above me, all around me. On and on I sang-hymns, show tunes, even nursery rhythms. I alternated with whistle blowing and hand clapping-- anything to keep the powerful, black animal confused and off-center. I both heard and felt him as he brushed the tent walls with his strong body but I never stopped entertaining.
At some point during the endless night, the sounds stopped--the tent ceased to move, like the animal had left but…. had he? Thinking he might be trying to “outfox” me, I continued to perform until the rain ended, the winds died, and the rising sun topped the mountain.
Stepping outside my shelter into the daylight, I saw evidence--everywhere-- of the Leopard. The ground was covered with overlapping paw prints and the tent’s sides were smeared in a muddy design – like a kindergarten finger-paint display. What a night!
After that incident, I never took my safety for granted-- ever again. I adopted the motto: Expect the unexpected...in China.
PS. After my journey of The Great Wall ended, I lectured at Beijing University, sharing many of my experiences on China’s beloved Great Wall. The highlight of my lecture was my night with the Black Leopard.
Soon after my talk, a professor mailed me a Beijing newspaper clipping that had appeared while I was journeying the Great Wall. The front page article stated: “Black Leopards, once believed extinct, have been sighted in the mountains of North China. Rare sightings of Black Leopards have also been reported by villagers living near The Great Wall.”