Time out in Beijing: Great Wall getaways

1 Sep 2017 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Great Wall of China

A number of boutique experiences have emerged to offer “off-the-beaten-track” adventures of the Great Wall – the ultimate way to experience China’s most iconic attraction.

British explorer William Lindesay (who once ran the entire length of the Great Wall alone and unaided), organises weekend walking tours from his farmhouse home. The kind of insight Lindesay is able to offer comes from three decades of studying, exploring, photographing and documenting the Great Wall, a project that earned official honours from the Chinese and British governments.

“It is the largest building project in history,” says Lindesay.  “So huge that it is the only man-made structure that shows up on world maps.

“It took more time to build than any other project in history and, in addition, most of it goes through mountain terrain, really hostile territory, but the Chinese were prepared to go to any lengths to defend their civilisation. It is the ultimate wonder of the world and it will never be surpassed.”

The Wild Wall Weekends are not for everyone: accommodation is basic, the food simple and the terrain often tricky. But the hiking-and-history combination is without a doubt the most extraordinary way to fully appreciate the magnificent structure.

British Explorer William Lindsey running the Great Wall

The stretch near Lindesay’s rural retreat has not been restored; parts have been reclaimed by nature, other bits have crumbled. Nonetheless, its majestic grandeur and monumental scale are barely diminished.

“I like it with all its warts and defects,” says Lindesay. “The wall was built to different levels of quality – first, second or third class – depending on the threat of invasion. The bits that are geared for mass tourism I liken to having had plastic surgery, they are not real or genuine.

The get-togethers take place in the warmer months at the farmhouse location, fondly nicknamed The Barracks, after the British term for simple military-style accommodation (wildwall.com, price for weekend stay US$550 per person). Included in the cost are several extensive hikes along the wall – at dawn and dusk – all meals and an endless string of fascinating anecdotes from the host.

Another long-term expat resident offers a significantly more luxurious way to experience the wall close up. American Jim Spear quit the corporate world to focus on restoring traditional village houses around the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall.

The refurbished homes were snapped up by well-off Beijingers seeking a rustic retreat with modern plumbing and appliances. Spear reasoned that a boutique hotel would also be popular with discerning city folk, tourists and conference organisers – a hunch that proved correct.

The Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu has 25 rooms and 11 vacation villas, all offering views of the Ming Dynasty section of the wall (brickyardretreatatmutianyu.com, rooms from US$200).

High-tea Cruise with the Sunrise Kempinski hotel in the background

As the name suggests, the compound once housed a working glazed tile factory whose buildings have been transformed into international-level accommodation. The restaurant at the property specialises in using organic produce, wherever possible, sourced from farms in the vicinity. It is a popular spot for corporate retreats, weekend getaways and discerning overseas visitors who want to really experience rural China. There are various ways up to the wall itself and other walks in the vicinity, all documented in a book compiled by one of Spear’s daughters.

“Our guests are looking for privacy, discretion, and real hospitality,” says Spear. “The Brickyard is an intimate retreat in a park-like setting with stunning views of the Great Wall and surrounding mountains, forests and orchards.

“We offer a range of activities to complement a stay with us near the Great Wall, ranging from treatments in our spa, soaking in our outdoor jacuzzi, cooking lessons, visiting artisanal food producers, biking around the area, and so on.”

Staying close to the wall means that visitors can arrive at the main Mutianyu entranceway long before the big tour buses arrive from the city, and be back in time for a leisurely Brickyard lunch. Taking the metal toboggan slide back down from the wall makes the trip even faster: it’s a thrilling, madcap ride which has just one safety feature – local peasants stationed at sharp corners shouting their only two words of English: slow down, slow down.

Farther along, guests at the Commune by the Great Wall are given exclusive access to a private path leading to battlements and walkways on a section that sees barely any tourist traffic.

The project is a shining jewel in the portfolio of property giant SOHO, one of the nation’s most successful developers. With the Commune by the Great Wall project, the emphasis was on allowing creativity to flourish: 12 architects from Asia were asked to let their imaginations run wild, dreaming up a design they thought appropriate for the setting.

The result was a series of buildings like no others in China – or anywhere else for that matter, with names such as Airport House, Bamboo Wall House, Cantilever House, Furniture House and Suitcase House. Within the expansive grounds of the leafy estate are a total of 175 suites, three restaurants and an outdoor pool.

Yangqi Hotel managed by Kempinski

It is geographically close to the tourist scrum of Badaling, where it sometimes seems China’s entire 1.4 billion population are out on a day trip, but located in a spot where tour buses do not venture (communebythegreatwall.com, weekday rooms from US$250 including breakfast).

Another stunning architectural marvel located within easy reach of the wall is a venue that had its moment of international fame during the APEC summit a couple of years ago, when all visiting heads of state stayed there – including presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

It boasts one of the longest names in the hospitality world – the Sunrise Kempinski Hotel Beijing and Yangqi Island – reflecting the wide choice of accommodation options available. There is the main hotel building, plus various boutique and villa options in the immediate vicinity, all managed by the German group.

The hotel itself is a cross between a chocolate whorl and a giant snail – no doubt one of the wacky modern buildings President Xi Jinping was thinking of when commenting disapprovingly on the proliferation of zany architecture in and around Beijing. Its design was inspired by an “oriental sunrise” and is meant to blend harmoniously with its natural surroundings.

The size of the project – Kempinski’s largest in China – means there are myriad choices when eating out, including Western fine dining, German pub food, Cantonese cuisine, a European deli and a wine bar. The top-floor bar offers a magnificent view of the lake itself and the hills beyond.

A drive to the Great Wall takes less than half an hour, allowing a visit there in the morning followed by an afternoon of horseback riding, water sports on Yangqi Lake, or golf. Also in the vicinity is the ancient Hong Luo Temple, Qinglong Gorge and Baiquan mountain (kempinski.com; rooms from US$290).

All options are worth considering for the luxury of being able to take one’s time and truly appreciate one of the genuine wonders of the world, instead of a cursory stroll-and-snap visit. It is a structure that exceeds expectations and – unlike, say, the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower – it changes radically by the season, flanked by pink blossoms in spring, surrounded by orange-red foliage in the fall and blanketed by snow during the harsher winter months.

Wild Wall William has seen almost every aspect of it during his lifetime of study. His research indicates that all the various sections of wall ever built, from Qin to Ming, would total something like 50,000 kilometres and Lindesay has likely tramped tens of thousands of kilometres himself – including running 2,500 kilometres on that very first expedition.

Despite enduring blisters, sunburn, stomach upsets, arrests and even deportation during that first, fateful ultra-marathon, Lindesay says: “It was a major adventure to a place that was little known. In fact the moon was more familiar – I could name more places there than I could in China. At the end of the run, my feeling was: this is an amazing wall. I still think the same way.”

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