GREAT WALL GETAWAYS
With a host of intimate, luxury options, there’s no excuse for not visiting China’s premier attraction next time you’re in Beijing
It’s a source of amazement to me that people come to Beijing and don’t go to the Great Wall. It's a bit like going to Hong Kong and not seeing the harbour, or Sydney and not seeing the bridge.
A lot has changed since the old days when you were forced to go on a bus tour and stop at the awful Ming tombs on the way. A number of boutique experiences have emerged to offer “offthe-beaten-track” adventures – 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.
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