TIME OUT: BEI­JING

Stay­ing at a ru­ral re­treat of­fers the chance to ap­pre­ci­ate China’s en­gi­neer­ing marvel,

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents - writes Mark Gra­ham

Small steps to max­imise Great Wall trips

Anumber 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'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 “off-the-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 was the first man-made struc­ture to show 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 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).

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.

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.”

Clock­wise from above: Bri­tish ex­plorer Wil­liam Lin­de­say run­ning the Great Wall; High tea cruise with the Sun­rise Kempin­ski; Yangqi Ho­tel man­aged by Kempin­ski; The Brick­yard Re­treat at Mu­tianyu; and Com­mune by the Great Wall

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