In September, we had to go to Beijing for a conference so we took the opportunity to see the Great Wall as a weekend side trip. As China has over a billion people, and most of them want to see the Great Wall sometime in their lifetime, I didn’t like the thought of big noisy crowds. It’s impossible to appreciate natural wonders and ancient structures when they are overrun by hordes of noisy tourists. Choosing the best place to see the Great Wall took a bit of research, which paid off. We experienced a walk on the Great Wall in solitude – it was a truly remarkable uplifting experience.
We decided to stay at Mutianyu for two nights in order to avoid a rushed day-trip from Beijing. It’s well worth exploring and pondering the region around the wall. Mutianyu is about two hours drive from downtown Beijing, therefore being slightly less convenient than some other options, which are closer to the city. This area has a very long restored section of the Ming Dynasty wall, situated in a dramatic mountain range that overlooks a scenic rural valley. The restored sections run for quite a few miles, but beyond this there are dramatic sections of the wall that are in disrepair. The wall climbs over steep ridges with vegetation taking over this ancient structure in parts that are yet to be restored. Great photo opportunities in every direction.
We stayed at the Brickyard Inn, which is in a small village called Beigou, about a mile from Mutianyu (which is also at base of the Wall). After our arrival at the Inn, we took the innkeeper’s advice by hiking up a back trail to the highest point of the Great Wall. We soon discovered that a 90 minute walk in their terms meant a lot more for us, as we were struggling by the time we reached the base of the Wall about 2.5 hours after leaving the Inn. It was a steep but scenic hike through chestnut tree groves and forests on a rather warm day. Local rural folk cracked open fresh chestnuts for us, as we walked up through the narrow pathways, even though each of us could only manage very basic greetings.
Any hike to the remote corners of the Great Wall is well worth the effort, no matter how difficult the climb may be. The skies were beautifully clear with just us, and the sound of birds chirping in the undergrowth surrounding the wall. I really got a sense of the immense effort of building the wall, and the solitude that must have been experienced by the local guards who manned the wall some 600 years ago. It’s a place of incredible harsh beauty. It’s quite incredible to comprehend the funding and loss of human life to build the thing, which was largely abandoned by the 19th century. It’s also very ironic to think that the USA is now building a wall with similar objectives of keeping out the barbarians – but US architecture will never meet the brilliance of Chinese Ming Dynasty architecture and the way it works with the landscape.
The wall was built as a defence mechanism against the northern nomads, including the Mongol empire and Genghis Khan. It is structured in a manner that allowed troops to patrol the wall, and towers had beacons that were used by soldiers to send messages about approaching invaders from the north. It was built along high ridges to minimise breaches by enemies. Messages could be quickly relayed back to Beijing through the use of beacons on the towers.
Walking along the wall could be quite challenging for people who have low levels of fitness or the elderly. Some sections of the wall rise at a 60 to 70 degree angle. The architects also didn’t see the need for landings at intervals along the staircases, so one wrong slip could end in a long dangerous fall. It really keeps you on your toes. The views in these sections of the wall are quite incredible and relatively quiet.
Mutianyu does offer opportunities for solitude and inspiration of the old wall structure, but it also had new features to keep everyone happy, including kids and less fit people. You have the option of hiking or catching a chairlift or gondola from the park entrance to the mountain peaks. We took the option of taking a metal toboggan ride back down from the top. It was a quick fun ride, which was not an option for the Ming Dynasty soldiers hundreds of year ago.
ACCOMMODATION AT MUTIANYU
Brickyard Inn is a locally run hotel with about 25 good quality rooms, quaint gardens and a great restaurant in a central courtyard. They are running the hotel as a social enterprise, with links to local restaurants and a high awareness of sustainability issues. Apparently Michelle Obama made a visit here when Barrack Obama had to do a Beijing conference – lucky her. It used to be a ceramics factory, so many original industrial features remain as part of the rooms and common areas. It is tastefully decorated, although some of the facilities like the showers in the rooms are a little rustic.
The restaurant within the hotel also had a BBQ dinner on weekend evenings. Most of the food is geared towards Western tastes, although the local Chinese options were OK as well (although very over priced).
Mutianyu’s local tourist association website in English: Mutianyu
A good website on hiking & other activities in Mutianyu