Live like a prince, or a peasant, on the Great Wall

Escape the madding crowd with an overnight stay at this wonder of the world

Issue: Oct 2009

A stunning sight of snow-covered Jiankou ruins of the Great Wall of China
A stunning sight of snow-covered Jiankou ruins of the Great Wall of China
Photo credit: Derek Wang Ping

The Great Wall of China barely needs introduction. Having seen the rise and fall of no fewer than 20 imperial dynasties and with parts along its sinewy length as ancient as 2,000 years old, this world famous structure is a standard stop on the itinerary of any traveller to the Middle Kingdom.

What is not so well known is that visitors to China can choose to spend a night or more if they wish at the Great Wall. There's a whole range of accommodations from luxurious villas that are architectural gems in themselves, to a rugged night under the stars in a peasant's farmhouse.

Not so Old School after all

From an abandoned school house to a thriving cluster of sustainable businesses
From an abandoned school house to a thriving cluster of sustainable businesses
Photo credit: The Schoolhouse
Jim Spear, founder and partner of The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu Great Wall describes his sustainable tourism project as a "for-profit business with a social mission to support our local community." The business helps village communities along the base of this section of the Wall, some 70 km northeast of Beijing.

Working with local villagers in the vicinity, Spear has built up a network of small-scale businesses including boutique hotels, lodgings and restaurants that are staffed by employees hired from the community.

Like a dragon's spine, the Mutianyu wall snakes across a mountain
Like a dragon's spine, the Mutianyu wall snakes across a mountain
Photo credit: The Schoolhouse
 
A private dining affair at The Schoolhouse
A private dining affair at The Schoolhouse
Photo credit: The Schoolhouse
It all started with a dream by Spear to own a house by the Great Wall. The American had come to Beijing in 1986 to work and became fascinated by the natural beauty surrounding Mutianyu after visiting it that first Spring.

As the now oft-heard story goes, on one of his many visits, Spear was approached by a local villager trying to sell him a T-shirt. They chatted and the vendor ended up helping him to buy a rural house in a nearby village.

Ten years on, Spear's project has gained the support of even the Beijing government for its success in re-invigorating a rural community. In fact, the name "The Schoolhouse" refers to an actual school that was abandoned after residents began leaving for the cities, with their children in tow. The building now houses a restaurant, an art gallery and a glass studio.

"We hire local employees on a long-term basis and procure goods and services from other local individuals and businesses,'' Spear told INSIDE in an email interview in July. "We also grow our own food to the extent possible and make foods homemade from scratch."

One of the guest rooms at The Schoolhouse
One of the guest rooms at The Schoolhouse
Photo credit: The Schoolhouse
Each of the 11 luxury villas available to guests has been painstakingly restored from existing peasant dwellings in order to preserve the original community and provide an authentic experience to visitors.

Ranging from approximately US$263 to US$614 (RMB1,800 to RMB4,200) per night, the villas blend into the rustic surroundings but are equipped with the most modern amenities. Each comes with their own private gardens.

The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu Great Wall
Tel: (+86) 10 61626506
www.theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com
 

Walk on the wild side

The precipitous climb to the top of Jiankou...
The precipitous climb to the top of Jiankou...

...and the steep drop-off to the bottom
...and the steep drop-off to the bottom
Photo credit: Derek Wang Ping
For thrill-seekers who want to live life on the edge, a hike up the Jiankou section of the Great Wall could just be the answer.

Just west of Mutianyu, this section was built during the Ming dynasty in 1368 along a mountain ridge. Jiankou is considered one of the most perilous sections of the Great Wall as it hasn't seen the scale of renovations that more common tourist spots like Badaling or Mutianyu have and is in close to "original" condition.

This means that often along the one-hour climb to one of the observation towers, trekkers have barely much of a 'wall' between them and a steep tumble down the mountains.

Trekking agency owner David Wang estimates the trek to be about 1,100 metres above sea level.

"It is very risky to trek along this section of the Wall and you have to be very familiar with the route," Wang says.

"Because of the danger, it is recommended that small groups travel with a guide."

The Jiankou Great Wall reaches a height of 1,100m above sea level
The Jiankou Great Wall reaches a height of 1,100m above sea level
Trekkers hiking in deep winter
Trekkers hiking in deep winter
Photo credit: Derek Wang Ping
A former interpreter turned trek guide, Wang is a Beijing native who says he has roamed the hillsides and mountains in the area ever since he was a little boy.

"I grew up here, was educated here," Wang says on his website. "If anyone knows his ways around the developing area, it is I."

The route Wang leads hikers along lasts three to four hours, and is rated "moderate to severe" so a decent level of fitness is required. But the pain and sweat will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the misty mountainous setting and a "spectacular sight of the old Wall stretching ahead," Wang says.

At the end of the trek, hunker down at a nongjiayuan or local farmhouse where you will be treated to simple peasant fare of home-grown vegetables and free-range chicken.

A return trip to the Wall costs roughly US$292 (RMB2,000), including a night's stay in a single room and two meals.

At night, turn in at one of the simple guestrooms on the farm and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of nature and farm animals outside.

Great Wall Alternative:
Tel: (+86) 10 63140530
www.greatwall-alternative.com


Time for some pampering

The precipitous climb to the top of Jiankou...
Reward yourself with a stay at the Somerset Grand Fortune Garden when you've made your way back to Beijing. The serviced residence's rooms have rich oriental interiors that blend eastern and western themes for a luxurious "trans-atlantic" ambience.

Each apartment is fully furnished with traditional ornaments for a unique and intimate feel. Relax at the sauna rooms and Jacuzzi, or simply watch a great movie on the home entertainment system. Bored of staying in the room? Head for the nearby Agricultural Exhibition Centre. Or if you have extra cash to spare, opt for a shopping session at Guiyou Department Store.

Somerset Grand Fortune Garden, Beijing
No 46 Liang Ma Qiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100125, China
Telephone (86-10) 8451 8888
Fax (86-10) 8451 8866
Email enquiry.beijing@the-ascott.com
Comments
User andy
221.194.155.X | 2013-06-13 15:26:00
Well done ! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me... I should go through my Inida pictures and post some. I log on to your blog on a regular basis. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers. http://www.wildgreatwall.com/how-difficult-is-it-to-hike-from-jiankou-to-mutianyu/
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