The Great Wall recently earned the title as a ‘Wonder of the World’ from the recent campaign to update the Seven Ancient Wonders, despite the fact that the terrain it covers, its engineering and sheer length have been a marvel for centuries.
I knew there were several quick daytrips out to The Wall that one could take, but I figured a world wonder warranted more time to be thoroughly enjoyed and explored. So we booked ourselves into the Red Capital Ranch at the base of where two sections of unrestored wall meet in Yanxi Township.
The hotel is a destination itself, fusing elements from Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan culture. Take for instance the Tibetan Tiger Lodge, the hotel’s bar that is adorned with brightly colored doors and furniture from the region. Even the cuisine takes its cue from traditional ingredients and spices: corn dumplings stuffed with mountain vegetables, leg of lamb with Tibetan rub, and chicken soup with forest berries.
The architecture is said to be reminiscent of a mountain lodge that Emperors of the Qing dynasty frequented. The owners boast of hiring crews responsible for restoring the Forbidden City to build the Manchurian-styled retreats. Inside, the rooms are decorated with a Zen minimalism that is rustic but comfortable. One of the highlights is the Kang style stone bed, which originally would have been heated by the family’s cooking hearth attached to it.
But the real attraction is the property itself. Nestled in a river valley below the shadow of the Great Wall, the hotel’s rooms and pavilions offer breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, rivers and streams.
From the property, you can access two hikes. The Eastern Route is the more challenging trail, but the Western Route allows you to travel to Mutianyu, if you have the time and equipment; we found that upon reaching the eighth pavilion, the route became quite treacherous.
The trails along both sections are unrestored. This keeps the tourists away and affords the adventurous time to gaze out from watchtowers with no one in sight – just as the soldiers would have liked it!
The Western route climbs slowly uphill. On most sections, you can walk on the remains of the wall, but there are places where the deterioration is so bad, that you bypass the wall through the forest.
The Eastern Route is a vertical climb that then splits in a North and South direction. Legend has it that the contractor who built the Southern wall was beheaded: the general’s plans ran North. Hikes also follow the North route, high on the mountain ridge where you can gaze far out across the valley. Only three watchtowers can be reached before you come to an impasse in the trail.
Both climbs will take about half a day. But even on these treks, you only get a small taste of the sheer size of The Wall. It constantly snakes away from you into the distance … but it does this over 7,300 kilometers.
Back at the Ranch, I got some relief for my sore muscles with a Tibetan body massage. I’m not sure how often Tibetans practice this therapy, but for this infrequent hiker, the service was truly therapeutic.
Details: Red Capital Ranch, Yanxi Township, Huairou District. Rooms start at $200. Hiking from base of the hotel.