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Beijing: Skiing the Great Wall

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By James Shillinglaw

TravelPulse LogoNow I have to admit the title of this column may be a little misleading. No, I didn’t exactly go skiing on the Great Wall of China, but I did slip on the snow and ice a bit as I hiked the steep path along the top of the wall. And I did take a cable car up the mountain to a place where we could access the wall (minus my skis, of course).

It was a beautiful but cold morning last week in Beijing as we left the Raffles Beijing aboard our small bus for the hour-plus trip to the Great Wall. I was in China as part of a 10-day travel agent fam trip offered by Imperial Tours (www.imperialtours.net), the upscale operator that features private and small group programs to China.

With five other members of our party, including three agents, as well as two of Imperial Tours’ China hosts (one in training) and a local guide, we drove down the wide boulevards of Beijing. We passed large government buildings, art museums, company headquarters, and bank buildings – all the trappings of the modern capital city that Beijing truly is today. Then we drove on a superhighway up to one of the access points to the Great Wall.

During the trip we talked politics with our local guide, Carl, who told us how he had been sent to the northern countryside as a young student during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He was forced to stay for six years helping farmers, although he was occasionally allowed to visit his family. Things have certainly improved since then, Carl told us, with most people today focused on making money and caring for their families.

But progress across China remains uneven, with some areas lagging. Indeed, despite its modern cities, China still considers itself a developing country, Carl told us. One of the great things about our tour was the chance to speak directly with him and other local people about conditions in China today.

Our discussion with Carl made the time go by quickly, and soon we arrived in the mountains, which loom up abruptly from the plains around Beijing. Imperial Tours usually features an outdoor lunch on another section of the Great Wall, but snowfall the day before had forced us to cancel those plans. Instead, we went to another section of the wall at Mutianyu, which proved to be highly developed for tourists. The winter weather fortunately reduced the crowds and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

After a quick pit stop for coffee and a snack at a café innocuously called The Schoolhouse, we reached the access point after passing rows of souvenir stands. Our guide Carl purchased admission (45 yuan per person) with another 65 yuan for the cable car ride (a total of about $15).

The Great Wall, of course, is one of the seminal wonders of the world, stretching as it does for more than 4,000 miles over steep hills and through five provinces of China. Construction began in the 7th Century B.C. and continued on for hundreds of years as various stages of the wall were linked to keep out the invading Mongols. Much of the wall today is in ruins, but roughly five sections near to Beijing have been painstakingly reconstructed.

At Mutianyu, visitors take the cable car (four to a car) up the mountain since the wall is located on a ridge high above the valley. And as I gazed around me at the snow below the car, the mountains and the valleys, I had a momentary feeling I was indeed on a ski trip. When we reached the top, we climbed up some more steps to access the wall itself. Standing finally on the Great Wall, seeing it undulate up the ridge to the next mountain and down to yet another, I began to understand what an amazing accomplishment this great project was (I wonder very much if any society today could do something similar).

The Great Wall is steep, so it was rather challenging negotiating it in the ice and snow. But we did manage to climb up and down one section and visit some of the ramparts. This is a place that you need to stay at for several hours just to soak it all in, but finally it was time to leave. We took the cable car down the mountain and negotiated our way past the many vendors to get to the bus (our Imperial Tours China hosts, Todd and Gwen, helped a few in our party to buy t-shirts and other souvenirs at a bargain price). Then suddenly we were on the superhighway heading back to Beijing.

On our way back, we stopped for lunch and a visit to one of those places that I believe sets Imperial Tours apart – a restaurant, spa and bath house called Green T. House Living Bath House & Spa (www.green-t-house.com). Located in the Beijing suburbs in what seems to be a warehouse district, this establishment serves meals all themed around tea. The food also is served in a setting worthy of a modern art museum (the building has glass walls and an all-white interior plus many art objects). Guests dine on massive long communal tables and sit in designer chairs that have backs soaring to the ceiling. The surprisingly good meal (new wave Chinese fare) was served on massive designer platters and dishes.

We then visited the adjacent bathhouse and spa, located in another building similar in construction but containing two loft rooms (where guests can book an overnight stay) and a giant in-ground tub that can be filled with tea for day spa treatments. There’s a full kitchen, bathrooms, a large fireplace and a hot tub on the roof. The entire project is the dream of an artist and musician named Jin R and her husband, Robbie Gilchrist. I’m not sure how anyone finds the place, but it’s a rather unique experience and a totally unexpected aspect of China. And the spa has already been recognized for its design by Asia Spa Magazine.

We finally boarded the bus for a quick ride back to our hotel. There we had a presentation by Guy Rubin, who with his wife Nancy Kim owns Imperial Tours. Guy reviewed what the company offers, as well as what the opportunities are today for travel to China.

We closed out the day with a very special private dinner in a traditional Beijing courtyard building. After a short bus ride to a location near the Forbidden City, we passed through a nondescript door into a courtyard and then on through to a small dining room (there are just four private dining rooms). Called the Cheng Courtyard Restaurant, it’s a place frequented by Chinese government officials. It also happens to be run by a young chef whose grandfather served as personal cook to Mao Zedong himself. Indeed, our chef joined us for a few minutes during dinner to show us photographs of his grandfather with Mao and other Chinese Communist Party officials (our dining room also had a large painting of Mao just to emphasize the connection).

So, from snow on the Great Wall to dinner (of sorts) with Chairman Mao, it was a rather eventful day in Beijing. In future columns I’ll detail the remainder of our stay in Beijing, plus our visits to Xian, Guilin and Shanghai.

James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of TravelPulse.com, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.

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