The Great Wall of China is mythic. When people talk about it they almost always–erroneously–note that you can see it from space (NASA’s take on the subject: You can’t see it with the naked eye, but you can detect it in certain radar images if you really know where to look). Or they say how it’s actually a huge tomb, as the bodies of the men who perished while working on it were often buried inside (in fact, there have been no bones, human or otherwise, found in the Wall, though a great number of workers did die while toiling to build it). But no one ever talks about the slide.
Or at least that’s what I thought when I visited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall last week during my visit to China. A two-hour drive north of Beijing, Mutianyu is a small mountaintop village with a beautifully restored section of the Wall that doesn’t see nearly as many tourists as the more popular Badaling section (which is where Nixon visited the Wall, and is much closer to Beijing). We were told that October is one of the best times to visit the Wall, and we arrived to cloudless skies, perfect temperatures, and a clear view of the Wall twisting over the mountain’s ridges, its granite parapets jutting out like vertebrae in a spine. It was, in a word, spectacular.
There are two ways to get up to the Wall at Mutianyu, a gondola or chairlift, and I recommend that you opt for the gondola and then walk to the right once you disembark. That way, you’ll get to enjoy the Wall while walking down its slowly sloping decline, rather than huffing your way up like the unfortunate chairlift folk. When you do reach the point where the chairlift drops off, you’ll find one of the most charming and bizarre things I encountered during my entire trip to China: An alpine slide which takes you on a twisty, five-minute ride back down the mountain.
While a childhood incident involving an alpine slide left me with some trepidation (let’s just say it involved my eight-year-old’s need for speed, a faulty break, a huge gash on my knee and the ripping of a beloved blue satin jacket), I was able to overcome my fears in exchange for being able to say that I rode a slide down from the Great Wall. And though I was far too nervous to take out my camera, lest I expose myself to injury, YouTube has amassed a collection of videos depicting the slide in all its glory.
The other rather spectacular thing I encountered in Mutianyu was the Schoolhouse. An American lawyer and his Chinese wife have converted an abandoned schoolhouse building in the village into a sleek restaurant and community art space with a glassblowing studio and gallery that wouldn’t seem out of place in a major city. We stopped in for lunch and had a delicious meal of pumpkin soup, sandwiches, curries, and noodles.
The Schoolhouse project has evolved to include lodging as well, and they have renovated other buildings in the village into 11 modern weekend homes now available for guests to rent, all of which have outdoor gardens and gorgeous views of the Wall. The couple works in partnership with the villagers to incorporate home visits and local tours, and their sustainable tourism model employs over 200 local people. It’s all the more reason to seek out Mutianyu when planning your visit to the Wall.
Read More: To learn more about the Great Wall, read an excerpt from the 2003 story in National Geographic magazine about following the trail of the Wall through rural China. And get tips on visiting China with our online travel guide.
Photo: Janelle Nanos