On his epoch-making visit to China in 1972, Richard Nixon beheld the Great Wall and exclaimed: "This is a great wall!" Proof that George Bush isn't the first US president with a penchant for moronic utterances, but an understandable response, all the same, for the Great Wall is a breathtaking sight.
Literally in our case, for to reach it we had climbed, at speed, a steep woodland path that wound from our hotel up to one of its ruined towers. If other wonders of the world can seem a little disappointing up close, their majesty compromised by tourists and souvenir shops, the prospect before us more than lived up to expectation. Here we were, alone above the sylvan hills, the air silent but for the wind in the trees, the natural landscape broken only by the wall snaking across the verdant mountains as far as the eye could see.
Stretching about 4,000 miles - the distance from London to Chicago - from the Bay of Bohai on the Yellow Sea to Jiayguan in the Gobi desert, the wall stands about 23 feet high and dates back to the third century BC. It's a sight every Chinese aspires to see. Most visitors from Beijing flock to places such as Shuiguan or Badaling, where you'll keep reading notices proclaiming, "He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man", and where the brickwork has been completely rebuilt, and there are visitor centres, safety barriers and hawkers foisting baseball caps on you at every step. Not to mention crowds: Badaling attracts about eight million visitors a year.
Stay, as we did, at the Commune by the Great Wall, China's most futuristic hotel, about 46 miles north-west of Beijing, and the "wild wall", as these overgrown, steep, sometimes slippery unreconstructed stretches are known, runs through the hotel grounds.
The Commune - the irony of its title is reflected in the red-star badges on the severe staff uniforms - is not like other hotels. Set in a valley on a 5 sq-mile site, it belongs to China's pre-eminent arbiters of taste and style, the property developer Zhang Xin, and his wife and Cambridge-educated business partner, Pan Shiyi, who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs. Both have a passion for modern architecture and have commissioned a dozen of Asia's pre-eminent architects to build a million-dollar villa apiece. The resulting development won the special prize at the 2002 Venice Biennale, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris bought the model of it for its architecture collection.
The villas became popular as weekend retreats for Beijing's emerging plutocracy and wealthy expat community, but weren't really viable as a business venture. The complex needed to widen its appeal. So last September, a further 21 villas opened, each configured more like a small hotel, making the Commune accessible to individuals and not just parties. And though the new accommodation may not have quite such high-flying designer interiors - the originals are furnished with pieces by Matthew Hilton, Verner Panton, Karim Rashid, Marc Newson et al - they are not without style.
Of the new villas, my favourites were the type they call Bamboo Wall, designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kama, which are named after the airy bamboo screens that shade the floor-to-ceiling glass frontage, and configured around a Zen garden with a bamboo island in its centre. The rooms aren't luxurious - you sleep on a mattress on a tatami floor, and there's virtually no furniture beyond a wall of built-in cupboards - but the aesthetic is marvellously tranquil, the only decoration, at least in my room, an exquisite bonsai gingko tree.
More obviously modernist are the Cantilever Houses, designed by the Venezuelan-born Chinese architect Antonio Ochoa. These are a pinkish red not-quite cube with cantilevered upper floors and verdigris slate interiors. Then there are the bright, white Bauhaus-inspired Shared Houses by Thai architect Kanika R'kul, some of which have baths in the bedrooms facing the Great Wall (7827 is the one to ask for). Only Nobuaki Furuya's rather bland, retro Forest Houses failed to inspire.
You wouldn't want to spend too long at the Commune, because although there is much to admire in terms of design - the interiors of the Club House, which contains the restaurants and bars, a library, screening room, and galleries of Chinese contemporary art, are fabulous conceits, with walls of peacock feathers, rabbit fur, straw and twigs - there is nothing much to do, but walk the wall, work out in the fitness room and succumb to spa treatments. Oh, and eat. The lunch and dinner menus are exclusively Chinese and very good (there's a western breakfast option that is best forgotten), especially the dishes on the spicy Sichuan and vegetarian menus.
The delectably fragrant bamboo shoots here are nothing like the tinned ones you get in the UK, and the lotus root is sublime. An acquired taste, perhaps - a little like the Commune, which won't suit everyone, but suited me. As a place to unwind and get over the 10-hour night-flight from London, and to rest up for the onslaught that is Beijing, it's ideal. Our route into the city, a little over an hour's drive away, took us past Herzog & de Meuron's superb bird's-nest Olympic stadium, a building whose construction is so advanced, so the story circulating the city goes, that the workers have been told to slow down because they haven't factored in the cost of maintaining it till 2008 if it's finished ahead of schedule. The Beijing skyline is a forest of cranes at present, its buildings crosshatched with scaffolding. With one or two obvious exceptions, this is not a city of landmarks, new or old. Until 1949, there were 8,000 temples, but even before the Cultural Revolution began 40 years ago, they had been mostly destroyed or crudely converted into factories. Even those that are ostensibly ancient aren't necessarily as old as they seem.
The government may have pledged 1.5bn yuan (just over £100m) to the upkeep of the Forbidden City, the imperial palace that extends just under half a square mile in the heart of Beijing, but rather than restore its historic fabric, it is being replaced. Even Unesco has criticised the now uniform and "slightly monotonous yellow tiles" that dominate its gracefully curving roofline.
But then, for all its remarkable monuments - the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palaces - Beijing is a city looking forward not back: a vast, sprawling, dynamic place, choked with traffic and driven by commerce. "Such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future," Nixon had continued, when touring the wall. In that respect, at least, it seems he was right.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Claire Wrathall travelled as a guest of Kempinski and British Airways. British Airways (0845 773 33 77, ba.com) flies to Beijing from London Heathrow, from £544 return.
Commune by the Great Wall (00 800 426 313 55; kempinski-thegreatwall.com; commune.com.cn) offers doubles from RMB1,763 (£117) per night including breakfast.
China National Tourist Office (020-7373 0888; cnto.org.uk).Reuse content