Mutianyu is an interesting and well-preserved hamlet located 70 kilometres from China’s capital, Beijing – a little haven for exploration if you manage to beat the chaotic traffic congestion to get out here. The main draw, is of course the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, thought to be one of the best preserved parts of the Wall with 22 watchtowers densely situated along the wall boasting views from as high as 540 meters above sea level.
Similarly, the unobstructed captivating views of the Great Wall is what attracts guests to the Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu. But the Wall isn’t just all this property is about, the backstory of Brickyard is one of restoration, regeneration and rebuilding.
Back in 1986, Jim Spear, an American and his wife Liang Tang discovered the quaint Mutianyu hamlet after many weekend trips out from the city. Before long, they bought a peasant’s house and turned it into a retreat home. This was also the start of Jim’s self-taught designing journey. He worked closely with contractors and learn on the go as he remodelled the old dilapidated peasant home into a beautiful retreat fit for his family and personal guests.
Around the same time, Mutianyu was also facing a social dilemma – young people were moving out to the city to find jobs leaving the very young and elderly behind. However, time was on their side – simultaneously, the Chinese government had also completed the restoration of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and an influx of tourists were to be expected in the years to come.
Jim and his business partners rolled out a sustainable plan to raise the social status of Mutianyu – they built the Schoolhouse, a high-end, high-quality restaurant that was once a primary school and is now a great advocate of the slow food movement. Today, the Schoolhouse is a collection of converted, restored buildings which includes Brickyard Retreat with 25 rooms and nine luxury retreat homes dotted around Mutianyu hamlet.
The business collective has provided many local people with employment and with a business model that is sustainable, the Schoolhouse (collective) through its lease of homes from peasants in the community have given these local families the opportunity and means to start their own small business and means to give their children quality tertiary education.
Restoration, Regeneration and Rebuilding
Few people can envision anything positive or promising of an old, rundown abandon tile factory. When Jim’s wife, Liang Tang first saw the factory, she didn’t see it for what it was, but what it could be. “It was a desert and the chimneys belched out horrible acrid, black smoke. I was appalled and thought ‘no way’ until she told me to turn round and I saw the incredible view of forested ridges topped by the imposing Great Wall,” Jim described.
It was clear that Jim wanted to keep the story alive even when he built the Brickyard. “When I designed the Brickyard my aim was to retain the original structures wherever possible. It means there is a real, and interesting, story for our guests to discover, but the main reason for keeping the old buildings was to be ecologically sound.”
Stepping into compounds of the Brickyard is a humbling experience. Don’t expect a grand and pompous welcome, instead it is like walking into private quarters. The small reception area in an old kiln, modest and cosy. We walked the open courtyard and on the right is the Lodge, a traditional peasant brick house serving homemade comfort food and a fireplace with plush armchairs. I can only imagine how comforting this place can be on a cold winter night with a book and a cup of hot chocolate in front of a crackling fireplace.
Entering our premium room is a small outdoor lounge with sun beds and large glass sliding doors welcoming us into the room. The walls are decorated with colourful glazed tiles set in a beautiful mural. The same tiles can be seen throughout the retreat and I have been told that the tiles are salvaged scraps from the former tile factory.
The room decor is minimalistic and colours have been chosen to compliment the glazed tiles and earthy tones of the brick walls. A sense of harmony and symmetry flows through. The priceless view of the Great Wall is one the retreat’s biggest assets and I didn’t miss out it as top-to-floor panelled windows in the room provided unobstructed viewing. It was also a great source for natural light.
For sensitive sleepers like me, the rising sun would have interrupted my slumber, but thanks to the eye masks provided by the hotel, I was able to snooze right past the break of dawn.
The Brickyard also has a spa promoting traditional massage methods like Tui Na and an outdoor jacuzzi perfect for star gazing. There is an organic garden on site, an outdoor play area for children, plenty of green spaces to lounge and a TV room for those that can’t go without entertainment.
Staying at the Brickyard, I was able to explore Mutianyu’s part of the Great Wall without the throngs of tourists, I was free to venture into tiny lanes in the village, greet elderly folks while they sat outside playing mahjong, try local restaurants, poke my nose into local sundry shops and admire traditional homes while taking long summer strolls. At the end of the day, I’m back at Brickyard sipping a hot cup of tea in the cosy Lodge and enjoying homemade cookies, all this while mesmerised at the Wall before me.