Take off: 850m
Wind Direction: South
Flying season: Late October
Getting there: Need to arrange with local pilots to find right trailhead and clear any issues with local authorities.
The Mutianyu flysite is a rarely used site located along one of the most popular stretches of the Great Wall north of Beijing. The take off is at 850 meters and is one of the clearings made for a large placement of 5 Chinese characters on the side of hill, an homage to Chairman Mao. The 30-60 minute hike up along side trails takes you along stretches of the Great Wall and provides beautiful views of lower hills with the Wall and surrounding forest. Since the site is flyable usually only in the late fall, the views are filled with stunning autumn colors.
The site is a thermalling site and doesn’t starting working until around 1pm. The take-off is a steep incline, atop the clearing. Only one pilot at a time can take off and usually requires help from other pilots and bystanders to keep the glider from getting caught in the brush.
On a good day its easy to climb to 1500m or more. Ironically when we flew, the only reliable thermal was just over this section of the wall with 3m/s lift and higher. The landing-zone is a narrow cleared out strip of cornfields next to a small village, reachable by an easy glide from the take off.
Temps are 10deg C at take off, but well below zero at higher altitudes. Some pilots gave up early to land and warm up. Needless so say, come well prepared with LOTs of layers to stay warm, especially gloves.
The thermals last for about 2-3 hours on a good day. We all flew around and along the wall for a couple kilometers to the south east and to the west. None of the other stretches were generating any thermal activity, so we would fly out and inevitably fly back to take off to gain altitude. Sometimes though we would fly out just to lose altitude and stay warm!
On these days when weather is good for flying, the Wall is of course also full of tourists. Even though this section we fly over is more rundown and remote than others, large groups of people have ventured out and seem to congregate on one of the watchtowers. Flying the Great Wall doesn’t mean taking off or landing from it, but it getting an amazing view that no one else is seeing.
When flying its tempting to look at the surrounding ranges, especially over the ridge and wonder if its possible to fly back to the ranges to the north or west and go cross country. The valleys are deep and gap is wide. The forest is also very dense, and valley bottom filled with small villages and industrial sites, certainly a risk unless assessed in advance.
Seeing the Wall line the tops of these mountains, one cannot help but think about the incredible history. Flying above certainly gives it a new perspective. It was designed to hold back invaders coming over the mountains, and built with what must have been an incomprehensible effort. A remnant of an ancient era… Now, with our relatively simple technology, we can just fly right over it!
The day we flew this site was rare for Beijing weather. Beijing is famous for being one of the most polluted cities in China. The days that are clearest for this site are the ones preceded by several days of north wind, as the air coming from the north is the cleanest. Typically, the air coming from the west is filled with the pollution of industrial areas. Flying in other sites in China, we know that pollution has a negative impact on paragliding, so the weather on days like this are what we wait for. On the chosen flying day, enough south wind is necessary to make the take off possible as the hill faces south. There is often a mix of north and south wind, combined with thermal activity on the south side of the hill to provide stable lift.
Throughout most of the year, the wind is also too strong or cross so the site is not flyable. It seems only in the fall, when conditions are calmer, and the north air dominates, does Mutianyu become a great but short lived place to fly. We usually mark our flights in terms of hours or kilometers, but flying this site, the thermals gave us something much more. For most of us, the most memorable flying day yet.