GET OUT OF TOWN
Beijing’s suburbs offer exceptional excursions to discover destinations less central than the icons— yet they are capital sites in every sense. Erik Nilsson explores a three-day itinerary through the metropolis’ hinterlands.
TheGreatWall is great. It livesupto itsnamesake. The Forbidden City is foreboding — in a good way. And the Summer Palace draws crowds in all seasons— for many reasons.
Beijing is a metropolis, where most iconic sites gravitate toward its nucleus.
But its downtown of hutong ringed by high rises is orbited by a treasure trove of hidden gems beyond such crown-jewel icons within the Sixth Ring Road— plus those beyond, including the Wall.
The capital is also among the Chinese cities offering 72-hour visa-free transit to foreign visitors from dozens of countries.
China Daily hits the road and heads out of town to discover what travelers can explore around Beijing within three days.
• Longqing Gorge (Yanqing)
First, a giant plastic dragon swallows you. Then, it spits you out atop LongqingGorge.
The Soaring Dragon Escalator earned an inscription in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest series of consecutive escalators. But its aesthetics endow an appeal beyond metrics.
Longqing Gorge is nicknamed the “Little Three Gorges” for its karsts. They conjure something like a miniaturized version of Southwest China’s globally acclaimed trio of canyons flanked by jutting peaks.
These fantastical formations here are smaller but sheerer, and are best explored aboard dragon-shaped gondolas.
Temples teeter atop the crags, which sporadically gush with waterfalls.
The 100 Flowers Cave has been arranged into subterranean exhibits displaying sceneries from various regions of China with a profusion of plastic blooms that serve its namesake. • Guyaju (Yanqing)
Holes in the wall were prime real estate for the unidentified settlers who whittled Guyaju’s cliff face into a honeycomb of chambers a millennium ago. They left no written record beyond that which they carved in stone, by chiseling 350 rooms into 117 caves over a 5-kilometer span. And visitors to “China’s biggest maze” — as it’s colloquially known — agree, it’s quite a legacy.
While archeologists argue the compound would have been impenetrable, Guyaju’s inhabitants vanished centuries ago for reasons asmysterious as to why they appeared at all.
• Kangxi Grasslands (Yanqing)
It is saddled in horse country. That said, camel riding also features prominently among its offerings. These beasts of burden graze alongside cows and sheep among the Mongolian yurts that speckle the prairie.
Picnics, barbecues and bonfires offer opportunities to eat, drink and be merry upon vast emerald expanses.
• Tianmo Desert (Zhangjiakou, Hebei)
Real ruins of fake ruins poke from Tianmo’s dunes.
They’re film sets deserted in the desert. The sandy swath of land just outside Yanqing district has served as a shooting location for 4,000 episodes of more than 300 TV programs and several box-office blockbusters. Not without reason. Visitors can explore the forlorn film sets intentionally crafted to look windswept when brand-new that have since been actually ground down by the sandblasts of time. That said, their reappearances and disappearances depend on shifting slopes.
Visitors can also hop atop plodding camels, zip down slopes on sand skis and kick up rooster tails of dust in dune buggies.
• Silver Fox Cave (Fangshan)
The ferrymen who ply tourists along two of Silver Fox Cave’s subterranean streams enhance the caverns’ Hades feel. These waterways flow 160 meters underground, like a Chinese answer to the River Styx.
Also ghostly is its namesake — the apparitional Silver Fox stalactite. It appears as an underworld rendition of the canine from which it takes its name.
The frosty formation is one of Earth’s only such structures.
Visitors exit by hopping aboard a train that clatters over underground tracks. • Stone Forest Canyon (Pinggu)
Perhaps the best vessel aboard which to view Stone Forest Canyon is Beijing’s “UFO”. The glass sightseeing platform that hovers over the scenic site takes its nickname from its resemblance to a flying saucer.
It truly is out of this world — or at least exceptionally high above this slice of unearthly terrain.
And it does feel like you’re flying. (And may instill a strong fear of falling if you fear heights.)
The ravine in the Huangsongyu Geological Park takes its designation from the thickets of stone spires that resemble groves of tree trunks. The trunks of actual trees twist horizontally from the vertical-rock juts, seeming to defy gravity.
These rock daggers are geology’s high rises in the capital’s outer trajectory.
They slice the skyline to house the allure of Beijing’s hinterlands, which protrudes far from the skyscrapers near the city’s nucleus.
Not to say downtown towers aren’t great. But the municipality rises above, outside.
Top: Longqing Gorge in Yanqing district is called the “Little Three Gorges” for its karsts. Above: The history of the honeycomb of chambers by unidentified settlers remains an enigma.