CHINA’S Great Wall

Let's Travel - - FRONT PAGE - Words and images by Tim Roxborogh

Just the idea of a brand new, en­tirely fake replica of an an­cient Chi­nese wa­ter town, built with the sole pur­pose of at­tract­ing tourists, could put some peo­ple off. At best it sounds kitsch and Ve­gas-like, at worst a tacky, mis­guided blight on an other­wise quiet and won­der­fully ragged sec­tion of the Great Wall of China. By the time you add an enor­mous five-star ho­tel across the street de­signed to vaguely re­sem­ble a European cas­tle and any no­tion of this be­ing an au­then­tic Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence seemed more an im­pos­si­bil­ity than an im­prob­a­bil­ity… I loved it.

Shame­lessly, I loved vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing about the Gubei Wa­ter Town in Gubeikou – a set­tle­ment at the foot of the Great Wall, about a two-hour drive from Bei­jing. As part of a Wendy Wu Tours travel party, we’d al­ready sipped cham­pagne that evening in the set­ting sun at a re­stored watch­tower on the nearby Jin­shan­ling por­tion of the Great Wall. Our guide, Ray, had marched us from the carpark and up a de­cent hill, chilly-bins in hand, to get us to this look­out point in time for sun­set. Any com­plaints of “why do we have to walk so fast?” were soon for­got­ten when 20-min­utes later we ar­rived with the sun not quite yet swal­lowed by the horizon.

It’s a sur­real feel­ing be­ing some­where so fa­mous, some­where you’ve known about for as long as you can re­mem­ber. Like the first time clam­ber­ing around Angkor Wat, or when I poked my cam­era through the fence at the White House, it takes a bit of con­certed mind de-clut­ter­ing to just pause and be in the mo­ment.

So the sun went down, we drank cham­pagne, posed for pho­tos, at­tempted to gaze thought­fully into the dis­tance and headed back down the hill. Af­ter a quick freshen up at our gold and mar­ble cas­tle/ho­tel (with its Cin­derella-in­spired car­riage in the lobby, colos­sal grand stair­case and pri­vate karaoke rooms that look like some­thing out of Alice In Won­der­land crossed with the in­side of the ge­nie bot­tle from I Dream Of Jean­nie) it was time to meet for din­ner.

Ray was tak­ing the group to the Gubei Wa­ter Town di­rectly across the street (as well as across the moat) from our ho­tel. At first it seemed like he was lead­ing us away from some at­trac­tive made-tolook-old struc­tures and into some sort of ba­nal food­court. Why were we go­ing in­side? Why were we lin­ing up at what ap­peared to be a shop­ping mall in a sub­way? Right as we were about to launch a mutiny against our chirpy guide, Ray pre­sented us with tick­ets and in­struc­tions to walk through some turn­stiles.

In­cred­i­ble. We’d had a brief taster of the beauty of an­cient Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture, al­beit of the brand new va­ri­ety, in the stroll from the ho­tel. Our dis­ap­point­ment at be­ing led away from that ar­chi­tec­ture and in­side to what we’d mis­taken as a bland mall was now the em­bar­rass­ment of how we’d ever doubted sweet Ray.

A #ca­su­al­lean on The Great Wall

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