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The wild wall and a seaside library outside Beijing

Five places to go near Beijing

It may have history and secrets – but it also has smog. Alec Ash, an author and longtime resident, uncovers some lesser-known destinations beyond the big city

It may have history and secrets – but it also has smog. Alec Ash, an author and longtime resident, uncovers some lesser-known destinations beyond the big city

Alec Ash | April/May 2017

1 MING DYNASTY TOMBS
1 HOUR 30 MINUTES
 

The emperors of old ruled the Middle Kingdom from the halls of the Forbidden City. But while they are long gone, their remains are interred in the grandeur of the Ming tombs to the city’s north, providing supplicants from afar with a last opportunity to pay their respects.

You can take a bus from Deshengmen bus station, or the new subway to the Ming tombs stop on the Changping line. Three tombs are open to the public; the most spectacular is the Changling tomb, a sequence of three connecting courtyards, each with a palatial pavilion and exhibits, culminating in a circular castle-like tomb under which lies the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. But the real highlight is the sacred way leading to the entrance of the tombs, a walkway lined by stone statues of mythical animals and court officials.

Once you’ve had your fill, balance human grandeur with some of the natural variety at the Gouya natural scenic area. Gouya means “ditch cliff”, and this series of valleys and gorges is full of peaks, pools and greenery. The park is sacred for Taoists – although modern tourism trumps ancient culture. For small-group tours of the Ming tombs and other China locations, look up Wild China (wildchina.com).

2 THE “WILD WALL” AT JIANKOU
2 HOURS 30 MINUTES
 

A trip to the Great Wall is a must, but can become an exercise in elbow-sharpening if you go to any of the destinations developed for tourism. Beijingers prefer what we call the “wild wall”, where you can roam more freely.

Drive or take a bus to Mutianyu, a ticketed section of the wall with a panorama of meandering hills. From here there are drivers who can take you to Jiankou, an undeveloped stretch where restored paving gives way to cracked stone and wild grass. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike the 12km along the back of the wall between the two sites, which will take about five hours. Be sure to pack sturdy shoes, and be careful when you get to Jiankou, where the path can be treacherous. The watchtowers that punctuate the wall are good places to stop for a picnic; aim for the highest one, which is called Zhengbeilou.

Take a detour on the way back past Huanghuacheng, where the wall disappears into the waters of a reservoir. This is a good stopping-off point for a dinner of rainbow trout, in any of the restaurants by the wayside. There is cheap accommodation in villages in the foothills of the wall. Great Wall Fresh is a family-run business that will organise the logistics for a trip to a separate area of the wild wall (greatwallfresh.com). For further hiking options check out Beijing Hikers.

3 CUANDIXIA VILLAGE
2 HOURS 30 MINUTES
 

The charm of Beijing is that, just an hour or two out, you’re in the mountains. Most escapees head north, but there are hidden temples and villages in the western hills.

Rent a car and take route 109 to Cuandixia, a village with 400 years of history. Courtyard homes dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties line the streets, which nestle in a deep valley that is green in summer and brown in winter. Steep cobbled paths weave between well-preserved buildings that feature stone carvings, screen walls and tiling. There are a number of walks up into the surrounding hills, and you get a good view of the village from the top.

For the full rural experience, stay in one of the inns that offer basic accommodation. Among the best is Guchengbao, one of the oldest courtyard buildings, perched at the top-left corner of the village as you arrive, which has traditional fire-heated kang beds shared by up to four people. There’s no need for a reservation – just ask (or mime) for a bed. At their terrace restaurant, you can eat fresh local fare – don’t miss the wild herbs and mushrooms.

On the way back, it’s worth exploring the temples in the hills. Tanzhesi, the most enjoyable, is on route 108, with similar impromptu housing and food options. The temple is around 1,700 years old and is most beautiful in moonlight.

4 BEIDAIHE
2 HOURS 30 MINUTES
 

Venture out farther to find a respite from the dry heat of a Beijing summer on the coast at Beidaihe. This beach town has everything you need to unwind, and is easily accessible by bullet train from Beijing – so go off season to avoid the crowds. The waters are shallow; there are boat cruises, a forested hill favoured by bird-watchers and an amusement park.

Stay at the Haijing Hotel, whose steps lead down to the beach. At any of the seafront restaurants with seafood on display in tanks, just point at what you fancy and it will appear soon after, cooked in delicious herbs and juices. Head south along the coast and you’ll hit the seashore library, a paean to modernist architecture; 30km north is Shanhaiguan, sometimes described as the beginning of the Great Wall, where the structure juts out into the sea (presumably to prevent Mongolians from cheating by walking around the end).

Beidaihe’s main claim to fame is that, every August, China’s leaders gather there for political meetings. The annual retreat is marked by the appearance of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army and plainclothes police looking overdressed for the beach. Mao was famously fond of the place.

5 CHENGDE MOUNTAIN RESORT
3 HOURS 15 MINUTES
 

The Qing emperors were so keen on escaping from Beijing that they built a getaway specifically for the purpose. Designed in the 18th century, the Chengde mountain resort was awarded world heritage status by UNESCO in 1994. It is now a confection of gardens, lotus ponds, pagodas and other quiet delights.

The town of Chengde itself is in Hebei, the province neighbouring Beijing, and is easily reachable by bus from Dongzhimen bus station, or by car. From there any cab will take you straight to the resort, which is perched on a series of interlocking lakes. You can easily kill a day wandering through the grounds of the summer palace, and there are also a dozen Tibetan-style Buddhist temples skirting the edges.

Ironically, summer isn’t the best season to visit, as the resort fills up. Spring or autumn are ideal, and the compound can be just as beautiful in winter. Bring a picnic to eat inside the resort, where the food is overpriced, and stay at the Qiwanglou hotel right next door. For dinner, sample cuisines from all over China at Xin Qianlong, named for the Qianlong emperor who helped to build the complex.

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