Thursday, April 4, 2019

China memories, part 5 : Gubei Water Town

I'm not sure where I first heard about Gubei Water Town -- a re-created village built near a section of the Great Wall, and filled with restaurants, shops, historical experiences, hot springs, and beautiful architecture. Think Epcot, but focused on China and built around canals. Oh, and THE GREAT WALL.

The pictures looked so marvelous that we decided to arrange to spend the day of our actual anniversary there, so we booked one night in one of the inns in the village and got excited!

We picked up some snacks in our hood -- dumplings, sesame breads, sodas, crisps -- and then took the subway to Dongzhimen station and followed the directions (so helpful!) to find the bus where it was parked. It was easy to spot -- but had it not been there yet we would have wondered whether we had followed the directions correctly. We climbed aboard to wait the 30 minutes for the bus to depart. A French backpacker rushed on board and breathlessly said, "This bus was hard to find, huh?" 

The bus filled up nicely -- interesting mix of locals and a few foreign tourists. And the bus left right on time. 

When we arrived, we got off the bus and dropped our bag at the luggage service office. This was super easy, and meant we didn't have to carry it around as we explored the village. Okay, sure, we were wondering if we would ever see the bag again... but we did. 

We crossed the bridge and followed the signs to the visitor center -- a building built on a grand scale, and clearly designed to hold a huge number of people. But, at this point, nearly empty. 

At the visitor center we checked in, put down a deposit (why? who knows), and bought a ticket to the village. See, Gubei Water Town is a closed resort, and the hotels are inside it. Some people just come in day trips and pay more, and some people stay in the fancier hotels and pay less, but we paid 80rmb each. 

While getting settled we were distracted by the shiny glow of the HOLIDAY DRINKS at Starbucks... which I wouldn't ever drink at home, but find irresistible here. My "Snowy Cheese Latte" had blue sprinkles and puffed rice stars on top; Wil's Christmas Dessert Latte had chocolatey things on top ... but both tasted identical. We figured out later that "Snowy Cheese" = "cheesecake". 

We had been given tickets for a shuttle bus because our hotel is "far" -- so we got into a stretch golf cart sort of thing and were dropped off at the far end of the park, but with no idea how to get to the hotel. Somehow, neither of us could spot it on the map, and we wandered around, a little lost, until I accidentally noticed that we were right around the corner. 

Getting warmer...

Hmm... go left here...

Found it!

We popped in and were told our room wasn't ready -- thanks to the magic of translation apps, the desk clerk said something into her phone, then showed me the translated text: "You and your room are not ready". 

Then we were free to wander -- all the while we were admiring the beauty of the place -- really picturesque -- and weirdly empty. It's clearly designed for much larger crowds in the summer!

As we wandered we passed a sign reading WILLIAM BAR, so of course we had to stop for gin and tonics. It's tradition. And medicinal. 

Then to the SIMA distillery, where they actually distill the white spirit. 

They offered small tastes -- god awful stuff -- but we bought a souvenir bottle anyway because, well, because. There was a little adjacent space with food -- turns out the "interactive experience" was that one could learn how to cook with the liquor. Ohhh.

There are three versions in these jars. All tasted like sweet fire. But perhaps we didn't have "lovesickness" to be relieved?

Then to the Dye House, a big educational display, with stinky vats of dye bubbling away, and a DIY area where you could make your own tie-dye. 

More wandering around gift shops and displays -- one of goldfish, one of letters, etc. 

At some point we had hawthorn ice cream -- "Old Beijing Flavor" -- pale pink soft serve in a black wafer cone. Very stylish. 

After 3 we checked in to the hotel and were taken to our beautiful room -- complete with a balcony -- WITH A VIEW OF THE WALL

We had neighbors, but never saw them on their balcony.

Comfortable bed, nice linens.

and a welcome tray of tea, oranges, and nuts.

Thrilled with our luck, we headed back into the village to visit a temple where we one could buy small wooden prayer / wish cards to hang on the trees...

... watched a performance by strongmen bending steel spears against their necks ... 

... watched a bit of traditional Beijing opera on the central stage in the massive, empty plaza ...

... while admiring the small chipmunky signs on the benches.

For the most part, however, we just wandered around and admired how pretty it all was. 

Oh, and the weird chipmunk / squirrel mascot dotted here and there around the park. I do wish they had a furry mascot walking around ... but maybe in the high season. 

As the lights came on, the the village got even prettier:

This stretch of the Wall -- Simatai -- is the only stretch that is lit up at night, so it looks beautiful up on the hill. 

As it got darker, we decided to take the cablecar up to the Wall at night.

The part that was open at night was pretty limited, but it was still beautiful -- and very, very cold!

From the top we could see the lights of village below -- really beautiful -- and an early run of the light show (about which more later). 

We rode the cablecar down and spent more time in the village, admiring the really wonderful sound and light show projected on the temple... seriously, this is fantastic:

Not my video -- but this is the show we saw:

Gubei Water Town is also famous for its hot springs, and our stay entitled us to visit one. We didn't know which one to choose, or even what to expect, so we chose a big one up on the hill and trusted that it was A) co-ed and B) a swimsuit-ed space. (Both things turned out to be true.) The hot spring pools were all inside -- probably fair enough, given that it was very cold outside! But there were lots of pools of different sizes and temperatures, and we dipped in and out of them.

After our hot spring we attempted to find dinner -- with little success. We thought the restaurants would mainly be near the main plaza, so after trying a few (oh, you specialize in beef tripe? No thank you!) we gave up and had a pizza before the restaurant closed at 8pm. It was only later, walking through the village, that we realized that the restaurants were all near the hotels, and that some of them would stay open until 2am!

But we enjoyed walking around the village and then sitting on our balcony looking at the lights.

In the morning we had breakfast in our inn, where the nice young boy asked to take a selfie with me -- clearly they don't see a lot of foreign tourists! Then we headed back up to the wall to enjoy Simatai on a gorgeous autumn day. We could have hiked up, sure .... but we took the cablecar instead. Ha!

Hike? Nah. Cablecar!

The path from the cablecar station to the wall is lovely, with lots of wish cards in the trees

And this is a particularly lovely stretch of Wall:

Back down in the village we wandered around some more, taking endless photos ...

... soaking our feet in a little hot spring fountain ...

... and waiting to buy poached pears, which are apparently the signature snack of Gubei Water Town. Amusing: they weren't quite ready; we asked the vendor when and her translation app came back with "at half past eleven you will ace the test". Okay then!

Then it was time to make our way back to the park entrance, pick up our bag from luggage service, and wait for the bus. We weren't quite sure where to pick up the bus, but a security guard noticed our confusion and showed us where to wait. Others joined us -- each saying "Dongzhimen?" as they walked up, and all of us nodding back.

The bus out had been a plush tour bus; the bus back to Dongzhimen was a repurposed city bus ... but fine. Amusingly they didn't seem to have the "right" ticket book, so in return for our 48rmb fare, we each received 48 individual bus tickets back. Why, yes, I *do* have them still...

Gubei was a weird trip, but wonderful -- and the perfect indulgent place to spend our 13th anniversary! Beautiful architecture? Check. Picturesque village? Check. Furry mascot? Check. GREAT WALL OF CHINA? Check. Sound and light show? Check. Hot springs? Check. Lovely hotel? Check.

Read part 6, Beijing bustle

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