Standing beside the famous, and capturing a photo to prove it, is a worldwide phenomenon, but in a ‘guanxi-conscious’ society as China, it seems to me to be certainly more prevalent.
Having one’s photo taken alongside local officials, provincial officials— the higher ranking the better — is seen as some kind of green-light connection that goes beyond the more often than not real reason for the meeting, mere chance.
Generally speaking, the photo’s are treasured because they show the ordinary standing next to the famous. But who knows? Perhaps they are too treasured by the famous, who like to tout themselves standing next to the unknown, as a means of convincing their down-to-earth personalities.
So, last month on a glorious autumn day, as I drove along the Jing-Cheng expressway, the famous and the ordinary brought together was very much at the forefront of my mind. As usual, I was en route to see the famous, the Great Wall. But unusually, I was really focussing on the ordinary beside it. My destination was a new tourist development that lies 120 km northeast of Beijing, marketing itself as ‘Gubeikou Water Town’.
For those of you that are less in the know about Great Wall related goings on that myself, the name ‘Gubeikou Water Town’ has a strange ring to it. For various reasons.
Long time visitors to Gubeikou — and that includes me, who first went there in 1987 — will know that while the town has a trickle of water, it’s nothing remarkable. Like most of North China, surface water is little and far between. When I walked into Gubeikou I took a photo of the Wall snaking away and up the Crouching Tiger Mountain, with the narrow channel of the Chao River in the foreground.
In fact, ‘Gubeikiou Water Town’ is not in Gubeikou — its about 20 km to the east as the crow flies, at what is more widely known as Simatai.
Now, that a name that disappeared off the face of the map in recent years. Until about the year 2010, it was the destination for one of the most popular walks on the Great Wall, starting at Jinshanling and concluding at Simatai.
Then rumours spread that ‘Simatai’ was closed.
Closed? How can a section of the Great Wall be ‘closed’. Moreover, given there was a village called Simatai at the foot of the Wall, how could that be closed?
It was rumoured that ‘Simatai village was being redeveloped”.
To me, as a conservationist with a geographical, historical, archeological and social view of what constitutes ‘The Great Wall’, the news was grim.
In my eyes, the majesty of the Great Wall goes beyond the actual building. but extends to the surrounding land, to include the slopes and valleys, where the materials for the Wall were sourced and made, to the villages. Those, I aways considered, are vital to the continued existence of the Great Wall as a living part of China. For that is where ‘Great Wall people’ live, have lived, and sometimes have lived for a very, very, long time. Their experiences, their knowledge, their way of life, their oral histories, their views are a human — living — part of the Great Wall landscape of China. They keep the Great Wall alive.
I had heard of Simatai’s “redevelopment” and I’d heard of “Gubeikou Water Town”, but I didn’t connect the two — because Simatai is 20km away from Gubeikou.
But I was shortly to see that they were now one and the same place.
The Water Town is a quaint little recreation of a South China town with canals and little houses alongside. Welcome to Gubeikou, the ancient “North” pass that now has a flavour of the south. The developers are obviously expecting large numbers of visitors. the car parks are large, the five star hotel would dwarf most downtown-Beijing hotels, and the ticket office looked more like something you’d expect to see in a city railway station. there was a line of about 25 windows, with all sorts of “packages”. It was on seeing this that I felt the Great Wall was not the star attraction, but just one of many.
It was however the only original one.
For all its loveliness and quaintness and cleanliness, the water town seemed fake to me. Like a clean barn without the animals, straw and dung.
We had a high price ticket that allowed us to approach the Wall by water. We donned life jackets and started to be rowed along a canal. Welcome to Venice I thought.
I was curious to know where our “captain” came from. Simatai perhaps, thinking that the project designers might have had the political correctness to create jobs for the locals. No. this man came from Miyun County Town, about 50 or 60 kms away. There was a ‘work bus’ very day, he said.
Once through the ‘Water Town’ we reached the cable car station. It’s a new, high-speed flight up to the Wall, and there you will find the Wall.
The views remain tremendous, although I have always thought the the best place to appreciate Simatai is when viewing the ridge from afar, from Jinshanling, or the walk between Jinshanling and Simatai.
As I took the cable car down I reminded myself that If I was critical of the development of a southern-style Water town beside the Great Wall I wold be critical of the Qing Emperors who re-created the far so they could be near. They brought their favourite sceneries of the south to the north for pleasure, so why can’t today’s Chinese? They can and they did, but in juxtaposing the two they made the star, the Great Wall, into the background, which is literally behind — although above — the town itself.
Back in the town we enjoyed an excellent lunch, one of the best I’ve had of late, and one of s standard that would be hard to beat in Beijing. but the restaurant was almost empty, as were most of the others that I peered into.
My verdict. If you’re one of the lucky ones who visited Simatai in the “old days”, when you could walk there, have a beer, ‘laobing’, pork and peppers with a farming family in the village, and go back to the big city refreshed by your simple day out, then don’t bother going back. Just keep that good memory.
If you haven’t been to Simatai, then you still have to go. But you just have to accept that you came at the wrong time to a what was once a much better place.