Escape to Beijing's villages06-12 13:51 Caijing
There’s a lot more to Beijing than the smoggy old city centre! Stretch your legs and broaden your horizons with Time Out’s guide to the countryside’s best attractions, complete with tofu feasts, mountain trails and life-extending water.
We’ve given bus routes to all of these villages, but to get the most out of your trip, a car is recommended. Chauffeur-driven cars can be hired from Yongche.com (400 111 1777; Mandarin only; prices around 1,500-3,000RMB depending on village, plus any toll fees), while China Auto Rental (www.zuche.com; 400 616 6666; rental prices vary depending on car) remains China’s biggest car-hire website.
We’ve also used the services of Mr Jack (136 5137 4172; Mandarin only; around 600RMB for all villages, inclusive of tolls) and the laboriously titled Beijing Zhongbeijieheng Limousine Service Company (6507 2731; around 900-1,100RMB, inclusive of tolls) – we found the latter company’s Mr Song to be a very genial driver.
1) English is non-existent in most villages; we’ve provided Mandarin characters to help you get around, but it always helps if you or a friend speak the language.
2) Unlike their American namesakes, China’s ‘village people’ don’t stay at the YMCA. Instead, look for 农家院 signs identifying farmhouse restaurants. These serve home-cooked, locally grown food on request (around 30-40RMB per head), and many also offer lodgings. It should cost around 100-150RMB per night for a private room.
3) Chinese villagers are surprisingly okay with folks popping their heads around courtyard doors – but don’t enter their homes without invitation.
4) The villages are generally very safe, but you will find open wells, steep drops and stray dogs dotted around, so keep an eye on your kids.
Best for historians
Hugged by the mountains of Mentougou district, Lingshui became famous in the days of imperial China for producing an impressive 22 scholars. To this day, the whole village annually celebrates them: on August 6 they will have special performances and on August 7 they will give away ‘scholar congee’ from 8am-noon.
But there’s more to this place than academia. Lingshui’s conjoined Dragon King and Goddess temples ( 龙王庙和娘娘庙) are places of weathered beauty, complemented by a pair of entwined, thousand-year-old trees. The rest of the village is similarly picturesque – so much so that we counted no less than 12 (apparently unconnected) artists on our visit, plus a film crew working on a movie called I Go Crazy for Tai Chi ( 我为太极狂). You’ll also find many farmhouse restaurants (see ‘Village etiquette’) as well as a more conventional but decent eaterie.
You can also find Beijing’s oldest temple, Lingquan (灵泉禅寺), which dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), though little of it has survived other than the main gate; plus ‘One Door Five Scholars’ house ( 一门五举院), a humble home that spawned a quintet of learned men. Three kilometres away you’ll also find Housangyu, a village with a functional-looking, modern Catholic church and a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Be warned, though: this village is nowhere near as appealing as Lingshui.
Look out for Plaques beginning with ‘ 举人’, which indicate homes that have produced scholars.
Getting there Take Line 1 to Pingguoyuan; exit to the west and take the 929支 bus for 35 stops, alighting at Junxiang; take a taxi for the remaining five kilometres. The trip should take around four hours.
Best for explorers
Despite being located behind an ugly quarry pass, Shuiyu is, without a doubt, the most captivatingly lovely of Beijing’s villages. While the east side is peppered with signs of modernity, the west is a gorgeous labyrinth of stone cottages, cobbled alleys and picturesque views that winds its way up the hillside of a splendid valley.
A charming tangle of winding streets and rustling greenery leads past the attractively dishevelled Goddess Temple ( 娘娘庙) and on to Yangjia Dayuan (杨家大院), a rustic Qing Dynasty courtyard house. It’s still occupied, but the residents are happy for visitors to poke around. Keep your eyes open for enthusiastic cultural revolution slogans chalked on old wooden doors as you make your way up to the new viewing deck at the top of the hill, but keep your kids on a tight leash: in times past, coal miners dug small warrens into the hillside and they remain today, albeit covered by a few boards.
That’s not all, though – get to the village committee centre ( 村委会) any time from 8-11am and 2-4pm on any day and you’ll be able to see the village’s women balancing and throwing worryingly enormous poles (pictured right). The village is a must-see without such entertainment. With it? Irresistible.
Look out for The 192 millstones dotted around the place. Count them all!
Getting there Take Line 1 to Babaoshan, then take the 951 bus for 42 stops, getting off at Xinzhen. Take the 47 bus for 11 stops, getting off at Shiti; the village is 300 metres to the northeast. The trip should take around three hours.
Best for kids
In 2009, Diaowo was selected by Beijing’s state media as one of the area’s top villages, and was consequently turned into a first-degree tourist trap. But don’t be discouraged! Resting alongside the beautiful Huangsongyu reservoir, this tiny settlement of just 54 households has a number of worthy attractions, such as Hudongshui (湖洞水), a narrow gorge at the north end of the village (30RMB), that makes for some stunning photographs and features a number of cute curios, including a reconstructed old-style village house.
In the south end of the village, you’ll come across a ‘fun park’ with pedal boats and a (scary-looking) log flume (both 30RMB each). But the real attraction of this area is the geography, and a long walk up one of the stairway-clad mountainsides – access to which costs 60RMB – gives the strong-legged a stunning view of the area’s breathtaking scenery. Kid-wranglers and lazy sorts like us can take a cable car for an extra 25RMB each way.
If you’re tapped out for cash, the banks of the reservoir are free to explore, with families congregating on the rocks on the western side, and angler-filled hidey holes on the east – look for steps running down from the road out of the village. Signs discourage swimming because the water isn’t fresh – this isn’t a river, after all – but we saw plenty of folk wetting their feet. The whole area, however, is thoroughly scenic, so those with cars are encouraged to roam.
Look out for The ‘echo hole’ in Hudongshui, which should provide some noisy fun for the kids.
Getting there Take the 852 from Dongzhimen for 13 stops and get off at Pingguqu Yiyuan (Pinggu Hospital). Change to buses 25, 26 or 38 and wait 17 stops until you arrive at Shilinxia.
Best for healthy food and water
Far away in the mountains of Miyun district is the sleepy little village of Zhuanshanzi; untouched by commercial pressures, it’s packed with a rural charm that could calm even the most frenetic urban spirit. This unspoiled village may not have caves and temples, but it does have a magic of its own – possibly literally.
If you’re going by car, take time to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of Miyun reservoir on the way over; it’s the biggest of its kind in Beijing. Zhuanshanzi has a cute, fish-filled reservoir (水库) of its own, but the real appeal comes from its ‘long life’ spring water, which feeds the whole village and is filtered through maifan stones that supposedly fill it with life-giving properties.
Certainly, most of the people we met there were active oldsters, including one pensioner who hefted heavy pails of water on his shoulders as he walked uphill. At the local water plant ( 水厂) you can buy an 18.9 litre water-cooler tank full of life-giving goodness for 33RMB, or fill your own for 5RMB, then feast on the best village food we’ve tasted at the restaurant next door; you can also buy maifan stones for 10RMB per jar.
Organic chicken eggs, costing around 15RMB per jin, can be bought from some courtyards: look for signs reading 柴鸡蛋. And from mid-September onwards, pears are available for picking, at 3RMB per jin, in the neighbouring village of Huangtukan.
Look out for Entire maifan rocks up in the mountains; long life is yours for the taking!
Getting there Take the 980 快 bus from Dongzhimen for six stops, changing at Miyun Xidaqiao to 19 支; wait for 24 stops and alight at Bulaotun, then take a car to the village, eight kilometres on; the trip should take around five hours.
Best for archaeologists
Think Beijing lacks its share of mysteries and labyrinths? Think again. Up in the mountains of Yanqing district is something that even Indiana Jones would puzzle over: Guyaju (40RMB) is an abandoned mountain village of unknown origin that is rumoured to have once been occupied by dwarves. The main cliff face, accessible via often steep and uneven stone stairs, is completely open for exploration, with deep black doorways leading to spacious – and pleasingly cool – ‘apartments’, some of which have as many as three rooms.
Wander and scramble where courage (and the path) takes you, and let your inner archeologist go wild. While many of the higher caverns are cordoned off, there’s still plenty to see here, including a stunning panorama that takes in the mountains, the Guanting reservoir, and curiously, a cardboard-looking villa complex called Jackson Hole.
And you couldn’t miss Jackson Hole if you tried. Pop in on your way out from Guyaju and you’ll find yourself in a half-built Wild West town, with saluting cowboy guards and a mini Route 66. If you fancy staying there, call 6235 9966; hotel rooms cost 680RMB per night, one-bedroom villas go for 2,180RMB per night, and if you’re thinking about buying, you can stay over for free. Not that there’s a lot to do there at the minute…
Look out for The lizards, ants, bees and assorted creepy-crawlies that zip around the cliff face.
Getting there Take the 919 from Deshengmen for nine stops, transferring at Yanqing Dongguan to the 920; wait 34 stops before getting off at Dongmenying. Guyaju is then two kilometres to the northeast, so taking a taxi may be advisable. The trip should take around four and a half hours.Best for historical exploration
If the steady footfall of monotonous city life has you itching to tackle some less steady terrain, Jiuyuan has the answer. Follow in the footsteps of long-gone merchants as you tread the cobblestones of Beijing’s ‘Ancient Road to the West’ (京西古道), which weaves its way out of the village across the mountainside. Let your imagination take reign as you envisage travelling on camel-back across the stunning countryside – and if you’re struggling to find that feeling, clay statues of men astride the humped beasts are on hand to help.
Back at the village, soak up some old Chinese culture at the cute siheyuan residence of one of China’s great Yuan Dynasty playwrights, Ma Zhiyuan (马致远故居). Now a Mandarin-only museum (10RMB), it houses a small but intriguing display of art, calligraphy and furniture from the village. If hunger strikes, refuel with grub from one of the farmhouse restaurants (see ‘Village etiquette’ for information on how to identify them). The cherry orchards are open for picking in late May, while white pears are available from October.
Finally, take a right-turn towards the railway track when driving out of the village and you’ll find a large cave that once served as a hiding place for villagers during the Japanese invasion. Just remember to bring a torch!
Look out for The free spring water that bubbles out of pipes around the village. They might not look too glamorous but we can attest to the water’s fresh taste!
Getting there Take Line 1 to the west end of Pingguoyuan, then take the 645 or 981 buses for five stops, getting off at Shuangyuhuandaoxi. Take the 929 for 15 stops until Shiguyan; the village is two kilometres to the southeast – a taxi might be a good idea. The trip should take about two and a half hours.
Best for foodies
It’s not hard to find good food in the city centre, but for tasty, home-cooked treats head out to the mountains around Yanqing; there you’ll find Yuhuangmiao, which is famed for its water-tofu. The village is functional, but the area’s clean water makes any 30RMB meal a treat, and the slopes of the nearby hills will give you time to walk it off. Afterwards, move on to the far more pretty Liugou, in which almost every building seems to serve up the village’s trademark ‘tofu feasts’.
The quality is pretty level from place to place, but we found the staff at ‘Restaurant Number 24’ (at the far end of the white buildings, as you enter the village; the numbering ‘system’ is disorganised) to be especially friendly, and their 25-dish feast (featuring everything from quail’s eggs to fried dough as side dishes) was fearsomely filling, costing just 100RMB for a table of up to three, or 26RMB per head for four or more.
You’ll find that the newer part of Liugou – those white buildings at the entrance – is a little bit sterile, so head into the older half of the village ( 柳沟的古城区) to find quaint housing, yet more mini-restaurants, a seemingly endless supply of genial donkeys and a country lane that winds off into the scenic hills behind the village.
Look out for The courtyard – its gate is topped with a Communist star – that is home to a small farm’s worth of (extremely noisy) animals.
Getting there Skip straight to Liugou: take the 919 bus from Deshengmen for 11 stops, transferring at Shiheying to buses seven or eight; after 14 stops, alight at Liugou’s entrance. This should take around four and a half hours.
Beijing’s countryside has a lot more to offer – here are just a few highlights:
You might have checked out Longqing Gorge’s rather spectacular, Harbin-esque ice show last winter, but, for our money, the area doesn’t really come alive until the summer, when the trees flush with green leaves and the water sparkles; it’s genuinely breathtaking. To get there, take the S2 train from Beijing North Railway Station to Yanqing Station, then take either bus 920 or 875.
If you’d rather have your greenery accompanied by neon lights and loud music, check out Forest Magic 2, a night of psytrance tunes and eco-friendly fun in the lush surroundings of Shentangyu, ‘The Valley of the Gods’. It starts on Sat 16, entry costs 200RMB and there are only 150 tickets available; see Nightlife listings for more info. Also on the out-of-town event tip, G-Dot Art Space in dusty old Songzhuang art district will host Do Not Erase , a dazzling graffiti art show running from Jun 16 to Aug 15. See Art listings for more info.
A slightly more chilled time can be had at the ostentatiously titled
Xiaotangshan Bamboo Forest (Longmai) Thermal Springs in Xiaotangshan. Somewhat
overshadowing the other, no-frills hot springs available in the village, it does
indeed have a ‘bamboo grove’, as well as private and public spas and plenty of
areas for children to splash. Massages vary but start at 128RMB for 45 minutes;
we favour the traditional massage technique performed by a lao zhong yi , or
‘old Chinese medicine doctor’, but be warned: the process hurts.
James Wilkinson and Yuan Ren
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