A Weekend Excursion: 古北水镇

Like a true local, I haven’t done much sightseeing yet. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, but that changed this weekend. I’ve been trying to catch up with a friend of mine in Beijing for almost a month and we hadn’t managed to do so. He probably felt guilty about that because this week he WeChatted me that he had to go to a corporate retreat this weekend and whether I wanted to come along. That way we could catch up during the 2+ hour ride to the resort and while at the resort I would join him and his team for dinner but otherwise I would be on my own with my own hotel room while they had their gathering.

The resort was in 古北水镇 (gǔběi shuǐ zhèn) a restored city in the shadow of the Great Wall. 古北水镇 means ancient north water town and that’s exactly what it was. It’s kind of like a small rural Venice and it was the garrison town for the north gate of the road leading into Beijing. Today it’s a busy tourist and very picturesque city.

My friend picked me up with a few of his colleagues from my apartment and we first went to an authentic and very good 包子 restaurant near the Bell and Drum Towers. 包子 (bāo zi) are small steamed bread/dumplings with a savory or sweet filling. This particular place was apparently visited by the current US president, Biden, years before and my friend’s colleagues insisted I saw those pictures whether I wanted to or not. This was in contrast with the place itself, I didn’t see any memorabilia. They clearly didn’t care. The place was very busy and frequented by people of all ranks. I saw someone who looked like a government official, pensioners, tourists, parents, etc. The ordering process was also very hectic and I heard the waiters shout 快了(quick) many times. I was glad others were doing the ordering for me. 

Getting brunch at a very popular 包子 place.

Like most Chinese, they order way more food than I could handle even though I had skipped breakfast. The food, the buns and a cup of gelatinous organ soup, was all very good and typical common fair. In China, like most other parts of the world, they use every piece of protein they can get, and they aren’t afraid to eat liver, tripe and other interesting pieces of the animal.

Too much food as usual. Organ soup, tripe and 16 包子.

After brunch we had an uneventful trip to 古北水镇. Around Beijing the area is mostly flat and filled with industry and office buildings. Eventually the scenery changed, and we got into the mountains. The mountains around Beijing are sharp and jagged which probably means they are, geologically speaking, relatively young. It does make them very distinct and recognizable. 

The hotel in 古北水镇 was large and very modern. Despite the fact that the signs were in English, no one seemed to understand English so I had to get by with my pigeon Chinese and the help from my friend. After checking in, my friend and his colleagues went off to their meetings and I started to explore the town. 

古北水镇 is a collection of small villages that are all built in the traditional Qing dynasty (1644-1911) style architecture and have been rebuilt/restored beautifully. Apparently, a developer took over the place a little more than 10 years ago and turned it into an historical amusement park.  You have to pay a fee to get into the park. In my case that was included in the hotel package. Once you are through the gate, which uses facial recognition, you are greeted by a collection of small islands that are all connected by typical Chinese foot bridges. Some of the individual islands have city walls and ramparts while others have houses that go all the way to the water line. Inside the houses are small stores, restaurants and even a distillery that produces the local wine.

A view from one of the villages in 古北水镇 and you can see the Great Wall on the top of the rim.
Some villages have their own walls and ramparts.
Bridges are connecting the various islands.
They produce their local wine that is left outside to ferment.

At the end of the village there is a cable cart that goes up to the great wall. This is the Simatai section of the great wall. Unlike the other great wall sections that are publicly accessible, here they focused on reinforcing the wall while leaving the original look and feel intact. During my afternoon walk through the village I was too exhausted to go up to the wall. It was hot and I noticed I got a mild sun burn. However, after dinner the whole group decided to go up for the night view and I joined them. This is the only section of the Great Wall that’s open at night and the visit was quite spectacular. We took the cable cart up the mountain, followed by an up and down mile long (approx.) hike along the rim with gorgeous views of the hazy valley below.

A view of the Great Wall following the rim of the mountains.

At the end of the hike, we ended up on top of the wall. I’ve been to the Great Wall before but this one felt more authentic. It had uneven footsteps that were more difficult to navigate because it was dark, and the steps are clearly not built for large European feet. Still, it’s well worth the experience and I can highly recommend it.

On top of the Great Wall at night.

Before the evening wall climb, I had dinner with my friend and his colleagues. Chinese dinners are always a sight to behold and so are the Chinese restaurants that cater to them. The restaurants typically have a common area and many side rooms of varying sizes that can accommodate groups and provide you with privacy. Each room has a single large round dinner table with a lazy Susan on top. The larger rooms (ours) even have their own toilet(s) and seating area where folks gather until dinner starts. 

We are getting ready for a Chinese dinner.

Dinner starts with appetizers that are placed on the lazy Susan, which in this case rotated by itself. The effect is that every dish passed by every dinner guest, and you grab what you like. Sometimes you are given two pairs of chopsticks, one for taking food, one for eating, but in this case, we were only given one pair for both functions. I prefer that because it’s quite a hassle changing chopsticks all the time, especially when the alcohol starts flowing and you forget the etiquette.

Alcohol tends to flow royally during these kinds of Chinese dinners. Especially 白酒 (bái jiǔ) which is a strong liquor (35-60%) and it’s distilled from fermented sorghum. The good ones have a nice floral taste while the cheaper stuff tastes like cleaning fluid (in my opinion). 

At this party it was no different. When the other dinner guests came walking in, they unpacked the 白酒 they brought for the occasion. They had brought different kinds, a Beijing brand whose name I forgot, the famous Moutai and then a government brand that was very special. They started off with the cheaper stuff and progressed to the better stuff as the night grew longer.

A very special government 白酒. Not quite sure what that meant but it was good.

There is a fascinating toasting culture in China. 白酒 is served in small glasses that fit about the size of a thimble worth of liquid. You don’t really drink it alone, you always toast with others. Either with the whole team or with individuals. The evening typically starts off with a group toast by the most senior person at the table. In this case my friend, who had joined the company about 2 months before as the SVP of sales, started with the group toast. Then it became a free for all where every 5 minutes or so someone or a group of people would stand up and toast someone else at the table. My friend received the brunt of it because everyone wanted to introduce themselves. I got a decent amount of toasts too because I was sitting next to my friend and everyone wanted to test the 老外 (lǎo wài) for his drinking ability. Fortunately, I can hold my liquor and I stood my ground.

On the topic of toasting, there is a fascinating ritual where your status is conveyed in the way you touch someone’s glass. If you are toasting with someone who is senior to you, or you want to show your respect, then the rim of your glass has to touch the middle of their glass. If you are of equal social standing, then the two rims touch. If you are senior tot them then they have to touch the middle of your glass. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that feuds or even wars broke out over incorrect toast etiquette.

The dinner and toasts last for about 2-3 hours. All the while food is served. After the appetizer you typically get soup, followed by more and more lavish dishes, until fruit arrives. That is the last dish and a signal that the dinner is over. At that point the head of the table makes one final toast and then everyone departs.

One thought on “A Weekend Excursion: 古北水镇

  1. Leendert.. long time… These are nice blog posts.. keep em coming. I particularly enjoy the more “daily life” types as it gives a better sense of the culture and your perspective on it.


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