This weekend we left damp, chilly Ningbo for the dry cold of Beijing, specifically for an extraordinary complex of Modernist buildings making up the 5 star hotel called Commune by the Wall, about 60 kms north of the city. This was a business trip for Fintan, as he had been asked to be a guest at a gathering of UNNC alumni and to say a few words at their ‘Christmas’ party. Trailing spouse went along for the ride.
Our journey time was somewhat extended due to Friday night Beijing traffic – it was solid on the 5th ring road and it took 2.5 hours to get to our destination. Still, compensation for me was that I could read some of the characters on the road signs – including 5th ring road! Our taxi driver was a woman who seemed to drive in a relatively orderly fashion – not too much lane jumping, no aggression and only talking on her mobile phone about 30% of the time. Lorries are only allowed to travel at night which meant that we met a kind of slow lorry rally on the express way section that climbs up towards the Great Wall – nose to tail HGVs on their way to deliver goods out of the capital.
Calling the complex ‘Commune’ is somewhat ironic. This is the name Mao gave to the huge collective enterprises he forced on the entire rural population in the 1950s in order to modernise agriculture and get rural industry up and running in a policy known as ‘walking with two legs’. The result was famine and 30 million deaths. I wonder why SOHO, the property development company that owns the complex chose it. Post-modern irony? Ignorance? Idealism? The star on the logo seems to be part of the current Mao nostalgia we see around, with reprints of posters and the Little Red Book.
Commune by the Wall http://www.communebythegreatwall.com/en is as far away as possible as it is to get from a communist collective farm. It is a group of luxuriously appointed villas in a remote valley at the foot of the Great Wall, designed by various Asian architects. Mies van de Rohe meets Frank Lloyd Wright meets China – especially in terms of the materials used. I thought the most beautiful villas were those covered in screens of giant bamboo stems. Visitors can rent whole houses or just rooms and the Alumni association rented red-painted Cantilever House 3 for their party. About 40 young people made the journey from Beijing to meet their fellow grads, generally reminisce and have a good time. Some stayed all night to watch dawn over the Great Wall, which is visible across the valley from the complex. I’m afraid to say we went to bed rather earlier!
We had some interesting conversations with the guests about what they are doing now. Jobs included similtaneous translator, security adviser on terrorism, management consultant and marketing exec. Several were young entrepreneurs, setting up their own companies in Beijing. We chatted to a young man who has set up a travel agency in Ningbo, which specialises in bespoke travel for the newly affluent in China as they get a taste for tourism, but don’t quite know what a tourist does (my description – not his). We hope he’ll be able to help us with trips to Harbin to see the ice sculpture festival and Guilin to visit the limestone gorge.
Commune by the Wall is staffed by a small army of local workers, who are housed in an adjacent village of traditional one storey houses, as we could see when we climbed up on to the wall on Saturday morning. They have been issued with rather fetching full length black duvet coats – very necessary in the bitter cold, but somewhat sinister. It sometimes felt as though we were on a set for a James Bond movie and that we were in danger of being taken in for interrogation. However, a quick ‘Ni hao’ – hello – and the smiles told a different story, along with the very attentive service.
Outdoor activity does not seem to feature very much in Chinese culture. The young people we met were bemused that we had spent time scrambling up a steep snowy path to walk on a deserted section of the Great Wall. Part of the privilege of staying at the Commune was the private access to the Wall – and one we relished, especially when we could see the hundreds of tourists milling on the public section down in the valley at nearby Badeling.
To stand alone on such a famous monument on a beautiful clear winter’s day felt extremely special – even if it is a reconstruction! ‘Our’ section was rough underfoot, and in the shadowy parts filled with deep drifts of snow. We could explore a sentry tower and then walk out on a windswept open platform and look towards the mountains. Looking back, we could see where the reconstruction simply ended, and the rubble of the original wall climbed up into the hills. In ‘Country Driving’, Peter Hessler describes his hunt for the Wall driving westwards towards the desert, and explains how ‘the’ Wall is in fact many fortifications built at different times, sometimes four or five deep. The idea of one Great Wall is a post-Reform invention to boost its fame and tourist potential.
Our journey home to Ningbo was uneventful – although we found the ‘queuing’ for check-in at Beijing airport 50 minutes of pure frustration. Queuing is not a concept recognised in China. Whenever you imagine you are in one, you see a bunch of people arriving on your flank, focused on getting to the front immediately. Today, these included a large family who wanted to check-in 10 boxes of whatever they had been buying in Beijing to take back home. It is at these times that you ruminate on whether you are in a third world country with first world elements, or a first world country with third world remnants. Our experience at the Commune suggested the latter, while our travel experiences are definitely part of the former.