Since the weather has warmed up a bit in Beijing, we decided to join a few other teachers on a FCN trip to Gubei Watertown. This town borders a portion of the Great Wall and is almost 400 years old! The old stone streets and rivers cutting through the town adds to its seemingly ancient charm. Gubei Watertown is an extremely popular destination for Chinese locals and this busy Labor Day Holiday weekend was no exception! The streets were packed and the stores were all open!
This was another trip offered through FCN China (Foreigner China), we were just lucky enough that a few other Kaiwen teachers and their spouses were able to join us! We paid 240 rmb ($34) per person with the group discount and it included the entrance fee. We left Beijing around 9:00am prepared for the 2 hour drive northeast of the city. However, it ended up being almost double that time due to the holiday traffic. We showed up to Gubei Watertown around 12:45pm, but we weren’t too concerned because the trip was scheduled to leave at 7:50pm. That still left plenty of time to explore Gubei and see all the sights! The first look of the town was gorgeous! You could see the rooftops of the town with the mountain towering just behind it. The top of the mountain was lined with the Simatai Wall on its spine. We followed a tall wall near a river and made our way through the group entrance to show our passports and get our temperatures taken. I had not been told much about the town beforehand, so I quickly realized that this tourist attraction had many modern amenities including a Starbucks and hotel. Once we got through the entrance, it felt as if we were immediately transported to another time.
With no instruction but to be back in the parking lot by 7:50pm, our little group didn’t really know where to start. The boats were right near the entrance, so we decided to start with a boat ride! The boats were traditional 6-person boats that were rowed by a single person. The boat would take us all the way to the end near the hot springs and then we could walk back up to the front. When we go to pay, I was blown away by how expensive it was! For the three of us, it was 360 rmb ($51). I thought that price was a little more than exorbitant. But when our 7-person group had to split, my family ended up with a private boat ride that met all expectations! The next 20 minutes were spent traveling around Gubei by boat and taking in all sides of the town. Our little boat sailed under beautiful bridges and showed us a closer view of the Great Wall. Since the day was hot, the breeze off the water was really nice and a great way to spend the hottest part of the day. Our rower must have gotten tired after such a long way because by the time we got to the end, our friends in the other boat had already gotten off and began taking pictures!
The dock we landed on was the closest point to the Great Wall we came that day, which was still quite a ways up. There were cable cars like the ones we rode on in Fragrant Hills. Honestly, if we hadn’t shown up so late, I would have wanted a chance to hike a bit of this wall. But there were separate fees to climb the wall and use the cable cars, so I wasn’t too brokenhearted over it. We still had no idea where to go, so we just began to wander the streets in an attempt to find the hot springs where you can take a foot bath. The streets were beautiful and narrow, with vines climbing up the stoned walls. Bridges crossed over little and large rivers which gave the town a medieval feel. Unlike past trips this year, there were people everywhere! Believe it or not, it was almost a comfort to see all of these masked faces after the pandemic. There was almost a sense of normalcy as I saw families running around making the most of their Labor Day holiday. One of the best parts was that many of the girls were dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and makeup. It was one of the services offered at the town and these families were taking full advantage of the picturesque location. There were little photo shoots going on all over the place! I even asked one girl for a picture and she was happy to pose for me!
We finally found the hot springs where you could dip your tired feet in. I was thinking about it, but I chickened out when I saw how many tootsies were already getting in there. Plus, the smell wasn’t great. We were getting hungry, so we headed in the direction of the good smells! We came upon the food street where all of the snacks were! They had delicacies like ice cream, lamb bone soup, pork stuffed buns, and other great treats. But the lines were already long and we wanted a sit-down restaurant to try to get out of the sun, so we headed to a restaurant that sounded great called Double Double. It took a little while to find it, but the seating on the patio off the river was great. We had trouble ordering the food because the menu was all written in Chinese. We eventually ordered and I thought I was getting chicken chops (a rough translation). Our order arrives and we discover we all got these TINY little bits of chicken or beef on skewers. They were seasoned well with Chinese spices, but the size was incredibly underwhelming. We were actually pulling out our own snacks brought from home to help satiate our hunger. Eventually we got on our way to find something else to eat.
Calvin and I found some couscous-breaded fried chicken for 10 rmb from the Lotus Lounge. It was delicious and portable. We continued on to Main Street which had a lot of specialty shops that were so cute! There was a silver jewelry shop, a music box shop, etc. We had a lot of fun walking through the shops and seeing all of the fun things they had to offer. But I was on a mission. I had already seen a few kids walking around with a few Chinese kites and that was where I wanted to go! We finally found it near the end of the street and marked with giant winged kites. We went in and were dazzled by the ornate and colorful kites. The covered the walls and hung from the ceiling beautifully. They even had the option to pick and paint your own, but we didn’t have that kind of time and I am not creative. I decided to buy one because the prices were so reasonable and picked a pink and glittery beta fish and traditional wooden spool. They offered to put it together for me because I had no idea if we would be able to do it by the time we got home. I found out just moments later that it wasn’t a good idea considering the crowded streets, but oh well! I was happy and that was all that mattered!
Not far from the Main Street was the dye house, where they still dye clothes and can help you create your own dyed works. It was definitely one of the most picturesque areas with the freshly-dyed cloth hanging in the breeze. The entrance was on the first floor, but you could walk up the stairs to the second and see the view. It was great and worth seeing! Apparently I wasn’t the only one that thought so, because there was a full-blown professional photo shoot going on up there! There was a model hanging on the drying poles and taking photos. We took a few moments to watch the scene as she was taking direction from her photographer. Eventually we took a bunch of photos and then headed out for some pizza. I know, a full day of eating was had by all because I even skipped the ice cream part! Haha. As we were eating, we got messages from our FCN guide telling us that we needed to start getting in line for the Music Fountain Show. I was surprised because there was still over an hour before the 7:00pm show was supposed to begin! Our guide explained that there were only 200 spots and there were usually crazy long lines, so we headed for the show!
We got in line for the Music Fountain show 45 minutes early and was shocked to see the line was so long! But it got moving pretty quickly so I thought it would all be ok. Then the show began before 7:00!…and we were all outside in line still. I thought we missed it but I was assured that there would be several shows and that we would be in the next one. We were a little far off, but we could hear the music and see water and flames shooting into the air! I turned around so that some of the show would still be a surprise. Eventually, it was our turn to file in. We were the last ones allowed in the area and we tried to squish in as fast as possible. A few annoyed locals pointed to painted circles on the floor and made it apparent that everyone was supposed to stand on a circle to avoid overcrowding. We hunted and found a few spots towards the center a few rows back. The show began and it was beautiful. But I have seen the fountains shows at Disneyland, so it wasn’t all that amazing in comparison. When it finally ended, people were a little disappointed. That probably had to do with the fact that it wasn’t the same show that was shown before us, no flames or nothing. On our way out, we saw Smaug! As in, the dragon from The Hobbit! It was only his head, but it was good enough for us.
With only 45 minutes to get back to the bus and a 30-minute walk to the parking lot, we had no more time to waste! Because we took the boat to get in, we weren’t familiar with how to get back and got a little lost. It didn’t help that the sun went down and all of the lights made the town look amazing…basically forcing me to stop over and over again for pictures. Even the Great Wall was lit up on the spine of the mountain and it looked amazing in the dark! There were also children carrying around their light-up lanterns that you could purchase and it just added to the feeling we were were in the past. We continued on in the dark and eventually made it back to the bus. By the end of our day, we had walked about 5 miles. I was tired, but didn’t sleep at all on the ride home because I was so pumped from our great day. With no traffic, the bus got home in less than 2 hours. We saw so much in Gubei, but we didn’t even get to do MOST OF THE THINGS there were to do! We didn’t go on the wall, visit the Pagoda, see the martial arts show, go by the temple, or visit the Confucius school. This has been one of my favorite places to visit in China and it was even better because we had friends to enjoy it with. I really hope that we have a chance to come again and see everything else!