The Ruins of Guyaju (And the Future Ruins of Jackson Hole, Beijing)

Guyaju, China, Beijing, Travel, Tourism, Photography

That’s me! My awesome beautiful girlfriend took the picture from a rocky lookout point about half a klick away by foot.

Dongmenying village, a part of Zhangshanying town, lies in northwestern Yanqing County, one of Beijing’s 16 administrative districts. And once you’ve waded through the confusing strata of prefectural and subprefectural nomenclature, and have conquered the incomplete or deficient maps, and have pushed on in the face of wrong turns and vague directions – once all that is done and you arrive in Dongmenying village you will find just beyond its drowsy outskirts the ruins at Guyaju, China’s largest network of ancient cave dwellings, which I will address shortly. But First:

It is not, in fact, as difficult to find the cave complex as I’ve colorfully exaggerated, provided of course one is armed with a friendly, knowledgeable driver from Beijing, and are in the company of people who speak Mandarin with conversational proficiency. Meet those two prerequisites and the caves can be reached from the city center within two hours. There are several straightforward alternatives, it’s not all ordeal, but some of you enjoy ordeal and self-discovery of routes and locations and transportational methods, so the easy ways are at the bottom.

And now the relics:

The ruins at Guyaju are truly fascinating. 170 caves and more than 350 rooms make up this 1000 year old community and although they’ve been uninhabited for centuries the structures are extremely well preserved. The two-story buildings are connected by carved stairs and steps, and presumably by ladders at some point, which could’ve been withdrawn to delay anyone looking for free livestock and women (that last thing, about the ladders, is an assumption and not historically proven, it would’ve made a lot of sense though right? and probably a great setting for an epic battle scene in a subtitled Chinese film).

Other features that make total sense: differentiated rooms for livestock, cooking, storage, living, communal events, royal quarters, and religious rituals; drainage and water storage systems; a network of elevated, defensive observation posts carved in what should be impossible locations. Rooms, doors, and windows of varying sizes that open into 100 meters of air.

Guyaju, Ancient caves, china, beijing, travel, photography

Looking up into one of two primary living networks from the main ‘square’, a flat area of rock about 150 meters off the canyon floor. Behind and below-left of the camera is the ‘throne room’, an area with carved columns and 4 alcoves, two above and beside the main dais. This area is large, with rooms and windows and tunnels set at least a hundred feet up in a narrow slot canyon.

These ancients, which some archeologists believe were Xi people escaping raids and banditry during the Liao dynasty, lived a vertical lifestyle, nestled into hand carved warrens high and safe above the waning edge of the North China Plain.

A second exercise in historical supposition: it is easy to imagine the residents of Guyaju cautiously shepherding animals through the narrow enfiladed and defiladed canyon entrance to their village and out onto the spacious grassland a mere 2 kilometers away. Coincidentally, that grassland is in possession of a once broad river that most likely watered their crops, animals, and selves. I say once broad because it’s been diverted and dammed and poured onto industrialized orchards and cornfields so much that it doesn’t really exist anymore.

What else is important to know about Guyaju? It’s 20 kilometers from Badaling, the most Chinese and foreign tourist infested stretch of Great Wall in existence, including any single kilometer or individual site on the primary, secondary, or tertiary walls and other structures.

beijing, Guyaju, Jackson Hole, suburbs, china, travel, photography

Looking out from the highest accessible point at Guyaju. One of the northernmost open spaces of the North China Plain can be seen, as can the ideologically ironic Jackson Hole, Beijing resort. This monster of a vacation home complex will probably demand more water than the region can possibly supply, and appears to be replicating not only the American propensity for residential spread, but the prototypical American disregard for environmental carrying capacity. Also: a firm belief in the impossibility of real estate bubbles. In the foreground is the uppermost slopes of the narrow canyon by which the ruins can be accessed.

Do not go to Badaling (unless you want to see a Nixon-eye view of China circa 1972). Go to Jiankou, which is also close to Guyaju, and camp there and feast your eyes on the unreconstructed grandeur of a hand built rock highway that has laughed and laughed at brutal winters and sweltering summers and wars and a revolution predicated entirely on demolishing evidence of China’s history for something like 2000 years.
China, Longqing Gorge, Travel, Photography, Beijing

A smoggy day at the Gorge, but not smoggy enough to entirely obscure the epic scale and impressively jagged scenery.

Longqing Gorge is a half hour jaunt by car from Guyaju, and despite the fact that it’s now a giant resevoir, it is absolutely spectacular. Go ahead, Google picture search ‘Longqing Gorge’ and see what I mean. I suppose that’s pretty much it for the ruins of Guyaju.

Is it worth your time and more importantly, your money? Yes I say. 200 kuai (32 dollars at current exchange) per person will get you a driver for the whole day who, should you choose your driver wisely (check or for references), be able to navigate anywhere you want to go without getting lost for more than 15 minutes. There are entrance fees at all interesting locations, but they’re marginal, and if you forget food and water, snack and drink stands are ubiquitous throughout what is probably the entirety of China. You will survive as long as you have a few crumpled bits of Chinese currency. A hilarious……..thing is also available for visitation and its barely a half kilometer from the entrance to Guyaju. It is called Jackson Hole, which you might rightly argue exists in America, but now, thanks to the triple marvels of international trade, a status hungry Chinese upper middle class, and a bunch of Americans looking for work abroad because the domestic economy is flatline, there is a new, even cheesier and wasteful attempted replica of Jackson Hole in the scrubland of northern Beijing. I’ll let this Foreign Policy article do the talking:

Wild, Wild East – lots of pictures here illustrating the ridiculous, yet humorous, existence of a symbol so overtly capitalistic right in the heart of the ChiCom empire.

Less cheekily: Guyaju is a pretty incredible place, hewn from granite, hundreds of meters tall, vertigo inducing in some places. It is surrounded by some of the most rugged scenery near Beijing, great hiking, and faultlessly hospitable people who will feed you until coma. There are nearby attractions, and it is an objective fact of the reality we all inhabit that the air out at Guyaju is probably fifteen hundred times cleaner than inner city particulate soup. If you’re in Beijing and you have a day to plan and a day to wander, go see Guyaju and the wall and the gorge. It’ll be fun.

And a final note: check any of the activity schedules on the following sites and you may be able to find a guided tour of the area which will also be conspicuously affordable.

Culture Yard – An esoteric collective of young people who wander all over Beijing and its environs. Very cheap, well organized, lots of different activities all the time.

Beijing Hikers – The best, most organized, oldest, most respected group of outdoors enthusiasts in Beijing. Probably one of the best guided outfits in the capitol city. Always bilingual, accommodating, extraordinarily well organized and probably thousands of trips worth of experience. This group is almost solely devoted to hiking, although occasionally other activities make it to the events lists.

China Culture Center – A bit pricier than the others, but very professional, lots of different activities, they are primarily concerned with your comfort. If you see any trips with Andy that look interesting, take em’, he is an awesome guy.



Beijing, from my brief experience, is a city going through a massive and, despite appearances, gradual collision of past and present. Steel and glass skyscrapers, monuments to the current economic boom, don’t just dot the skyline, they dominate it, rising in clusters from horizon to horizon. Air within the city, and indeed as far as 50 miles beyond, smells, in the words of a friend, like, “wet rust, barbecue, rotting lemons, and concrete dust.” It also has a leaden aerosol pallor the color of brushed steel, a particulated testament to the growth of manufacturing and personal vehicle ownership, and the wave of modernization which has swept across China over the past 30 years.

Beijing hasn’t devolved entirely into shopping malls and Versace stores though, snaking amongst the feet of modern office and apartment buildings are networks of Old Beijing, alleyway communities called ‘Hutong’ that meander with ever increasing density as one moves closer to the city center. Hutong, while usually lively, are a far cry from the cacophony of car horns and pounding feet of commercial or business districts. Sometimes they’re even shady, which is a blessed thing at 93 degrees fahrenheit. Hutong, fromwhat I’ve gathered thus far, are part of Beijing’s history and character, a traditional way to establish and demarcate communities from the group down to the individual. Major Alleys break down into complexes, accessed via paths, those complexes break down into family domains, which in turn break down into rooms.

Hutong are a social, cultural, and architectural model that provide all kinds of niches, corners, hideaways, and interesting spaces. They are fun, dense, surprising, and wonderful to explore in general. Here’s some pictures:

Chengde, or, The City of Smog and Rain

Chengde streches out along both banks of the Rèhé, bleak, grey, drizzled with sulphuric acid rain and the smoky vapors of Dragon Boat Festival pyrotechnics. Ambling along its tight streets it was clear that the place was unused to lǎowài (foreigners) with no chinese language ability to speak of. While the hills surrounding the narrow river valley lent the ‘small’ city some charm, they were literally invisible for almost the entirety of the trip.