About an hour north of Beijing the lush countryside makes it very easy to forget all the crowds and smog of the capital. The narrow X004 road roughly follows the course of a small river north through the Shentangyu area, north of Huairou. The road is about 15km long and lined with all sorts of bars, restaurants and hotels.
The drive there takes you past huge road and housing construction projects, so the future may not be so quiet, but for now it’s still a relative oasis of calm from city life.
Nearing the Yanxi Nightless Valley resort area there are numerous small villages, but these soon disappear and are replaced by the wood and bamboo resorts. Some look like Swiss chalets, others are curiously Japanese in construction
The most famous of these is the Mountain Bar Resort – a pleasant looking building intended to represent the old town in Lijiang. It’s possible to eat on one of the many terraces and the food is reasonable and hearty, but you do pay extra for the location.
As it turns out, you’re also paying for the reputation. Mountain Bar Resort is popular with tourists and tour groups, as it’s the only resort listed in the guidebooks. As a result, it’s often busy, with the main demographic being foreign and domestic tourists blithely following the instructions of their travel bibles.
The food there is perfectly ok, but nothing special, and the attitude of the staff is particularly poor. It’s a struggle to get them to take your order and an equal struggle to get them to find the bill. The food is glumly dropped down on at the table and on asking to take home leftovers we were pointed towards a pile of fly-covered cardboard boxes and told to box it up ourselves.
The building runs alongside the river and is perfectly pleasant, but poorly maintained. Broken glass and scraps of food are thrown into the river and we sat eating surrounded by piles of dirty tablecloths and boxes of unwashed crockery.
Meanwhile, touts attracted by the busiest resort stood outside the gates shouting and screaming about their rather poor looking wares. Eventually one arrived with a stereo system so loud as to drown out the competition and any chance of conversation.
We left thinking it could have been a decent area to spend a few days in one of the attached cabins, but were completely put off by the complacency of the staff.
A couple of weeks later, with the warm days of autumn drawing to a close and a particularly smoggy day in the city, we decided to give the Nightless Valley another try.
As usual the Mountain Bar Resort was packed so we tried one of the others in the same area. Lotus Thai Bar, as the name suggests, offers Thai food but their real strength is the Chinese barbequed food. Ordering BBQ lamb turned out to be very different from the usual chuan’r – each person gets a leg of lamb, delivered to the table on an individual brazier by a smiling waiter. The perfectly spiced meat falls away from the bone and melts in the mouth.
Ordering was quick and simple, service friendly and leftovers from the huge portions were efficiently packed up and bagged.
Instead of being surrounded by unwashed tablecloths and crockery, we were accompanied by ducks and swans gliding past down on the river, and the only noise to break the peace was lively conversation and the occasional quack from below.
It’s too cold now, but it’s another reason to look forward to spring and summer when we know there’s somewhere else perfect for a daytrip just outside the city. It’s also a reminder that guidebooks are no substitute for a decent recommendation. As with visiting a homestay in Miaoshangcun, those places listed in the guide books seem to become complacent, yet visitors still flock there in droves and leave thinking that they’ve seen the best the area has to offer and found it lacking, which is rather sad.
Both restaurants came to about 200rmb (£20) for 4 people, but the 4 dishes we ordered at the Lotus Thai Bar were generous enough to feed 8 or more, so we had a lot of leftovers for the following day.