In 1992 the Chinese government built a brand-new walled city for the express purpose of holding meetings with itself. And of playing golf. And of hanging out and participating at banquets and playing tennis and pingpong and swimming and just generally having a good time. Thus Grand Epoch City was born, about 50 kilometers from Beijing.
Yes, this is another dispatch from a land well outside of Europe, but I’ve gotten away with it so many times in the past I assume the editors will not give me too much grief and that I no longer need to bother coming up with some lame justification. It just goes to show that you should never give a writer too much leeway. And once again, I’m horning in on Roy Kesey’s turf, but I’ve bribed him with a fat French dictionary, and it must be admitted that China’s a damn big country … there’s plenty to go around.
Anyway, Grand Epoch City was designed to be roughly a 1/6 model of old Beijing, back when the city still had walls. It contains temples, fountains, winding little hutongs, placid ponds, and a myriad of other amenities … and because all work and no play makes the Chinese government a dull boy, it also contains a 27-hole golf course. The entire thing is surrounded by an enormous wall, modeled of course on the old Beijing city wall. Although I have not definitively verified this, I assume that Grand Epoch City therefore contains the largest walled golf course in the world.
Grand Epoch City is an amazing place, not least because it’s not only big but also pretty much empty. You have to have seen traditional Chinese architecture to appreciate the phenomenal amount of work that went into building so many copies of traditional buildings. Every roof is adorned with ornate sculpture; every building is graced with hand-painted scenes of battle and hunting and courtly life; the expansive ponds are bordered by exquisitely crafted covered walkways and little gazebo thingies (which assumedly have another name than “gazebo thingies”), and bronze statues of mythical monsters with bulging, scaly haunches. Even the sporting facilities boggle the mind: a bowling alley, a swimming pool, table tennis, badminton courts, tennis courts, the biggest climbing wall I’ve ever seen, and more, and all of it indoors. The place cost a fortune, and if it cost no more than that it’s only because labor is so cheap in China. For that matter, there’s no shortage of labor even now, since Grand Epoch City is crawling with waiters and attendants and people in sundry uniforms who serve no apparent purpose. When the government isn’t using it, which is most of the time, all of this opulence is for the benefit of a handful of straggling businesspeople on seminars and city dwellers on larks. The staff seems to outnumber the guests by an order of magnitude.
In any Western country, and in the United States in particular, anything requiring this level of investment would be swarming with visitors. It never would have been built unless it could provide a reasonable return on investment and that would have meant two-hour lines to use the indoor archery range. Profit, though, was not on the list of priorities of those who built Grand Epoch City. It’s as though Disneyland were built for the sole benefit of Congress and then opened to the public as an afterthought yet never actively promoted.
Grand Epoch City boasts a number of hotels, with nice spacious rooms and big-screen TVs that carry no English-speaking channels beyond CNN and BBC News. For that matter, there are very few English-speaking staff members. There may be none; in six days, I certainly didn’t run across any. You also shouldn’t expect to find all the perks you’ve grown to love in comparable hotels, such as room service. I arrived in Grand Epoch City with a bad cold and somehow explained that I wasn’t going out to one of the many restaurants but would like some soup in my room. This represented a problem for them, but they managed to send by a pleasant young man bearing a bowl of soup big enough to bathe a baby in. I had a little of it, then spent three days trying to explain that there was a bucket of festering noodles in my room and I would greatly appreciate it if someone were to come and take it away. The maid who cleaned my room just ignored it, despite the colony of fungus and the vague stirrings on the surface caused by the rapidly evolving life forms within. Eventually, I got a bilingual Chinese friend to convince them that I had not in fact grown attached to the noodles and that I wanted them destroyed.
Other amenities are likewise lacking. On one memorable morning, for example, there was no water in my room. I was told this was because it was International Water Day. This turned out to be true. However, it would seem that in Grand Epoch City, International Water Day was only observed on the seventh and eighth floors of the main hotel. And only until 6 o’clock (for which I was grateful).
On the other hand, not even the fanciest hotels in Beijing offer a formal gate-opening ceremony. Every day at 9 a.m. there is a big show outside the main gate of Grand Epoch City. This is meant to reproduce the traditional ceremony during the Qing dynasty by which the Beijing city gates were opened every morning. Apparently, 18th-century Beijing greeted the dawn with horsemen, dancers, soldiers, and electric golf carts clustering under impressive city gates while a loud sound system blared unsteady music from behind a large sign. But I’m unkind—it is rather impressive, and the costumes are nice.
The gate-opening ceremony is followed by troops of traditional dancers. Now these are interesting. First, there is a dance that was formerly only performed within the Forbidden City during Qing times, consisting of women on weird shoes (imagine high heels in the middle of the sole) and men wearing martial-looking costumes. The women sway and the men jump around a lot, all accompanied by musicians playing: flute-things that sound like complicated kazoos; a really big drum; and two sets of cymbals, one big and one small (“CRASH!” and “ting!”). This is followed by stilt dancers. If the enticement of indoor archery and festering noodles doesn’t get you out to Grand Epoch City, it may be worthwhile if only for the stilt dancers. This is a traditional thing during the spring festival, but in Grand Epoch City they perform every day. I never would have thought it possible to do what they do. Namely, they run around on meter-high stilts and engage in acrobatics that I find impressive even for people who have nothing higher than sneakers on their feet. This includes things like forward flips, handsprings, and human pyramids, all with stilts. This too is accompanied by the kazoo/drum/cymbal corps. There are also traditional Chinese clowns on stilts, wearing green clothes and sporting hideous makeup that makes their grimaces both amusing and vaguely frightening.
There is a museum of Buddhism at Grand Epoch City, although I didn’t have time to visit it, and it may just have been a garden anyway. There is also a big gray building that looked impressive and different enough for me to ask my bilingual friend about it.
“It’s a temple,” he replied.
“A temple of what?”
“Karaoke, I think.”
I didn’t go in the temple of karaoke. I have always shunned karaoke … except for one memorable occasion in Kobe when, after much pleading on his part, I went with a diminutive Japanese friend, but only on the conditions that (a) we both get drunk first, (b) we get a private room, and © we pick each other’s songs. I knew that what with him being Japanese, he would be very kind to me and give me easy songs to sing whereas I could give him impossible songs and laugh while he tried to sing them. Hence we started off with me singing “Me and Julio” while he had to sing Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” which he did with gusto (climbed right up on the table to really belt out the high notes) and no small measure of talent. But that’s another story.
Back in Grand Epoch City, another clear difference with real hotels becomes apparent at checkout time. The receptionists make a flurry of phone calls to ask arcane questions about your bill, write everything into a series of ledgers, type it all into a computer that apparently serves no purpose, then give you a handwritten receipt. The entire process takes ages, during which your eye might wander, like mine, to the wall behind the reception desk, where you will find a series of clocks with the time in different cities—as is often the case at hotels. These, though, show the time in Tokyo, Sydney, New York, and Saint Paul. Like you, I immediately wondered, “Which Saint Paul? Saint Paul, Minnesota? Why the hell Saint Paul?” One would have thought they would include some place in Europe: London or Paris, for example. Whichever Saint Paul it was, it wasn’t in Europe, since it showed the same time as Tokyo. That pretty much ruled out Minnesota, for that matter. Since I had gobs of time on my hands, what with all the phone calls and discussions among the staff about my bill, I had way too much opportunity to ponder this—to the point of it becoming obsessive. One thing to keep in mind in China: Never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy. Nevertheless, I tracked down my bilingual Chinese friend over on the other end of the desk. He too had time on his hands, since his checkout was going no faster than mine. Through him, I asked one of the myriad employees behind the desk which Saint Paul it was. She smiled and looked confused. “Saint Paul?” My friend pointed to the clock, which it seems she was only noticing for the first time. This did not help. It was my friend who then pointed out that there is a “Saint Paul” in Brazil, and it struck me that the clock referred to São Paulo, which is another mystery. São Paulo before Paris? Really! São Paulo is an awful place in a lonely time zone. Who makes these decisions? I thought of asking the same perplexed desk clerk, but she was double-checking how much water I had taken from the minibar and I thought it best not to disturb her.
Eventually, after three iterations of my bill, I gave up on the relatively minor anomalies that still remained and managed to check out. I can’t say that I’ll miss Grand Epoch City, but if you plan on a trip to Beijing and you’re passionate about archery, rock climbing, tennis, golf, badminton, swimming, and bowling and can’t go a day without doing all of them, preferably indoors, and you speak fluent Chinese, then you might give it a try. Otherwise, maybe not.