Kate Woods' Adventures in Wonderland


China is everything on a blown up scale.  Monumental museums and sites - with eager, teeming crowds to match. However, there are still places where few visit if you can find them.

I had heard about the Guyaju caves. A series of manmade caves, built into a cliff face, located outside of Beijing in Yanqing County.  As a child I’d loved Indiana Jones and this seemed like the sort of place I’d find him. I also had a plan of how I might use images of the caves in a future artwork.

My guide Davis was the self-proclaimed ‘worst tour guide’ in Beijing. Or so it said on his business card. I was a little confused, at first, by his self-depreciating humour and sometimes absurdly funny logic. Later when I read the business card properly and found his ‘motto’ I realized I’d spent the day with the Larry David of tour guides. Seriously though, he was lovely.

It’s a mystery as to who built the 147 caves in the ‘ancient cliff house’. One suggestion is a group fleeing armed forces, as the location is hidden between two mountains and a manmade moat has been built at the back. There are lower rooms to house livestock as well as connecting rooms above in which to live. These include rock kitchen ranges and beds. It wasn’t until the last century that the caves were stumbled upon and used as a one-time military storage facility.

When we got to the caves I was surprised to find only two other people there.

It is a bit of a trek up to the main viewing point, but nothing on Wellington’s hills.

The caves, deep in a valley, were truly wondrous. I hardly ever actually feel ‘awe’ but looking across at the main cliff face, room-like cavities carved into the rock, it seemed an apt description.

On our way back to Beijing I spotted a weird cluster of buildings. Davis told me it was the abandoned Chinese Disneyland.  The land was leased for the project in the mid-90s but had never been completed and construction stopped for good in 2008 due to the recession, among other issues.

I was determined to visit. A few days later I found the right subway, taking it to the end of the line, then a bus to the site. After one false start, of getting on a bus going the wrong way, I made it to the would-be theme park ‘Wonderland’.

Essentially an abandoned site there were still gardeners clipping the manicured hedges at the front. The well-kept gardens were an odd refrain to the decaying fairytale architecture. Falling down doors, crumbling faux brick and broken windows. The front gardens did make a spacious setting for a family happily flying kites.

Farmers are reclaiming the land and although the entrance façade was intact little else was still standing. I really wanted to get to the Oz-like castle tower in the distance. Unfortunately, I could only take shots from afar as the metal structure in front was being disassembled and construction workers let me know it was unsafe to proceed.

On my long journey back into town I saw the real Disneyland of China out the window. New communities of identical, souped-up, stone mansions being built amongst the dusty mist of rural land. Cranes loom everywhere in the skyline and the sheer amount of construction is incredible. Constant demolitions and the sight of many a block of new foundations and real estate venture hoardings. Especially surreal alongside some of the oldest architectural/historical sites in the world.

 Kate Woods, Assistant Registrar