Urban exploration – better known as urbex – is highly seasonal. In the spring, Burbex receives dozens of emails from all over world from French students to Texan photographers wanting to see abandoned Disneyesque castles on the outskirts of Beijing and hidden radar bases deep in the Northeast.
Winter though? That’s the dead season, when urbexers hang up their dark hoodies and flashlights, and go into hibernation.
The same doesn’t apply for Burbex, who doesn’t cut back as the mercury drops, but finds smaller expeditions, closer to essential amenities like central heating and hot coffee. Mini expeditions to locations like the kitschy gardens behind The Great Wall Hotel are an ideal way to while away a couple of urbex hours, enjoying the surreal abandoned restaurant, where nameless statues of Chinese fairies carry plates of peaches, as well as apparently the occasional cash donation.
It is easy to forget, but the Great Wall Hotel is something of an oddity. When it was built 34 years ago, it was one of the very first luxury hotels in the capital, and even with the newer Bvlgari and Westin hotels nearby, the Great Wall Hotel somehow holds its ground.
Its rooms are a little shabby compared to when the hotel was renovated by Italian designers in 2006, covering every conceivable surface in mirrors, but it still holds considerable nostalgia value.
Go through the main restaurant area, past the spit-polished brass antelopes and tigers prowling among the businessmen and out into the gardens behind the hotel.
Jump into the arid lake bed, blue paint peeling off the sides, and go off in search of the kitschy animals hidden in the undergrowth. A hippo with a pearl in its mouth, a shaky-looking giraffe, a panda high on bamboo leaf.
Under the bridge amongst the fake mountains and rocky outcrops, two stunning dragons flow through the concrete. Follow the paths to the very back where the garden copies The Great Wall itself, an outpost overgrown with blackened ivy now acts as a massive pigeon coop. Circling back to the main water feature, the old octagonal beer pagoda can be found, its glass sides cracked and roof sagging with age.
The garden behind The Great Wall Hotel is a reminder. In Beijing seasons may come and go, the city may develop at breathtaking speed, but even in the darkness of winter, there will always be a few corners of the city where time stands still.