The village of Beigou sits in a valley in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. Chickens roam free, children play in the square and elderly villagers use the outdoor exercise machines. Many locals still make a living harvesting pear and apricot trees, and many still live in squat stone courtyard farmhouses with low-hanging eaves, designed to stay warm in the sub-zero winters and cool in the roasting summers. But hidden in the foliage up the winding hilly paths is a scattering of more opulent homes.
Beigou and neighbouring Mutianyu village are tourist hotspots known as gateways to the Great Wall (Mutianyu contains a cable car which scales the Wall and a toboggan slide back down). But for some expats and some of the wealthy Chinese they are becoming popular sites to buy high-end holiday homes. Just over an hour’s drive from Beijing, they offer a welcome getaway from the frenetic capital.
“The air is cleaner and a little bit cooler. I would go for a weekend and feel like I’d gone to Thailand,” says John Watkins, an American who has lived in China since 1982. Six years ago he and his wife, Dinah, renovated and built their own home, called Ironstone, in Beigou.
Ironstone is barely visible from the road, yet inside its gates is a large complex with two houses – one modern, with five-metre ceilings; the other an old farmhouse – linked by an underground passage. The passage is paved with bricks used for the restoration of the Great Wall, bought from the factory that made them. Glass windows in the chic red brick and stone new house overlook the Great Wall, its turrets just visible along the ridge of a jagged mountain pass.
Ironstone, a large compound in Beigou, is all but invisible from the road
Ironstone was designed by Jim Spear, an American long-term Mutianyu resident who has developed 30 bespoke houses over the past eight years. Spear specialises in creating Great Wall views where there weren’t any before. Traditionally farmhouses in the area faced south to maximise the sunlight; the Wall is to the north. By cutting out skylights, or replacing walls with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, Spear has opened up the vista.
When Spear started none of his clients was Chinese. Today, as incomes have risen and more urbanites are beginning to value clean air, over half are. Prices have also risen, more than doubling the roughly £260,000 needed to buy and renovate a property in 2005. Some clients want a holiday cottage, others an investment (houses can be rented for as much as £5,960 per night). Some “collect” homes.
“I’ve done houses for people who would just like to be able to say they have a house at the Great Wall of China,” says Spear.
Yet local loyalties, village disputes and landowner rights can make building a home here problematic. Spear offers a consulting package, starting at £52,000, in which he helps clients locate suitable village houses, negotiates the lease and oversees the renovation or rebuilding. As the founder of a boutique hotel in the area, he is able to leverage his guanxi (connections) with the locals. Yet problems still emerge: Spear recalls villagers demanding compensation for developments which squashed their tree roots. There are also risks in a country where the government can confiscate land or knock down buildings to pursue, for example, a major tourism project.
Under Chinese legislation, all land within urban areas is owned by the state, while land within rural areas is owned by collectives for agricultural use. But there are ways around these rules. In the countryside farmers have heritable property rights over their residential plots and can lease – though not sell – them. The leases can in turn be structured with automatic renewals to last as long as 50 years. At the end of the lease period the house, along with any renovations, must be given back to the villager who originally sold it unless a new lease is negotiated. Spear is currently helping a client sell the leasehold of a renovated three-bedroom house with two terraces for £517,645 (with 35 years left on the land lease).
Renovation costs range from £59 to £78 per square foot. Village houses are often draughty and dark with no plumbing or electricity but, when revamped, they can include comforts such as underfloor heating, western kitchens and servant quarters. Ironstone combines modernity with traditional appeal: in the original farmhouse, the tree bark roof is still stained black from years of cooking over an open fire.
Such idiosyncratic touches give many of these properties their unusual charm, particularly for expat buyers who value the historic. They are also bargains compared to the upmarket holiday homes developed near the Great Wall for China’s super wealthy as part of large-scale resort projects.
Examples include Reignwood South Garden Residences. Twenty serviced villas are being developed alongside a country club, golf course, polo fields and five-star hotel. The villas will include hot tubs, cinema-rooms and even aquariums. Reignwood is advertising a 1,800 sq metre Chinese-style villa in the complex for £15.9m. Meanwhile, Beijing Jiarui Real Estate Agent is advertising a four-bedroom house near the touristic Badaling Great Wall for £733,152.
Robin Foo, South Garden Residences’ architect, believes that “the Great Wall is good marketing”. But for individuals such as Watkins, owning a house there means much more. “I’ve always been in love with the Wall,” he says. “Because it was iconic, [buying Ironstone] was an impulse decision. I wouldn’t have done it anywhere else.”
Featured photograph: Ironstone