This is not the Beijing we imagined. Ms Pam and I have taken our first tentative steps outside our hotel, the City Inn, on the outskirts of Beijing and we are a tad surprised to be in the middle of a faux Italian village. It's a mishmash of Italian kitsch architecture. There is a recreation of the Ponte Vecchio and the Spanish Steps. There is an Italian village clock tower, piazza and Italianesque apartments. There is also a Tesco, a McDonalds, a Pizza Hut and a Subway.
However, a bigger surprise awaits us across the eight lane road from us. It's Happy Valley, Beijing's version of Disneyland. A sprawling theme park that by the number of buses parked outside, appears to be every bit as popular as the legendary amusement park that inspired it.
So what is Happy Valley really like? There was only one way to find out. After three days of touring the obligatory Beijing hotspots that we'd actually paid for such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall etc, we had luckily scheduled a free day in our itinerary. Where are we going to go? Happy Valley here we come!
Just like Disneyland, Happy Valley is divided up into several themed 'worlds': Atlantis, Aegean Harbour, Lost Maya, Shangri la, Ant Kingdom and Firth Forest. At the centre of Happy Valley lies the unmissable Holy Crystal Castle. It is a sci-fi/fantasy version of the classic Disney castle with towering melting chocolate spires that glow ever changing colours after sunset. Once inside the park, a meandering pathway encircles it passing through the various 'worlds'. With 40 different rides, various live shows, shops and restaurants, there's plenty to keep you busy.
Ant Kingdom is tops with the toddlers. It has a Wiggles type song and dance show on as we pass by. A Disneyesque cup and saucer ride looks popular. The towering Apollo Wheel ride is unmissable. It is like a massive pendulum which swings sickeningly fast and rises to nauseating heights.
Massive Mayan heads Hear no, Speak no, See no Evil
But it's not until we reach Maya World that we realize how extraordinary this place is. Massive Mayan statues stare you in the face. There is a huge kitsch Mayan pyramid and a 'Mayan Catastrophe Show', something like a Universal studio tour Earthquake show. A group of 'Mayan warriors and princesses' are cavorting with the crowd who are eager to have their photo taken with them.
Things take a turn for the truly amazing and bizarre when we get to the Aegean Harbour. Is that the Acropolis I see? Is that a classical Greek temple? Is that a Minoan temple like that at Knossos in Crete? Oh no, it's just the 'Klosses' restaurant. Oh, that's a nice replica Trojan horse. But its not just a replica, it's one of the parks most spectacular rides, where the belly of the horse tumbles round and round holding 50 screaming people. We hear some screams and turn around to see a boat slide down from the top of the 'Acropolis' and into the 'Aegean Harbour'. On this baking hot day, there is no doubt this is the park's most popular ride.
We are a bit ride and queue shy and our only ride is on the 'Energy Collector'. This is like an oversized rotating cherry picker with a slowly rotating platform which can lift 20 or so passengers and take them up for a commanding view of the park. As it takes off we hear an explosion and turn to see a high speed roller coaster blast off at a ridiculously high speed to the delight of its screaming occupants.
Another surprise is the 'Golden Dynasty' show at the adjoining theatre. I didn't have a clue what the show was about, but it was certainly incredibly spectacular as the stage and surrounds are at different times turned into a waterfall, a flowing river, a jungle and a town square. Outrageously colourful lighting and actors in extravagant costumes constantly filled the stage with the highlight being the preposterous sight of live white peacocks sitting atop the heads of a dozen elegant dancers.
We leave the show none the wiser of the plot but certainly impressed by the spectacle. We walk out of the theatre and walk past street performers who all appear to be middle aged local folk either doing a Chinese version of line dancing or singing karaoke. Best were a group singing traditional songs with small band playing traditional instruments opposite the 'Spanish Steps'. The audiences clap their favourite tunes enthusiastically. Everyone appears to be enjoying themselves. This is after all, Happy Valley.