Off-the-Wall cuisine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 July, 1993, 12:00am

CATERING in offbeat locations has become the latest gimmick among Beijing hoteliers - including buffet lunches and dinners at remote places along the Great Wall.

Most tourists see just the Badaling section of the Wall, which has the dubious distinction of having a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, a cable car and hordes of people, a combination which effectively eradicates any potential sense of history or occasion.

People with more time to spare, and a well-filled wallet, can now participate in full-scale banquets at isolated spots along parts of the Wall's 4,000 kilometres. Some of the best preserved and least-populated areas are within a three-hour reach of the capital by minibus.

A favourite of the Kempinski Hotel is at the settlement of Jin Shan Ling, reached by a spectacular drive through peasant villages, along lake shores and through a mountain tunnel.

An advance party of caterers leaves at dawn to set up a five-star buffet along the wall itself, or inside sheltered battlements, where warriors of old dined while keeping a wary eye peeled for wall-hopping barbarians.

The cost depends on the number of people and quality of food and drink: a fully-fledged gourmet feast would work out at around US$120 a head, with champagne and silver-service waiters thrown in.

''It's sometimes difficult to explain to the staff what we are trying to do,'' admits Kempinski assistant food and beverage manager Carsten Rath. ''They think it's a bit crazy.

''Catering-wise you can't have an open fire or an oven out there, but you can put on a buffet with salmon, caviar, salads, French pastries, beer and champagne.'' Getting permission to have lunch or dinner on the Great Wall is surprisingly easy in these days of socialist-style free enterprise. Even the world's only major remaining Marxist debating forum, the Great Hall of the People, has gone into the catering business, hiring itself out for banquets.

Renting space on the Great Wall comes a lot cheaper, with only a goodwill payment necessary to the relevant security bureau. Once that sweetener has been dispensed, diners are usually left alone - not that there are too many people out for a day's strollat Jin Shan Ling.

As a scenic dining location it is unparalleled. On a clear day, views of the zig-zagging wall stretch for more than 30 kilometres in either direction; the only movement is hawks lazily gliding in the breeze, the sole sound that of cuckoos calling.

Flush with the success of putting on lavish spreads at the Great Wall, hoteliers are looking at other once off-limits locations. A Kempinski favourite is a lakeside plain, only two hours by minibus from downtown Beijing.

''You have wild horses there and fishermen fishing in the lake,'' says caterer Rath. ''There are even boats for hire and the water is beautifully, beautifully clear. The lake goes on for 20 kilometres, it is almost like a river.'' The new outside-dining options tend to be favourites with incentive groups, usually big-monied American corporations giving their favoured employees a treat.

Away-day trips are also becoming increasingly popular with long-staying residents and repeat visitors from Hongkong looking for a different way to spend the weekend.

The most glitzy function to date was when the China World hotel organised lunch on the Badaling section for Miss Hongkong contestants; the tourist population quickly switched its attention from ancient stones to pretty young girls.

But there is one glittering banqueting prize which has so far eluded organisers. To date, nobody has managed to get the official nod for a large-scale private function at the Forbidden City.

Officials say it is off-limits, a policy which, in the New China, is probably open to financial negotiation.