The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the massive maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the world’s most extensive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better and more reliable than Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring blossoms. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people seeking spring flowers. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many a policy that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies as a political football. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.

The Newcastle Rides

An unexpected (re-) discovery, during a summer of self-discovery. Too hot to ride long and hard; too dry to camp in a forest that could at any time ignite. What to do?

The previous summer I had done precisely that: ridden long and hard, and camped in places where I should not have done. Heat exhaustion was the result – due to a daily average of 40 degrees Celsius – and I was loathe to repeat the experience.

Yet ride I must: hours away, letting the mind tick over, the body doing what it loves to do. (Note: the following rides are very local to Newcastle. You will need to check maps to gain an idea of where I rode.)

6 February 2019: Glendale and Warners Bay Circuit

One morning in early February of 2019, I simply packed some daily necessities into the bicycle’s panniers and rode. A few days earlier, I had been enticed by a sign: on a regular route from one part of the city to another, pn a route I had done thousands of times, a sign pointed to somewhere I had not been.

To the sign I rode, along a route so familiar I had forgotten its features. In these parts, the old route is known as R4, running westward along creeks and quiet roads – through Newcastle West, Broadmeadow, Jesmond and Wallsend.

The new route was simply called ‘The Tramway Track’. By now the stiffness of limb and dullness of mind (from sitting too long on earlier days) had passed. The track immediately plunged into countryside, with hills and trees and an occasional field. A tram in these parts? Perhaps, for in earlier times the villages hereabouts clustered around coal mines. The mines are now closed, but the villages have remained, incorporated somewhat into the wider spread of Newcastle. Or perhaps it was originally a line build for coal wagons, subsequently used for a time by passenger service – until many such services were closed in the 1970s.

I could try to find out if I wished, but I preferred to let my mind run, speculate a little, concoct a story or two.

Some six or seven kilometres later the track came to an end, at Glendale. If once it was a village, now it was a major shopping centre in the west.

Turn around? I checked a map and realised that the route continued on-road a little before once again becoming a bicycle path. By Cockle Creek railway station it did precisely that. Cockle Creek: only on a passing train had I espied this small stop, wondering from time to time where exactly it might be. Now I knew. And here was the bicycle path I had also seen from the train, wondering where it went. Now I was to find out.

It veered away from the road, swung under a bridge and before long I found myself at Speers Point on the vast Lake Macquarie. Now I was on familiar territory: along the lake to Warners Bay, up Mount Hutton to Charlestown (on-road), over the top and down to Whitebridge – heading ever eastward.

A decade or so ago I had ridden this section somewhat regularly. For a time, it was a regular way to begin the ride to Sydney. But I discovered other routes and forgot about this one. Now I recalled those earlier times; the rotation of the peddles seems to trigger such memories in a way that is like no other. A teenage daughter interested in a boy somewhere near here; teaching her to drive on her way for a visit; a quiet cigarette secretly imbibed away from those who scolded me to stop; a father who was still alive; a new partner from across the seas, whom I was only beginning to get to know; the frenetic pace of those years … on the memories went.

Until I reached the much-ridden Fernleigh track. This too was a former railway line, built for coal and then with a passenger service included. It too was closed in the 1970s and then – some forty years later – turned into a glorious rail trail. I rode along the last eight kilometres to Adamstown, to follow back streets home.

Returning home, I was surprised to find I had ridden almost 50 kilometres. I was even more surprised at the thrill of discovery. Not earth-shaking, to be sure; small discoveries, but pleasures nonetheless. I felt no desire for work and much for heading out again.

8 February 2019: From Teralba Railway Station to the Hill

A couple of days later, I was on the train from Gosford. Family reasons had taken me there, but, as is my wont, I had my bicycle with me. On a whim, I jumped off at Teralba – yet another mining village on the western shores of Lake Macquarie. Here I had not ridden before, although I had walked once or twice on stages of the Great North Walk.

Yet, from a bicycle you see things differently. The Northern Hotel beckoned, inviting me to return and stay for a night – if only it had accommodation. The artists who seemed to enjoy the forgottenness of the place were more obvious, as were the many long-term residents of the caravan park.

I was peddling through, slowly, conscious of the fact that sitting at work for long hours is not so desirable. I had done enough of that in the 500,000 hours of my life thus far: other desires called me now, especially the desire to be out on a bicycle.

Soon enough, I was on a wide and still new path along western Lake Macquarie. Less popular than further east, the only traveller I met was a determined old man on an electric wheelchair. But I was keen to reverse the newly-discovered direction of the earlier ride. Now I knew I could make it through easily, from Speers Point, through Cockle Creek and Glendale to the Tramway Track.

Today, of course, was different. I pondered why I needed to be out, rediscovering the town in which I had lived for more than fifteen years. Why I had not eaten enough for lunch and why did the long climb of the Tramway Track seemed longer than before (well, I had cruised down it last time)? And why had the clouds had become dark and why did the air smell as though it was going to rain?

Soon enough, I began to race the clouds, watching their edge as they blew in the same direction I was headed. Would I stop at the shops on my way? As I emerged, a few spatters began to fall and I raced on.

Through Wallsend, skirting the university to which I was saying an overdue goodbye, threading my way through Jesmond Brush and Hamilton, I tackled the final hill to home with gusto.

As I wheeled the bike inside, the first real flashes of lightning hit and seriously large drops of rain began to fall. I may about ridden about 30 kilometres, but I was now into this brief spell of summer riding.

10 February 2019: Warners Bay and Belmont Circuit

Leaping out of bed a couple days later, I knew where I wanted to go: down to Warner’s Bay by another route and then to explore what had seemed forbidden until now – a route along the lake to Belmont.

Why forbidden? I had in mind a busy, winding road with much traffic. Or rather, it was a memory from more than a decade, when my youngest daughter and I had taken part in a ‘Loop the Lake’ ride. Then we had strength in numbers, but even so it felt like a hairy ride with traffic buzzing past.

Let’s see, I pondered, as I eagerly rolled out the Surly Long Haul Trucker (a bicycle, in case you were wondering).

Initially, I took one of those routes that were designed and laid out in the 1980s. Cyclists like to amble along, they had thought, peddle a kilometre or two and then head home. The track in question wound its way through parkland from Kotara to Charlestown. Or rather, it simply came to an end on a street with no character. Through riders? What are they.

But I knew the route from years ago and persisted until I reached the busy Charlestown Road. Peddle a long the footpath a little and then drop, drop, drop on Hillsborough Road. Some vague recollection niggled: this road is not the best for riding. Merely a recollection … let us see.

The massive roundabout on the Newcastle bypass was my answer. In theory, one would use the bicycle bridge over the roundabout. In theory … for you could use if crossing four lanes of busy traffic to the other side is your thing. I braved the roundabout.

Past the roundabout and the bicycle path simply gave out. Ah, too complicated, so let us end it here – road planners have their limits.

A mix of guesswork, the odd footpath, a back street or two, and eventually I was in Warners Bay for a late lunch.

Now the discoveries of this day began. The route south-east was nothing as I remembered it from more than a decade ago. Now the path wound on, along wetland bridges and paths hugging the shore. It went much further than I had anticipated, but eventually it too gave out, ending ignominiously in a car park.

The narrow, winding road it would be. But less than two kilometres later I spied a crooked sign, pointing to a bicycle path. Why not? It may be nothing, but then again it may be something.

This path, with its twists and turns, would take me all the way to Belmont. I relished the discovery, curious about local lives, swimming corners, the feel of the track. I pondered why I needed to be out, why I could no longer sit and work all day at the ubiquitous tool known as a computer.

Belmont at last and I knew where to go, for the Fernleigh Track at its full extent began close by. As I pedalled along this well-known route, with its long climb to Whitebridge and then drop to Adamstown, I thought about rail motors to country towns in my youth. One such rail motor ran the 100 kilometres or so between Tumbarumba and Wagga Wagga, providing for many years a much-needed connection for remote towns. But by the 1970s and due to the politico-economic clout of motor vehicle companies, these lines were shut down. So it was too with the railway line between Newcastle and Belmont.

But now I could ride the 16 kilometres or so of the Fernleigh Track on my own, away from the struggle of those curious and by now obsolete contraptions known as motor cars.

Before I knew it, the 50 kilometres of this day were done, with a satisfaction that is impossible to describe.

13 February 2019: Fassifern to Newcastle

Despite my grand plans, this was to be the last day of the Newcastle rides, at least for this summer. Many years ago and with a new partner from across the seas, we had taken the train to Fassifern and ridden along the rail-trail that followed the old route of the Fassifern-Toronto rail motor. It was always a short line, with two stops and barely more than 5 kilometres, but it went the way of so many such services.

Now a bicycle path took its place – a recurrent refrain in these accounts. I never thought I would be back here, but now I pedalled slowly, savouring memories and pondering how much had changed in a decade or more.

But also how much had stayed the same. As then, there were no other riders on the path. And as then, Toronto railway station remains as a landmark to a bygone age. These days it seems to be a haunt for those seeking a quiet setting for a drink and a chat, especially if one has nowhere to call home.

If I expected a new bicycle path between Toronto and Booragul, I was to be disappointed. But at least there was a decent shoulder on the road. That said, I had never been to the Booragul foreshore, so at the railway station I followed a couple of other cyclists and passed a church whose glory had been greater in the past.

The church set me pondering the parlous state of Christianity in ‘Western’ countries, which really seem to have lost their souls in such a way that they have lost the possibility of regaining them. Not merely Christianity, but any religion. I must admit I longed for the packed services at the Haidian Three-Self Patriotic Movement churhc, which I attend in Beijing. What secret do the Chinese have that the ‘West’ has lost? In a socialist state, with a strong communist party in power, and with a robust rule of law that promotes freedom of religion, churches, mosques and temples are full. Yet, in supposedly Christian countries the churches are empty. Who knows?

The quiet few kilometres along the foreshore of Lake Macquarie soon brought me to the wide and luxurious path by Teralba, where I had been a few days earlier, and then to Speers Point for my ride along a route that had become a new favourite. To Glendale I rode, via Cockle Creek, only to join the Tramway Track and then the ride home along the much-ridden ‘R6’, via Throsby Creek, the Newcastle foreshore and home.

That would be it for this summer. The planned full circuit of 70 kilometres would not happen this time, for other events in my life intervened. Nothing much – in retrospect – to excite one, but the experience generated a sense of discovery and self-discovery that surprised me. The full circuit would have to wait, for I had plans elsewhere, in China, Denmark and Germany, where I would ride many more kilometres.