Walking Beijing, Day 10: To Baiwangshan, or Hundred Views Mountain (26 March 2019)

For some reason, I began to find that I was seeking ways to get out of the city. Once I had walked towards its centre, but my desire was increasingly outward. I was not yet sure why this was the case.

But on this day I set out to fulfil a half-formed plan: to head further north and then west to another part of the mountain ranges, which drew me more and more.

Baiwangshan – 100-views mountain – was my aim, more than 15 kilometres away. The first part was along what were by now somewhat familiar paths. North along Suzhou Street, which became Yihuanlu (Summer Palace Road), past the old western gate of Peking University and then along the edge of the older Summer Palace.

By now I had turned westward and found that I was walking along the northern rim of the new Summer Palace – or what people these days simply call the Summer Palace. To my left were the hills made from digging out the lake. On their slopes and tops I could see the many buildings surrounding the palace itself. I longed to go there and explore.

But I needed to use the toilet. Spying a sign, I turned right and into the past. This was still in many respects a village, with its narrow streets, groups of old men smoking and playing Majiang (Mahjong), and neighbours doing their thing. But the toilet I could not find. In the end, I asked a local ‘public peace’ officer, who led me on a twisting path to find the toilet. This one had not yet undergone the transformation of the ‘toilet revolution’, launched four years ago by Xi Jinping. Three squat holes were side-by-side, with a small corner that passed as a urinal. No divisions or barriers between them at all. Here one could squat, enjoy a smoke and chat with a neighbour who may be engaged in the same pastime. That a foreigner was there did not so much as raise an eyebrow. Of course, foreigners too need to go from time to time.

Refreshed from my experience, I strode on, turning north along the Anhe River. Once upon a time, it had been nothing more than a refuse dump and drain. Now, it had been transformed into a beautiful, clean waterway. Many were the signs advising one to keep the river clean, and many were the trees planted along its shores.

Close to Baiwangshan, I came across a vast military establishment to my left. Accommodation for soldiers’ families were nearby, as were many shops catering to their needs. Through the massive front gate, I spied pictures of Xi Jinping and many, many red banners with slogans and quotations from Xi. I pondered taking a picture, but the two guards at the front gate had me firmly in their view. Best not for a foreigner to take snaps of a military establishment … I marched on.

At dusk I finally arrived at Baiwangshan: tickets inside cost 20 RMB, but I had hiked enough and was keen to get home. A new metro stop was nearby, on an extension to Beijing’s already vast metro network. Inside, I was enthralled by the design and artwork of the station. In good socialist style, the station celebrated yet another technical achievement and the improvement of lives for the common people.

Walking Beijing, Day 9: Western Green Belt and Black Bamboo Grove (23 March 2019)

Often during the working day, I had begun to look longingly at the western mountains. I could see them from my small apartment and from my office (during the brief periods I spent there).

Earlier, I had used the mountains as a rough guide to Beijing air quality: if I could see them reasonably clearly, the air was fine and I could be outside without a facemask; if I could not see them, the facemask was on. When I first came to Beijing a decade or so ago, it was a rare day that I could see that far. Now, it was rare day that I could not: Beijing’s air quality – once proverbial – had obviously been improving, gradually but remarkably.

The extensive afforestation, cleaning up the water ways and Green Belts were another dimension of this ‘greening’ of Beijing. Today, I was keen to return to my discovery of the Western Green Belt. Once I again I strode along Wanquanzhuang Street, and by now the locals seemed to recognise my stride, for they barely cast me a glance: I was becoming a common sight in these parts.

A couple of kilometres later, I turned left on the Green Belt and overtook the old fogeys out for their 100 steps – walk 100 steps after a meal and you will live to be 99 (fanhou bai buzou, huo dao jiushijiu). I marched past the children playing and parents chatting.

The next link was along the Nanzhang River, with which I was also familiar. Eschewing the riverside walk itself, with myriads photographing the full spring blossoms, I sought out the byways among the trees and bushes. Here were fewer people; here one could have a piss behind a tree with no-one much bothering.

At Zizhuyuan Park, I wanted to find another entrance, the east gate. It required a little more work, winding through back streets and alleys. Yet another discovery, as one does time and again in Beijing: along the walls were a series of glorious anti-corruption posters from some years back. I was struck by the way they invoke older anti-capitalist themes from socialist art.

When Xi Jinping first became chairman and president, he inaugurated the most comprehensive anti-corruption campaign since Mao Zedong. Six years later, it has become a permanent feature of daily life, and not merely for party members. But it has shifted gear to a more positive note: promoting core socialist values, at the intersection with traditional Chinese values.

Back then, however, the targets were ‘tigers and flies’: the big and the small, from the Politburo member to the village official (and a good number of the former who had fled overseas). The posters were fascinating. Why? They evoked old communist images of capitalists: overweight, smooth, lugging bags of cash, living ostentatious lives, squeezing money from dodgy building projects, public funds, and common people.

By now, most of the tigers have been caught and sentenced; and most of the flies have fundamentally altered a way of life that had too quickly become the norm – when the law was something you knew was there but did not bother with too much.

As more than one person has put it to me: now you can trust people again.

Elated, I soaked in unexplored sections of Zizhuyuan Park, over the hills and through the bamboo forests, past the singers and old fogeys dancing, and out onto Zhongguancun Street for the march home.

Walking Beijing, Day 8: Yuyuantan, or Jade Lake Park (21 March 2019)

By what turned out to be the midpoint of my hikes, I was truly beginning to feel at home. More and more I was mapping the city in a unique way, increasing conscious of where I was without looking at a map. I had not yet begun to ask why I need to escape from my job and home, hiking long and far on every second day.

Today I was determined to make it further south, to the massive Yuyuantan (Jade Lake) Park. First established by the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), it obviously has a long history and is well known across China.

I opted to take the metro there and walk the seven or so kilometres back home. Easier said than done, since the path from the metro station (Baiduizi) was a winding one indeed. After a few wrong turns, backtracking and asking questions, I finally found one of the north gates. Given the size of the park and its popularity, I also had to pay a small fee to enter.

By now, spring was in full blossom, so the park was teeming. The day was a little later than usual, the sky blue and the low sun through the trees and over the water stunning.

Ultimately, it was less the setting itself that drew me in than the communist art and sculpture thereabouts – or rather, socialist realist art. The first was espied at a little distance, over the lake. A grand red star, atop a Stalin baroque monument towered into the sky: I found out later that it is the Chinese People’s Revolutionary Army monument. The star and its mount are merely the tip of a much larger monument celebrating the liberation of China.

The second was more immediate and less obvious, but a pure delight. In am area where children and older people were playing and exercising were more reminders of the role of the Red Army: a shining sculpture of a red flag, and then a series of metal sculptures. The latter depicted characteristic scenes from socialist realism: young and strong people, engaged in scientific pursuits, sporting activities and surrounded by the plenty of nature. These images would, of course, come to fruition with Deng Xiaoping’s daring effort to liberate the forces of production. The result was the Reform and Opening Up, which only last year had celebrated not only 40 years but a remarkable rejuvenation of China.

But I still had to get home and the sun was setting. Straight north along Suzhou Street it was, with a good 14 kilometres done by the time I staggered into my apartment.