Riding the Årø Peninsula (Denmark)

One more camping trip on this Danish summer, after my glorious discoveries on the first effort. This time, I had found a map to which I could link on my phone. It was dedicated to ud i nature and listed all the free camping areas across the country (including the ability to sleep without a tent on any forest floor). Denmark may be small corner of the world, with thousands of islands and the Jutland peninsula, but it has an equally small population. So there is plenty of land on which to camp – especially when one could often do so in someone’s back yard.

Day 1: Christiansfeld to Gaasevig Strand, 46 km

On the first day, I had my sights set on a potential camping spot in the woods and away from the coast, given that it was still holiday season. Southward I rode, through Haderslev and then further to Hoptrup, where I loaded up with a few supplies.

Here I turned right onto Skovsbyvej, heading towards the rather tautologically named Skovsby Skov – the Forest Town Forest. Why? I guess that the village had been named after the nearby forest: hence Skovsby. But then they needed a name for the forest, which was named after the village: Skovsby Skov (Forest Town Forest).

Clearly, there was a forest and – after some climbing – I found it, pedalling along a dirt track called Skovsby Skovvej (Forest Town Forest Road), which turned off from Skovsbyvej (Forest Town Road). Confused? I was a little.

Anyway, I was on the lookout for the camping spot. I passed by the old cottage in the midst of the forest and pedalled on. I looked here and I looked there, but even with my new-fangled map I simply could not find it. Eventually, I turned around and went back past the house. Perhaps I could use a more old-fashioned approach: I asked the old woman at the house. Ah yes, she said, the camping place is in my garden, but I do not have a shelter.

I was welcome to stay, but hesitated. Perhaps it was the old European ‘fairy tales’ about forest houses. Perhaps it was the old woman living by herself. Who knows? But I decided to return to Hoptrup and try my luck closer towards the coast.

The second attempt entailed riding along the Skivsø lake and veering left, only to find that the camping shelter here was on a small triangle of land on a farm. I would have a grand view of the barn wall. It had been a long time indeed since the fireplace had been used. Not so inviting.

Third attempt: down to the water proper. Here I passed by immense camping areas, with all manner of facilities should one wish to ‘escape’ the bustle of life. At the end of dirt track was my spot. No water and no toilets and plenty of early evening bugs. But I had an uninterrupted view of the Årøsund, camping on a grassy knoll with a fire nearby. A rinse in the crisp sea water took away the sweat and grime of the day, after which I simply sat for long hours beside my tent, looking out over the water as the sun of a long Danish summer day finally set.

Day 2: Gaasevig Strand to Maugstrup, 71 km

I was in the area of the Haderslev-Næs Pilgrim Route. If I wished, I could wind my way from one church to another, tracing the route of the Christianisation of Denmark a thousand years or so ago.

But I decided on another pilgrimage of sorts: I would assess all of the bush camping areas on the small peninsula that took its name from the island of Årø at its nose. Indeed, in Danish such a peninsula is called a Næs, which means both nose and peninsula.

This entailed some single roads to the coast and backtracking, some circuitous riding and dealing with the inevitable summer crowds. One camping shelter was beside a ‘grill’ on a busy beach; one was simply a picnic table under trees in close proximity to elderly nudists who were totally shaved, and one was in a corner by the ferry wharf to the island of Årø. None of them were overly enticing.

Pausing to reassess my plans, I found that in the village of Maugstrup was a camping area. I was keen, since on an earlier ride I had already camped in such villages. Getting to Maugstrup entailed riding back to Haderslev after circumnavigating the whole of the small ‘nose’ in one day, and riding off into the small hills of southern Jutland.

In the village itself I could not – once again – find the camping area. Was it beside the children’s playground? I was wary. I asked, but some locals did not seem to know. Finally, a faded sign pointed to the Præstegård, literally the ‘priest’s garden’. Still puzzled, I simply knocked on the glorious door of the priest’s residence. A woman answered the door. Are you the priest? No, it was her husband. Do you know where the camping area is? Yes, it is this corner of the garden.

Only in Denmark! It was a glorious spot, with soft grass, towering trees and the public toilet nearby. As I had already found, in Danish villages the public toilet is always near the church and beside the priest’s residence.

But it took me a while to get to the point of pitching the tent and unpacking my food supplies. The priest’s wife had pressed me to share a meal with them, to sit late into the night talking about matters religious and theological with her and her husband. I merely wanted to be by myself on this last evening.

Day 3: Maugstrup to Christiansfeld, 33 km

Not a long ride to wrap up this brief experience. 33 kilometres along quiet roads, with an old Danish farmer on an equally old bicycle passing me while pedalling into the wind. For the sake of numbers, I wanted to get to 150 kilometres for the three days and I wanted to ride into Christiansfeld from the west, which I had not done until now. So I needed 33 kilometres on this day.

Most of the time, however, I pondered the paradoxes of the state church, which – to my knowledge – persists only in Denmark. Other parts of Europe have long since abandoned the state church, and more recently Sweden and then Norway have abandoned it too, albeit in a typical Scandinavian fashion. In its place, the state provides funding for all religious and even quasi-religious groups, depending upon membership.

The key question for me was whether the state church is simply a relic of the past, a curious quirk of the anomalous history of Europe that you simply do not find elsewhere. Or did the idea and practice of the state church still have a function? This is not the best way to put it. Better to ask: does the state church have new roles to play?

On my rides in these parts, I had camped more than once near or beside a village church. Not only are they part of Danish history, going back to Harald Bluetooth’s conversion more than a thousand years ago, not only are the white stone churches of that era astonishing pieces of country architecture, and not only do they provide necessary public functions all the way from toilets to marriage registries – no, I was most intrigued by the renewed emphasis on country priests being integrally involved in community building.

In so many places in this part of the world, the countryside is empty of young people, and the cottages are bought up by foreigners seeking a cute summer escape. Not in Denmark, for they are increasingly seeing the village communities, with their thousands of years of history, as crucial. Nowadays, a country priest, who usually is responsible for two or three centres and who lives in an extraordinary country Præstegård, is also part of rebuilding a sense of community in the villages in question. I would go further, for this is actually part of the common good, especially as the alienations of capitalist market economies become ever more apparent in Europe.

I must admit that through my camping during this Danish summer, riding a Brompton foldup bicycle, I had become somewhat of a supporter of the state church in this part of the world and in this day and age.

Riding the Hærvejen in Denmark

Hærvejen, Ochsenweg – the Military Way or the Oxen Way. In Denmark’s Jutland it has one name, in northern Germany another name. But it is the same route. In medieval times, the Danes thought of it as route for armies to transverse, while the Germans saw it is a cattle route. Both are true.

These days, it has been revived as a walking and cycling trail, running from the north of Jutland down to the German border and through to Hamburg. My partner and I had ridden some of the German parts in 2018, but now I had a tent, it was summer in Denmark, and I was keen to explore the northern parts, up (almost) to the tip of Jutland.

My partner is not such a keen camper, so this was my chance to get away and explore – on my blue Brompton foldup bicycle. I had never before camped in Europe, let alone Denmark, and I had the impression that one had to pay a fee and stay in official camping areas, wherever they might be. This impression turned out to be completely wrong – to my great pleasure.

Day 1: Christiansfeld to Vejle, 46 km

First, I had to get up to Northern Jutland where the cycling route begins in Frederikshaven. This entailed an initial 46 kilometre ride northwards from our small unit in the historic village of Christiansfeld (in southern Jutland).

Why the initial ride? There is no train station in Christiansfeld and the easiest link was to get myself to Vejle and take the train north, via Aarhus, to Frederikshaven. The ride was uneventful, along main roads, but it helped in terms of being a ‘positioning ride’, as they say. I was able to adjust my loading of the bicycle, to accommodate tent, sleeping bag and mat. And I was to become accustomed yet again to longer rides on the Brompton.

In Frederikhaven I did not camp, staying in what the Danish call a ‘youth hostel’. No dormitories here, the Danes being greatly invested in one’s personal privacy, which sits a bit at odds with its collective history in other respects. But then, toilets are similar, for they feel like a small armoured room, closed off entirely from the outside world. The ‘youth hostel’ was what you would expect in Denmark, by which I mean it was not cheap.

Day 2: Frederikshaven to Pall, 114 km

Indeed, bargains come in unexpected ways in this small country. The first of these would come the following evening, after a very long day in the saddle. The very northern parts of Jutland are – a little surprisingly – quite wild by Danish standards. Upon leaving Frederikshaven, I was soon taken onto the Jutland Ridge. In what is supposedly a largely flat country, I found myself peddling up and down one rise after another. Not enormously high, but the cumulative effect is much the same. And I am sure that I rode along every available dirt track in Denmark, which usually meant pebbles and stones – just the thing on a bicycle with small wheels.

I peddled and peddled and peddled – for 114 kilometres. Why? I was looking for the fabled camping shelters. I had seen one in the past and I had heard they were dotted all over Denmark. But I could not find one. Later, I was to find that they are truly hidden. One might be a corner in a forest that one misses on a turn of the head, another might be down a dirt track on a remote beach where one’s only company is swarm of the tiny flies that come out at dusk, or another might be in the backyard of a village Praestegaard (priest’s garden). Today I could find none of these.

As the sun was setting, I wearily rode through the village of Pall, only to find that the few locals had recently constructed a camping shelter in the village’s midst. A small lake, a sexagonal structure of raw timber with a fireplace as a retreat from inclement weather, lean-to shelters should one not have a tent, and a fresh water supply in someone’s backyard. A gift from the Nordic gods, I thought, or perhaps from the ancestors who had dug the many barrows I had passed, or from the iron-age settlements that had sought to make the most of the fertile soils of the North Jutland Ridge. Who knows. But I lit a fire, drank a beer and dug into my reserves of food for an evening repast.

I did not have to pay a cent for my night’s accommodation, which may – due to my background – have had something to do with the fact that I slept long and hard that night.

Day 3: Pall to Vammen, 86 km

I was up at the glimmer of dawn, which I tend to do when camping. Soon the bicycle was packed, with a few readjustments in light of the previous day. This day’s ride would turn out to be the shortest of this initial foray into Danish camping, a mere 86 kilometres.

Early on, I stooped in a clearing, lit a fire and began making coffee. Two young men were slowly packing their tents away and preparing to hike on for the day. Beer bottles almost filled the timber table at which they sat. It turned out that they had a summer with no plans and had decided to hike the Hærvejen in a northward direction. Their daily routine: drink beer all morning until noon, break camp and – literally – stagger for 10-15 kilometres until the next camping site. The next day they would repeat the same. I was intrigued, but realised it may not work so well on a bicycle.

As it was, I knew I was not riding at my best today: I chased sustenance rather than fortifying myself before I needed it. In the tough port town of Aalborg, with its beer halls, kebab outlets and ‘night-time entertainment’, I contemplated the town’s camping area for a moment or two at the 60 kilometre mark. But I was determined to continue.

I was aiming for the lakeside camping area of Vammen, on the Kjele Langsø, a lake formed by glaciers in times long past. With my legs gone and supplies bought already some 20 kilometres earlier, I struggled up 6 climbs before arriving wearily at … a Danish summer holiday camping place. Dutch, German and Danish were the languages used here, and I was told that after dinner there would be fireside singing around the main fireplace. Was I interested? I smiled and told them I was totally buggered.

After pitching the tent and pulling out my sumptuous repast of red kidney beans (in the can), cheese and ryebread, a fellow camper espied my fare and came over. In his hand was a plate of freshly cooked potatoes, vegetables and some unidentifiable meat. As I gratefully ate, I watched people – adults and children – playing various evening games. All had a beer in hand, or at least the adults did and the children wanted to drink beer. As one does on holidays in northern Jutland beside what used to be a glacier.

Day 4: Vammen to Vrads, 87 km

On the fourth morning, I watched the pre-dawn mists swirl around the lake before the summer sun burned them away. A substantial breakfast and a couple of hand-ground coffees set me up for the day; 10-15 kilometres of slow riding focused on my riding position; and I ensured I had regular food stops before my energy drain away.

My route took me through the ancient seat of power in Viborg, with its remnants of the age-old ‘Sortebrødre Klostret’ – literally the ‘Black Brothers Monastery’ but usually known in English as ‘Blackfriers’. All that is left now is the church itself, still known by the name of ‘Black Brothers’. In these parts, sites of religious pilgrimage abound, which developed after the Christianisation of Denmark by Harald Bluetooth 1,000 years ago.

By now I was seeing camping shelters on a regular basis, in corners of towns, along a narrow path to the water’s edge, in the midst of a forest. But when I actually began looking for a place to camp near Funder Kirkeby (it was listed on my basic map), the camping spots chose to conceal themselves once again.

On I peddled, and finally the village of Vrads appeared, with its ancient church still sporting the original boulders, an old-style Købmand, and a small park beside the church. With the memory of my experience in Pall, I thought that must be the camping spot.

Up went the tent, and I searched for water. A toilet sign! I made my way over a stone fence to what turned out to be not only the church toilet, but in villages like this it was actually the public toilet. Open all day, cleaned regularly, the church was still seen as a source of social goods in the village.

As I finished the last of my meal and was staring intently at the flames of the fire, I heard a bell ringing. Surely not! Indeed, it was the Hjemismand, the Danish home ice cream truck. But in a village, in Jutland? Yes indeed. Did he have an ice block? No, I had to buy a box of 10. What about that litre of chocolate ice cream? Yes, I could buy one of those. Without a fridge, I simply had to eat the lot.

At this point, a tall man with long grey hair and pipe-smoke billowing behind him appeared. He said he was ‘going to check the children’s swing’, but he was of course checking on the camper on the green. It turned out that I had missed the camping shelter on the edge of the village, but he said it was perfectly fine to stay where I was. He told me of the 26 residents in the village, who all volunteered to keep the Købmand shop going and maintained the ancient village church.

After his visit, I felt perfectly safe, since everyone in the village would know of my presence moments later.

Sauntering over to the church, I looked at the various announcements: the church was one of three covered by the local Danish Lutheran priest. Service times in each church accommodated a busy schedule. In one corner were a series of pictures from an event with local children, with the priest in her robes. At another point was an announcement of a music concert in the church. More community events were listed and it struck me that the priest’s role was as much religious as it was community building. Increasingly, the church in some parts was seeking to recover its ancient role as the hub of communal activities. This was taking place precisely in the countryside, while the city churches that could be found a stone’s throw from each other were mostly empty.

Day 5: Vrads to Christiansfeld, 99 km

Rain pattering on the tent at night is an extremely cosy experience; rain pouring down when breaking camp in the morning is not. South of Vrads it continued to rain and by Nørre Sunde I met again a man called Lars. We had passed each other few times already. Coffee? I asked. Around the corner.

We sat and talked for more than an hour waiting for the rain to ease and sipping rather good but expensive coffee. He was retired and living most of the time in a summer house on the Djursland Peninsula (near Aalborg). His wife was still working in Roskilde, so they would from time to time spend time together in either place. His practice was to drive a car to a new place and ride 20-30 kilometres in one direction, before retracing his route back to the car.

I set my sights on Kongernes Jelling, clearly the most important historical site in Denmark. Here are buried under massive mounds both Gorm den Gamle (Gorm the Old) and Harald Blåtand Gormsen (Harald Bluetooth son of Gorm). At a time when life expectancy was about 30, Harald lived to ripe old age of 76, from around 910 to 986 CE. But this is not his claim to fame.

Harald not only united Denmark under one kingdom (as narrated in the large runestone), and made the crucial decision to adopt Christianity. During a long reign of 30 years, he had many churches built across the country. These are the typical whitewashed village churches one sees in these parts. He also had one built between the two burial mounds of his father and himself. Obviously, he was not his own mound as yet. But he insisted that his father’s bones be exhumed and put in the church. Why? Gorm had been a ‘pagan’, a believer in the Norse gods, buried in a massive stone ship and mound. Harald had converted, so – just to make sure his father had the right type of afterlife – Harald ordered his father’s bones removed to the church itself.

The Danish monarchy claims its line from Gorm. Like all genealogies, this one is rather flexible, but even so it makes the Danish monarchy not only the oldest continuous line in the world, but also rather inbred.

As I pondered such matters outside the church, the clouds began to build again. I knew it was about 50 kilometres to Christiansfeld from here, but I also knew I was somewhat sore and tender from too many hours in the saddle. Yet ride I did, soon enough throwing off my tender pace and storming home at breakneck speed. I arrived at dusk and as the first drops of rain began to fall again.

The ride turned out to be 432 kilometres in five days, including the modest distance of the first day. More importantly, I had discovered what free camping meant in Denmark. Indeed, I was later to discover that the country is dotted with hundreds, if not thousands, of such places. I would soon be on my way again.

Walking Beijing, Day 15: Western Green Belt, from Haidian Park to Black Bamboo Park (14 April 2019)

Blaise Pascal once said, kneel, pray, move your lips and you will believe. This observation may be seen as a materialist reversal for faith, ideology … and a decision. I begin with Pascal not merely because I had once again attended the packed Haidian Protestant Church, with its thousands upon thousands of worshippers over many services every Sunday. I had also slowly come to a decision.

After worship (libai), I set out on a longer hike, one that I could now plan. I would head westward Green Belt. It would take me through former paddy fields, recreation areas, along the Nanzhang River, and then northward home.

Today I marched rather than dawdled in the clear warmth of spring. Blue skies were above, my body was producing plenty of Vitamin D and melatonin from the sun, and Haidian Park was full to overflowing with tents, singers, musicians and children playing. A few streets southward from the park and I found the Green Belt, replete with socialist banners, sayings and slogans.

As I walked, I turned a problem over and over in my head. What would I do with the new bicycle I had ordered? It was a green Brompton, to be set up for touring. Initially, I had decided to buy it to ride in Beijing and on longer tours through the countryside. But it would take some two to three months to come through from England, where they are made. So I would need to pick it up on a long changeover between planes in May or early July (20 or more hour stops in Beijing, on my way between Sydney and Copenhagen).

I would have time to pick it up, but what should I do with it? Leave with a colleague in Beijing, aiming to pick it up in September and take it with me? Take it where? Not sure yet. Or would I try to bring it back with me to the airport, adding it as check-through luggage?

By the time I arrived in Black Bamboo Park, where the Nanzhang River flows into an artificial lake on which multitudes were out paddling, I wondered. Why in the world was I thinking this way? Was I not planning to ride it in Beijing?

Obviously not. I was saying goodbye to Beijing, pondering where else to work for a little (not too much). One never knows at the time the full reasons for such decisions, so one also relies on a gut-feeling. I simply did not enjoy the sense of being sucked into something I did not understand. A new contract had been discussed for a while, but the prospect increasingly gave me a feeling of dread, of being drawn into doing things I had previously thought I had escaped.

So I had to get out, after six years of working and living in Beijing.

Kneel, pray, moves your lips and you will believe. Hike, escape, turn over a relatively minor matter like a bicycle, and you will make a decision.

When I began the hikes, I had thought I was finally becoming used to a new home. In earlier years, I had felt that my little corner of Beijing was an oasis in a massive maze. I could skip through the maze on the metro, emerging at another point, but it remained a maze. The hikes of early 2019, in all directions of the compass, made me feel oriented, finding a love for the mountains to the west, the Green Belts, the amazing recovery of Beijing’s environment. But the walks were also escapes, a need to set out on foot for four to five hours at a time, returning to my small apartment with a recovered soul and a tired body.

But I had been escaping, not settling in. I had been saying goodbye, not hello.

It hit me – finally – when I was packing my bags for a trip to the fabled port of Dalian in the north. Packing, lacing up my shoes and stepping out the door filled me with anticipation and glee.

As for the shoes, after about 250 kilometres of hiking, they were falling apart. But they would hold out for one more departure.

Walking Beijing, Day 14: Eastward along the Tucheng (12 April 2019)

More than a month ago I had begun walking Beijing with the sense that I was only beginning to get to know my new home. Back then I was orienting myself, seeking to overcome the sense that I had been living in a small oasis in the midst of a massive maze. Back then I thought that – at last – I could claim the city as my home, even after working here for many a long year.

The problem is that I am a nomad at heart (youmu shenghuo), unable to settle in one place for too long. What looked like home for a while pales, the road beckons, and once again I begin to feel as though home is elsewhere.

Over the last few days of intense and focused activity, this nomadic feel had become stronger. I needed to walk once again, unable to sit and work at whatever task was at hand.

Initially, I thought of heading west along the familiar routes, but soon enough decided to head east. I would make for the fabled Olympic Park, pretty much directly east from where I live in Zhongguancun.

Barely able to remain put to get the day’s tasks done and decide what could wait (most of them), I was on my way earlier than usual. New shoelaces in ancient but well-worn shoes, backpack with essentials, a quick lunch at the ‘Holiland’ bakery – I was striding along backstreets to find Zhichunlu (Knowing Spring Road).

A long green strip on the map was my initial aim, alongside a waterway. Having experienced Beijing’s energetic Green Belt construction already on a number of occasions, I was keen to find another example.

The find was unexpected: it turned out to be the remnants of the Yuan Dynasty city wall, constructed in the mid-thirteenth century. Known as the tucheng, the ‘earth wall’, it had been built as an earth rampart with fortifications on top. Except for occasional reconstructions of the fortifications that had crumbled over the centuries, reasonable parts of the earth rampart itself remain. They have in more recent times been held together by tree roots as part of Beijing’s greening, but this relatively simple construction has stood the test of centuries.

Who were the Yuan? They were a Mongol dynasty, headed by Kublai Khan. Gradually extending his hold southward, he overcame the Song dynasty in 1271 and made Beijing (Yuandudu) his capital. For almost 100 years the Yuan ruled a largely unified China, even hosting the fabled Marco Polo. By 1368 they were defeated by what became the long-lasting Ming Dynasty.

But it was the Mings who did the Yuan an unexpected favour, for they built their wall closer in to what was then the city of Beijing. The Ming wall largely followed what is today the second Ring Road, inside which one may find the most ancient parts of Beijing. By contrast, the Yuan era earther wall was further out, functioning as a primary line of defence. From my perspective, or at least on my current walk, this meant that the Yuan wall – the tucheng – was further north of the centre of the old city. Left alone over the centuries, it was gradually transformed into both a historical site and yet another Green Belt.

Initially, I thought I would walk some of the way and then turn left for Olympic Park. But the tucheng runs as straight as an arrow and walking along it creates a rhythm, a meditational frame of mind. I simply kept walking until I could walk no further, when this section came to its easternmost end, deep in the Chaoyang district.

Only then did I realise how tired I was and how far I had walked: 17 kilometres. It was to be a metro home.

Walking Beijing, Day 13: Haidian Park and the Western Greenbelt (7 April 2019)

Thus far, I have not mentioned my weekly walk to church and back, even though the distance covered is about 5 kilometres return. The place of worship is known as Haidian Christian Church, a parish in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches. This is the officially recognised Protestant Church in China, which was established in 1951 in close cooperation with the new communist government. Indeed, one of its key founders, Wu Yaozong, was a Christian communist theologian, and his successor, Ding Guangxun, was also a Christian communist and the church’s first Chinese bishop.

Since then, the church has flourished, with its focus on self-government, self-support and self-propagation. At the local parish, there are seven services every Sunday, with more than 1,000 worshippers at each service. Yes, that makes more than 7,000 in total every Sunday. No wonder the ministerial staff is almost 20, with a significant number of assistants. Nationwide, there are 24 million members nationwide, making it one of the largest Christian churches in the world.

This Sunday, I did not walk home after church, but continued walking on a warm spring day. My hike took me back to Haidian Park, which I had discovered less than a week ago on my walk to the Summer Palace. Then, it was still relatively quiet, for people seemed to prefer the spring flowers elsewhere. Today was a complete contrast, for it was packed.

Why? It was the Qingming festival weekend. On the first day (Friday this year), people go and ‘sweep the tombs’ of ancestors, that is clean them and pay respects. Then on Saturday and Sunday, it is time to head out for a picnic, enjoy the spring weather … and fly kites. There were hundreds of kites, somehow avoiding becoming tangled in each other’s lines. On the ground were tents galore, with children running about, grandparents putting out food for a picnic, and parents doing whatever.

By comparison, my favourite western Green Belt was a haven of peace and quiet. Of course, it was only a section of the Green Belt, for this one in its full extent runs all the way from the multiple Summer Palace grounds through to the big parks in the south of the city. But what a section it was: at some point in the reasonably distant past, it been an area of rice paddy fields. So, as part of the creation the Green Belt, some of the paddy fields had been restored to give the area a distinct feel. I lingered long, walking along the raises edges of the fields, viewing them from different angles, pondering how their spread in ancient times had transformed the landscape of China – and provided the nutritional basis for its large population.

Too soon was this walk over. I had become used to longer distances, so the 12 kilometres felt more like a stroll.

Walking Beijing, Day 12: Ming Tombs (5 April 2019)

I kept pushing further west and further north, more and more out of town. It helped that the Beijing city council had been actively extending its metro system (apart from the local high-speed rail network). Last year, the metro system had covered some 500 kilometres, with about 6 billion passenger rides per year. The aim was double its reach by 2020 to 1000 kilometres. Again, only a stable, communist local government can achieve such tasks.

One line went quite a way out of town, almost to the Great Wall. A stop on this line had intrigued me: Ming Tombs (ming shishan ling). I had to go, even if it took almost an hour to get there.

I emerged from the newly minted station into – a Manzu village! No tombs to be seen anywhere. What to do? I shrugged off the willing locals offering me a ride for 20 RMB (cheap by any standards) and set off to walk the distance. After getting lost in the village, I gave in and forked out the aforesaid amount for a 5-minute drive to The Sacred Way.

The Sacred Way? It was a five kilometre hike along ‘the way’ to get to the first of the tombs, all of which are set into the mountain side in a studied effort at Feng Shui (wind-water).

But let us pause for a moment and ask what the Ming Tombs are. The dynasty itself lasted from 1368 to 1644 – almost 300 years. Construction at the foot of Tianshou mountain began in 1409, when the Ming dynasty moved from Nanjing to Beijing. Over the next 230 years more were constructed over an impressive era. In all, 13 emperors are buried there, although only 3 of the tombs are open to visitors (the rest remain to be excavated).

A little unlike most of my previous walks, I actually paid for a ticket and went inside this park – or at least, the Sacred Way part. Not as popular as the Place Museum (‘Forbidden City’) or the Great Wall, it did have its fair share of foreign visitors and their expected tour guides. But the day was overcast and cool, so fewer than usual were actually there. The Sacred Way itself is simply a straight line, running from one massive portal – or gate – to another. Along its way are gardens and statues, of exotic and mythical animals, and also of various figures from Ming times. While the massive guards were fearsome looking, evoking the mythical warriors of Chinese folklore, the scholars and courtiers were more intriguing.

I was quite taken with one, who not only sported the moss of hundreds of years in the open, but also the intriguing hu. This was  a ceremonial tablet, made of bamboo and held by the scholar (or indeed other officials) before the breast when seeing the emperor in person. Even though this one held the hu as required, he seemed to lost in thought and gazing into an infinite distance – as one should even when seeing an ancient Chinese emperor.

The Sacred Way might be what it is, but I enjoyed more the few kilometres back to the metro station in the village. I passed farm gates and fields on the way, dodged the occasional delivery motor scooter (even out here) discovered – at the village gate – that it was indeed a Manzu village. Inside, I was able to lose myself among the alleys and markets and solid homes, until one of the alleys took me out to the field where the metro station could once more be found. By now, 16 kilometres of walking felt like a normal pastime.

Walking Beijing, Day 11: Yiheyuan, or Summer Palace (2 April 2019)

The fabled Summer Palace – Yiheyuan. Finally I was inside. But not as easily as I had anticipated. The walk there was fine, some 4 kilometres along roadways and through the surprise of Haidian Park (more on that place later). The east of gate of Yiheyuan had none of the new zhifubao payment systems – whether Alipay or Wechat pay. It was cash only.

But my cash turned out to be counterfeit. I had three 100 RMB bills, from where I do not recall. They did seem a little bright, but I thought it was because they were new. The woman at the counter ran them through the machine that checks things a few times. Each time the same result: fake.

Why? I wondered. Hardly anyone in China uses cash these days, so why would one bother with counterfeit notes. Perhaps were a relic of the wild days, when such notes were more common and the machines she used came into regular use. No matter: I had to find some cash. On my map, I spied one some two kilometres away. There I marched, withdrew what I hoped were genuine notes and marched back to the gate. The woman smiled, ran the note through the machine, and smiled even more widely. With my ticket in hand, I entered the Summer Palace.

The sun was already low in the western sky, making for some stunning views. Whoever had designed the place a few centuries ago certainly knew what they were doing. Kunming Lake gave the impression that the whole area sat at the foot of the western mountains. A pagoda rose in the mist before the mountains, while the sun itself threw long shadows over the water.

At each turn was another delight, especially given its long history: originally dating to the 12th century, the park as we know it owes much to the indefatigable Qianlong emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who ordered its construction in 1750. It may have been destroyed on a couple of occasions by those barbarian invaders, the British and French, but it has systematically been rebuilt over the long years since.

My favourite – after hiking long around the lake – was the Farming and Weaving Picture Scenic Area (Gengzhi tu Jingqu). Many are the distinct gardens, waterways, bridges and buildings one can explore, but this one recalls the daily lives of the peasants upon whose backs the feudal imperial system lived.

By the time I left the farming and weaving area, it was almost dark. I had originally planned to hike the hills on which most of the palace buildings are constructed. Indeed, I thought I could simply dash through to the north gate and my way home. Of course not, for by now the many buildings were locked for the night and I had to make my way around the side hills, across ‘Suzhou Street’ and out the north gate. A metro station was not far away (on line 4), but by the time I walked home from the station at the other end, I had covered 18 kilometres.