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.

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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.

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.