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.

Walking Beijing, Day 7: Finding Zizhuyuan, or Black Bamboo Grove (19 March 2019)

A few days later, it was time to head south. The two main roads that could enable me to do so went as straight as you will. I opted for Zhongguancun Road, a six lane thoroughfare replete with bicycle lanes and ample footpaths.

Early on I found a small green strip, between the apartment blocks and road itself. Gardeners were busy watering the dry ground to assist with early spring growth, while other workers were engaged in yet another task. Many of the pedestrians along the road opted to take the main footpath, but I preferred the grasses, flowers and trees. A few older people sat quietly on a bench, one or two younger people were having a break after lunch. But for the traffic I could glimpse between the trees, I may have been far away from such a thoroughfare.

Originally, I had planned to walk further south to a large park, Yuyuantan, hike through the park itself and take the metro home. The plan changed with an unexpected discovery: right beside the glorious National Library (known until now merely as a metro stop), was the recently opened Zizhuyuan: Black Bamboo Park. Why not? I asked at the gate if there was a few. No fee, please enter. For me, this was a very auspicious beginning.

Inside was a sheer delight. In ages past, it had been a small retreat for Ming Dynasty emperors. The Nanzhang River had been dammed, a lake formed, gardens of black bamboo, trees, flowers and grasses planted. Like many other such places, it had only recently been reopened after many years of green reconstruction.

Early spring blossoms abounded, but people seemed to prefer other and more well-known locations throughout Beijing. So here were relatively few people – which is saying something for Beijing. I could lose myself on paths through the small hills (presumably from digging out the lake) festooned with bamboo and trees. I could meander along the lake and be taken in with the cultural aesthetics as to how such places should appear and feel. I could sit on a small bench, eat a bread roll and sip some water, while looking out over the lake and the blue sky above.

At one moment, a park worker pointed excitedly into the water. Among the freshly shooting reeds was a turtle, enjoying the crystal clear water.

Finally, it struck me: I was experiencing at first hand the comprehensive greening of Beijing. I may have noticed year by year the improving air quality, and I had heard that the new mayor of Beijing was given the task of cleaning up the city’s environment.

But a place like this requires longer-term planning and implementation. Short-term, the many environmental laws need to be enforced strictly – as they have been. Long-term, you need to clean up waterways and plant ever more trees. China as a whole may lead the world in reafforestation, but Beijing itself is seeing the results of its own long project of becoming a green city, a testament to ‘ecological civilisation’.

Reluctant to leave the park, I tarried long. But darkness was looming and I had some walking to get home. I left through the west gate, wound my way through some local streets and picked up Suzhou Street. Due north it ran and took me home.

Today’s kilometre count: 14.

Walking Beijing, Day 6: To Xiangshan (16 March 2019)

A couple of days later, I planned a serious hike: to the first of the mountains west of Beijing. Foothills I guess they are even if they rise hundreds of metres. But the mountain ranges run much further west, rising to thousands of metres.

By now I had a rhythm: a few tasks in the morning (Chinese study mostly); a brief visit to the office to deal with necessary but undesirable email messages; a change; water and a couple of bread rolls in my backpack (from the Haolilai bread shop); eagerly march away.

Due west I went, enjoying once again the local delights of Wanquanzhuang Street. The map turned me northward, along the edge of an intriguing green space that I would come to enjoy. Westward again I walked, following signs to ‘West Mountain’. Relatively few were the walkers here, since I was really coming to the edges of the city. But here I made a simple decision that would change my walking patterns afterwards. The footpath ran beside a green strip. Intrigued, I turned into the green strip to find a glorious path among the trees!

Too soon did it come to an end, for now I found ‘Xiangshan Lu’, which would take me to the fabled ‘Fragrant Mountain’ (as it is known in translation). On both sides of the road were high barriers, for there was extensive reafforestation taking place in part of the botanical gardens. All I had a was a bicycle lane on the side of the road.

After a pause to consider my options, I realised the road was the only way. Another unexpected discovery: all such structures (along with many others) carry elaborate posters and slogans. They are always changing, with new proposals being made. By now I was used to the Core Socialist Values, but now they appeared by drawing on traditional Chinese motifs and elements of socialist realism.

My favourite was the one promoting labour: workers in the fields were bending their backs in harvest and surrounding them was a slogan: ‘Labour: a beautiful and harmonious melody’.. A small sign of the significant focus on the value of labour, workers, the ‘laobaixing’ or common people, as central to the socialist project in China.

At about 12 kilometres, my labour felt like it was coming to an end. I hit my wall and found each step a struggle. Rationally, I knew I could walk through to the point of beginning to burn up my few fat reserves. Physically, it was a struggle for a kilometre or so.

The main gate of the botanical gardens appeared, and then Xiangshan village itself. Soon the sun would set, so people were pouring out after a weekend celebration of spring.

Thankfully, Xiangshan now has a now metro line – really a tram or ‘light rail’ line – that runs sedately along to join the main metro system. By the time I walked home from my local metro shop, it was dark. I had hiked more than 15 kilometres.

Walking Beijing, Day 5: North to Yuanmingyuan (14 March 2019)

What lay further to the north? On my weekly walks in that direction to church, or perhaps to the Xinhua bookshop, I had stopped shy of a mysterious overpass. I had used the overpass as a landmark for my worshipful destination, but the church was on this side of it.

Today I would see. Up Suzhou Street I marched, a little dizzy due to a hive on my face (resulting in a swollen cheek that made me look like I had a dreadful communicable disease).

The overpass was, of course, no mystery at all. But I had to walk it to find out. In fact, the street became ‘Yiheyuan Lu’, the ‘Summer Palace Street’. Soon enough the western wall of Beijing University arose, with its ornate gate from times past. At the T-intersection, about 4 kilometres from my apartment, I could head west to Yiheyuan, which is commonly known as the Summer Palace, or walk a little east to find the gate for Yuanmingyuan, sometimes called the Old Summer Palace.

The latter had reopened only a few years ago, after extensive restoration and landscaping. ‘Restoration’ is perhaps the wrong word. The extensive ruins had been stabilised and protected, with viewing areas to view the ruins. What ruins? In the nineteenth century, it had a significant number of ‘Western’ – or what they called ‘Overseas’ – style buildings in the midst of traditional style Chinese gardens. Construction began in 1709 and took 150 years to complete.

In their search for world domination by whatever means possible, the British had been stung by a significant naval defeat by the wily Qing commander. They resolved to punish the ‘deceitful’ Chinese and gathered a joint force with the French. Part of their activities involved burning the buildings in Yuanmingyuan to the ground and looting the many cultural relics and manuscripts that had been gathered there – as ‘cultured’ countries like England and France do.

150 years later, the park – after much work – was finally reopened. But today I was not interested in the park itself. I had been therefore, on a winter’s day when few were there. Today was different, not merely because of the crowds seeking the first flowers of spring, but because I was interested in walking to places, not in them (mostly).

I followed the outskirts of the park to the western gate of Tsinghua University, which is actually on part of the grounds of the old summer palace. Here Zhongguancun Street took me south and back home. With more than ten kilometres walked even today, it felt like relatively short distance.

Walking Beijing, Day 4: South-East to Chaoyang (12 March 2019)

Now I had a plan of sorts, aiming to walk in all directions of the compass. My apartment was to the northwest (or ‘west-south’ as they say here). The fabled centre of town was to the southeast. I would set out for Chaoyang, well inside the second ring road.

One may think that walking along a major road, a ring-road no less, with its many lanes and constant traffic, would not an ideal ‘hike’. In Australia, for instance, no one walks along such roads and the facilities for doing so are minimal at best. Not here.

Many, many people walk along them all the time. But this also means that one must be able to do so. Footpaths go everywhere. One can cross a major intersection through a tunnel, on an overpass or indeed at pedestrian crossings strategically placed. I continued to find an amazing ease with finding my way. Further, if one has a map system on one’s smartphone, it needs to indicate reasonable routes for walkers such as me and the many around me. Google maps is hopeless on this count, at least where one can use it in the world. By contrast, Baidu maps – among many other things – does precisely that: indicate where walkers may realistically go.

No sooner had I begun to realise this fact and the map took me off the main road and onto a winding narrow road that cut right through to the second ring. It turned and twisted and turned again, as though it had once been an ancient road out of the Ming Dynasty Walls.

Perhaps it was, for those walls actually followed the route of the second ring-road. Most of the wall had gone by now (unlike Nanjing, which the Mings had left after their first emperor), but the tracings of the Beijing of centuries ago could still be found along narrow roads such as the one I was following.

Crossing the wall line, I passed into the older city. I had by now covered a few layers of Beijing’s growth, somewhat like horizontal layers of an archaeological history. Inside, I was among the fabled hutongs, narrow streets, fancy shops … and more foreigners than I had seen in quite a while.

The increasing number of foreigners who come to work in Beijing – mainly due to the better jobs in China and its energetic push for international talent – tend to flock to such areas. They can also be found in Shunyi, where the international schools ply their wares. Teachers are always needed, but Shunyi also has neighbourhoods where one can go all day and not find a Chinese speaker or indeed Chinese architecture. These are the older expat conclaves, built to look like ‘home’ and not like one is living in China.

Inside the second ring is different. Some foreigners feel this is the ‘authentic’ China, renting in a hutong (in an expensive apartment refurbished to their likes), buying at the local vegetable market, but also demanding ‘café culture’ and all those very traditional features of the ‘authentic’ Beijing.

Not for me. I must admit that I did enjoy happening upon the Gulou tower, and the late meal in a quiet restaurant, but I was keen to get out of the place. Given the distance walked, I needed to take the metro home. Even so, by the time I did so, I had walked even more than 12 kilometres.