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.

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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.

Walking Beijing, Day 3: Two Bicycle Shops (9 March 2019)

Something had felt very good the previous day. The feeling had begun in my feet and worked its way up my legs to the rest of my body. I wanted to feel it again, so today I was out once more. Today’s purpose: to find a local bicycle shop, which could supply me with the necessities: pump, helmet, puncture repair, speedo, and so on.

Baidu maps told me there was one a couple of kilometres to the west. Even though this neighbourhood was a few minutes from my apartment, I had never been here. The street along which I walked was Wanquanzhuang, literally ‘Ten thousand springs village’. I was enthralled, for I had happened upon a local area in the western parts of Beijing. Here people were buying fresh vegetables, children were attending a brand new school, dentists advertised their wares, especially ‘St. Pearl Dental Club’ (a valiant effort to translate untranslatable Chinese), and English language teachers plied their trade.

Seeking a toilet, I had entered a building and was directed to the fifth floor. Relieved, I emerged and was surrounded by half a dozen people. Had I done something wrong? ‘May I ask you a few questions?’ said one. Puzzled, I agreed. ‘Where are you from?’ he said. ‘Australia! Would you like to teach English?’ I smiled and said I was busy enough. They had their own curriculum, which I would simply need to follow. I could even work part-time, if that suited me best. Ah no, I had other things to do in my life.

Such as find the bicycle shop. Find one I did, but it was a foreign brand shop that sold a limited range of items. A good helmet I did find, as well as a somewhat pricey speedometer, but I would need more. Head home? Another shop was some four kilometres away. Why not? My feet were enjoying the quiet massage of being in motion, the ache in my right leg from sitting too long had well and truly passed.

Back alleys, local neighbourhoods, small shopping strips were my fare for most of the walk, which wound its way southward to a massive intersection on the third ring road. On one of the long curving exit roads, the second shop appeared. Now this was my kind of bicycle shop! Pumps and mirrors and puncture kits and spare parts galore. I found all I wanted, coughed up the ‘money’ (via Alipay) and planned my return route. Up Suzhou street from far further south than I had ever been on foot.

By the time I returned home, I had walked about 12 kilometres. Tired and hungry I might have been, but over a beer I finally realised I had a major purpose for the walks: I would explore Beijing on foot, mapping the city into my bodily memory.

Walking Beijing, Day 2: Parkway Green to find a Brompton Bicycle (8 March 2019)

The hives also arose from sitting too long, especially behind a desk. Three or four hours a day was the most I could manage, even if I wanted to sit longer (which I did not). Today was another with the same awareness. I had to get moving, in some way or another. A run and weights for an hour or so a day no longer did the trick.

So I decided the buy a bicycle. Not any bicycle, but a Brompton bicycle. I already had one, which I used for month-long tours in Europe, but I wanted one for China.

One of the paradoxes of all this time in China is that I had not ridden a bicycle here. Everywhere else in the world, I rode – all the time. But here, I had become accustomed to doing without. Today would rectify the situation.

‘Parkway Green’ was the place for the ‘Brompton Junction’ shop. To the east it was, somewhere in Chaoyang. The metro took me somewhere nearby, but Parkway Green itself was a bit of a walk. Eventually, I turned a corner and found it – a futuristic up-market shopping mall that one finds only in China. A sign, perhaps, that already the socialist market economy was leaping ahead.

I must have walked all of the floors before I finally found the shop at the basement level. Here I had to manage in Chinese, since the young man at the shop spoke very little English. We managed to agree on every item I wanted, so as to fit out the bike for touring. How long would it take? Two to three weeks, I thought I heard him say … only to find out later it would be two to three months! The bicycle had to be assembled to my specifications in England and shipped out.

The Brompton, I must admit, had become part of a plan to feel more at home in Beijing. I had already imagined rides to different parts, to the mountains west, perhaps to Shanghai and elsewhere.

Not yet.

But on returning home, I found a small surprise: I had walked 10 kilometres to find the shop and return home. The constant movement, the enhanced circulation, the focus on finding out where to go – all these seemed to ease the hives and my sickness of the soul.