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 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.