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.