For about two years my counterpart at the Chinese Ministry of Communications, Li Ying, and I had been trying to connect to go for a hike somewhere outside of Beijing. She was concerned that all I ever ended up doing was seeing the city, missing the countryside outside of town. With my being stranded in Beijing for a week waiting to start my mission, for once I had time to spare. Fortunately, this also coincided with Li Ying also being in town so it would finally eventuate.
Li Ying arranged for a friend of hers from the Ministry of Commerce, Mr. Dong, to join us. She told me that Mr. Dong was not only a good companion, but also very organized. So at 08:00 Li Ying met me at the Sofitel Wanda hotel and shortly afterwards Mr. Dong collected us in his car.
The plan was to head about 50 km north of the city into the mountains and visit a forest. Being early in the morning traffic was light and in a surprisingly short time we were outside of the city. We had a slight problem insofar as there was a farmer protest: they had closed the road going up towards the park for some reason–at least it wasn’t because of the World Bank!
There is a surprising transition between the plains and the mountains: suddenly they are upon you and the road becomes very winding and tortuous. We stopped at a lookout for some photos and I decided to live dangerously and visit the roadside toilet. Big mistake. Looked like it hadn’t been emptied in a year, but at least being late winter with temperatures not a lot above zero in the sun, at least there were no flies and the smell was tolerable.
We finally reached the entrance to the park and there was a fellow outside holding a sign. He was a local farmer who runs a restaurant and a lodge where city dwellers can come and experience life on a farm. It is a funny transition that the city folks are becoming nostalgic for the life of the farmer: it is a very rough life. Li Ying told me the story of a colleague of hers whose parents used farming to inspire him to be a good student. When he was a bit indolent around the age of 10 they sent him to work on a farm. After a short time of very hard work he decided that brain work was a far more attractive proposition!
There was a sign by the entrance in Chinese (and English!) which said that the park was closed over winter to allow the forest a respite and that it would not open for another fortnight. However, being China the entrepreneurial nature of this farmer showed through and he said that he knew another entrance and for $10 he would show us. He also pointed out that this was less than the regular park entrance fee.
So we followed him on his electric bicycle and came to the back entrance of the park. After walking up the road past a very large building, which except for an Alsatian guard dog, was abandoned. We then found ourselves on a path heading up into the mountains.
The path followed a river through the forest. There were not a lot of large trees, but it was still very pleasant to be walking through nature, even if there was overabundance of rubbish lining the path. It was winter so there were no leaves on the trees, as the photo of Li Ying and Mr. Dong shows.
Mr. Dong had walked the north side of the park before so he found it very interesting to see the other side. A keen photographer, he took quite a few photos with both his digital and film camera. I must admit that it’s been a while since I saw a film camera!
It was challenging to follow the path, which in many places just vanished. We ended up having to follow the river path which in many places still was frozen, even though it was a sunny day and over 10 degrees C.
We walked for over an hour and I wondered what this place would be like in summer. There were several abandoned buildings and the whole area had a general atmosphere of abandonment. However, Mr. Dong assured me that during summer there would be a lot of people here, although it would be limited to keen hikers as the trail was not the best.
This proved to be particularly true on the way back when we lost the trail several times. In the end, we decided just to climb our way home along the river which entailed jumping from boulder to boulder. The picture to the right shows things at one of the better sections. I found it challenging on my right knee due to my lack of lateral stability – the legacy of four knee operations. Hopping from boulder to boulder I was reminded of a challenging hike my wife and I went on towards the west coast in Auckland. At least here we weren’t trying to inch our way along cliff faces!
In spite of the challenging walk, it was great being out in nature and with such good company. The area reminded me a lot of places in the western USA with dramatic cliff faces towering above us. The winds were also a reminder of less pleasant times, like when I was on my bike battling my way forward.
We eventually found our way to the end of the walk and past the dog which was barking like mad again – probably the most excitement he had had in ages. I noted that the tail was wagging in a friendly way so I suspect that it was more bark than bite, but I was not prepared to find out!
It was now mid-afternoon and we decided to go to a Buddhist temple on the way home which also purportedly had vegetarian food. Mr. Dong was also vegetarian which was a pleasant surprise, although Li Ying was omnivorous. The temple was very popular, but then as it was a sunny weekend in Beijing – where seeing blue sky is a rarity in spite of what is promised for the Olympics – it should be expected. As China transitions to a ‘car culture’ more people are going exploring and there are more places to visit. After a very nice vegetarian lunch we wandered through the temple – the gateway of which is at the right.
One of the first places we stopped was, what I will call, the coin throwing bell. A large metal coin was hung below a bridge and in the middle was the bell. One bought steel coins and then threw them with the intent of hitting the bell. Doing so would bring you good luck. And attempting would bring good revenue to the temple! Mr. Dong was a good shot and hit the middle of the bell twice. I hit the top where it hung three times but never got a good ring. Poor Li Ying didn’t score at all!
There were obviously a lot of visitors from different countries since the guide signs were in Chinese, English, Russian and a number of other languages that I did not recognize. Obviously this is a place for devout Buddhists to visit. I for one appreciated the nature as it was built in a hilly area and the hillsides were covered in pine trees. Being China not many were very large, but it was still nice to be walking amongst the fragrance of pine needles.
In one part the hillside was covered in statues with red cloaks. There were 500 of them, each with a different face. The were festooned with inscriptions which, according to Mr. Dong, had to do with your character. Each were numbered to represent a year of life, and Li Ying pointed out that since we don’t last 500 years there must be a problem with his interpretation. I had to agree. She also said that she didn’t believe that one could change that much year-to-year. Such a realist!
We continued our wandering and came across a very motley looking cat near one of the temples. It was very skittish but after Li Ying had paid it some attention it came up close and before too long was enjoying a scratch behind the ears, purring like made. The poor animal had lost tufts of hair and was not looking too good, but by the same token it was not complete feral either. With some tender loving care it would have been a very nice cat. I gave it a pat too, and then we went to find somewhere to wash our hands!
There were some nice temple buildings but I noticed that they looked rather new. Upon closer inspection I found a sign saying that the originals had been destroyed in the early 1970’s and these were rebuilt copies. For those not familiar with the period, that was the height of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, where senseless destruction was done throughout the country and much of its priceless history was lost. The one good thing that the Nationalists did for China is that when they lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan they took much of the art from China’s museums – even at the expense of leaving some of their own generals behind! Today it is on display in Taiwan whereas if you visit museums here in China the pickings are often very slim.
We were soon at the exit where Mr. Dong grabbed the photo below. From there we went and had a foot massage courtesy of a friend of Li Ying’s who gave her a book of free foot massage coupons. The place we went to was huge, with a staff of 80, 60 of which did massage, and a turnover of some 300 clients a day. It was just the thing we needed after all the walking we did, although it was getting late in the day and I was quite tired.
Mr. Dong suggested dinner but I declined. He dropped me at the hotel and Li Ying came in to say hello to Jean-Marie Braun, my highway engineer, who she had met earlier when she needed advice on how to number China’s highway network. It transpired she had already organized to meet with him and my colleague Fei Deng in a few weeks when they pass through Beijing, so they will be the luck recipients of her hospitality. She then departed with Mr. Dong and I enjoyed a good night’s sleep. Poor Li Ying, she was off to Singapore in the morning so would have a very short night.
So ended a delightful day with two nice people, which was extra special because of being able to escape from Beijing. Pity that work so often precludes me having more like this.