Go Take a (Beijing) Hike Posted by sasha on Feb 4, 2015 in Uncategorized
While Chinese mega-cities are known for their air pollution, ridiculous traffic jams, and crowded streets, there’s a whole other world awaiting you outside in the far reaches of huge municipalities such as Beijing. Nature lovers will be happy to hear that it’s not all concrete jungle and smoggy skies in the Chinese capital; there are abundant opportunities for hiking through beautiful landscapes, even in Beijing. Those willing to put forth the effort are rewarded with blue (or at least blue-ish) skies, fresh air, and stunning views. In my many years of living and working in the Chinese capital, I made sure to get out of the city and go on hiking trips whenever my schedule permitted it. To give you an idea of the outdoor adventure opportunities in Beijing, here are some highlights from five of my favorite hikes:
Five Great Towers
One of the first hikes I ever went on was this day trip with a group out to Miyun (密云 – mì yún), a county in northeast Beijing. As this hike was done in the fall, there were still some shades of green, red, and orange in the hills. We hiked up to the top of the hill and walked along to visit the “Five Great Towers.” From the peak, we could clearly see the massive Miyun Reservoir, one of Beijing’s major water sources.
As this was the first time I had gotten out of the city center on such a day trip, I was amazed to see the natural beauty, experience the peace and quiet, and hike in the mountains – all the while still actually in Beijing. I may have been guilty of enjoying the city’s nightlife a bit too much to actually get up at a reasonable hour on the weekends, but after this trip I made a point to forego Friday night fun in favor of Saturday outings more often. There’s always a hike going on in Beijing, so there’s no excuse not to get out there once in a while.
A Small Mountain Village
One of the best hikes I ever went on outside of Beijing was on a cool March morning to a small village out in the mountains northeast of the city. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Beijing is actually surrounded by mountains – especially on those “crazy bad” pollution days – but they are. After driving on the highway for a while, our little bus had to bounce along a narrow dirt road for a while before we arrived at the entrance to the village. Happy to have some company (and a nice monetary donation), the villagers showed us around, fed us a delicious lunch, and even treated us to a Peking opera performance.
We quickly noticed that the average age of the villagers seemed to be about 60, so we asked where all the young people were. Our guide told us that most young people have left the village to find better work in the city, leaving mostly only the elders and a few small children behind. This has been a trend throughout China in recent years, and there are now more Chinese in cities than rural areas. Most of the villagers seemed excited to have visitors, and especially curious to have foreign ones. One particularly nice guy even passed around his ridiculously long pipe.
When it was time to move on, we bid farewell to our new friends and started hiking up the hill from the base of their village. Although it was still winter and the landscape was mostly brown, it was great to be out of the city, free of the honking horns and massive crowds of people.
After about two hours of hiking, we arrived at a broken down watchtower. It turns out that this area outside of the village was once part of the Great Wall, and this tower is all that remains. Standing atop the tower, we enjoyed the views out across the mountains. Off in the distance, a crumbling section of the wall could be seen as well. Read more about this hike in a post I wrote a while back.
Another awesome hiking trip I took with a group was out to Yanqing County (延庆县 – yán qìng xiàn) in the middle of the summer. It was sweltering in the concrete jungle, so we jumped at the opportunity to get out to the mountains for the day. There weren’t any watchtowers or any sights to visit on this hike, just nature. Unlike tourist sights, where there’s almost always a staircase and at least one cable car – we simply followed our guide and no real path. It was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and the crowds found at scenic spots such as the Summer Palace.
Hiking outside of Beijing is great for so many reasons – you get exercise, breath in the fresh(er) air, and meet plenty of cool people. Joining a hiking group for a day allows you to get to know people you may not otherwise run into in your usual social circles. Through the many hikes I’ve done in China, I’ve met so many amazing people from so many countries – this has definitely been one of the highlights of such trips.
Shang Fang Shan
Another great day trip from Beijing is Shangfangshan (上方山 – shàng fāng shān), located 70 km southwest from the city in the similarly named Fangshan District. While the previous three trips were done with hiking groups, this scenic spot can easily be visited on your own. Hike up to the 860-meter (2,820 feet) peak, making plenty of stops along the way to take in the sights, such as ancient trees, exotic plants, and lots of Buddhist shrines. One drawback to this place is that it’s not exactly the “hiking” that you’re used to – this is the Chinese way, with hundreds and hundreds of stairs.
Don’t be surprised if you run into some wildlife on your walk, as there are some naughty monkeys roaming about. You may even be blocked from walking through one gate by a donkey, as we were.
At the end of your long hike, you’ll come to Cloud Water Cave (云水洞 – yún shuǐ dòng). Inside ,you can admire the stalagmites and stalactites, which are all bathed in neon light in typical Chinese fashion. There are also a bunch of Buddhist statues, also illuminated in blue, green, and red. All in all, this is a great day trip from the city that makes for an entertaining and active outing.
For more on visiting Shangfangshan and the caves, check out this post.
One of the most popular places to go for a hike in Beijing are the Fragrant Hills (香山 – xiāng shān). This is especially true in the fall, when the leaves all change color and the hills are painted green, orange, red, and yellow. We made the trek out there one fall day, braved the crowds, took in the views, and then had an insane time trying to get back to the city. Should you choose to visit at this time of year, perhaps it’s better to arrange your own transportation or even cycle.
Even when there are huge crowds at the hills, it’s not too hard to escape them; most Chinese folks are content with taking the cable car up and down and want nothing to do with the 2-3 hour hike. It’s possible to find quiet places to sit down, relax, and enjoy nature no matter when you visit. That being said, if you come a bit later in the fall or at other times of the year, you’ll find the place to be fairly empty. On a clear day, you can enjoy some of the best views of Beijing from here. After all that hiking, go ahead and take the cable car down – you’ve earned it!
For more of the Fragrant Hills, take a look at this video from a few years ago:
If you’re planning a trip to Beijing and would like to get out of the city on a hike, check out the three following groups. All of them have a good reputation and I have personally gone hiking with them all. Even if you live in the city, check them out. You can get out to explore parts of Beijing you might not otherwise see, breath some fresh air, and make new friends.
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