Aside from the obligatory trip to the Great Wall, visitors to Beijing rarely stray much beyond the Second Ring Road, although the municipality encompasses 6,500 square miles. To put it in perspective, Los Angeles County is 4,069 square miles.
There are mountains to the north and west, with reservoirs, hot springs and sleepy villages. To the south and east, farm fields take over, supplying Beijing with peaches, strawberries, cherries and watermelons in season.
Only recently have more Beijingers, enabled by new SUVs, touring bikes and camping gear, begun venturing outside the city. Earlier this year, while studying Mandarin at a Beijing university for four months, I often joined the weekend exodus, with the help of tour agencies and clubs that specialize in excursions around greater Beijing.
My ventures convinced me that seeing the city beyond the Sixth Ring Road, currently its widest concentric circle, should be high on the wish list for visitors before, during or after the next Summer Olympics.
My favorite weekend trips were with Beijing Hikers, founded in 2001 and dedicated to helping people, especially English-speaking tourists and expatriates (anyone can come, though) discover what there is to see beyond the Sixth Ring Road. Hikes can be easy saunters suitable for families or tough, long, steep climbs on wild sections of the Great Wall.
I did the three-mile Silver Pagoda Loop on a beautiful spring morning. The countryside through which our bus passed had the same well-worn feeling as much of rural China, and small towns looked half-deserted, drained by the gravitational pull of the city.
We started from the pretty hamlet of Haizi, which has a 300-year-old opera stage, tucked deep in the mountains of Changping County.
Leader Huijie Sun took about 30 people on the Silver Pagoda Loop hike. As she walked, she tied scraps of red cloth to tree branches to make sure people behind her didn’t lose their way. We crossed a ridge and passed an abandoned quarry on the route to the top of Silver Mountain. The summit affords a fine view of the pagoda park in the valley below, where many of the Buddhist temples date from the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234).
Another weekend, I booked a getaway at Mountain Yoga, a retreat in an old villa about a two-hour drive northwest of the city. The retreat van met me at the entrance of the Beijing Botanical Garden, where the flat, densely packed city yields to the Fragrant Hills.
From there, we threaded our way along country roads to Beianhe village at the gate of Dajue Temple. The beautifully renovated temple compound has imperial steles dating to the Liao Dynasty (907 to 1125), ancient magnolia trees and an elegant teahouse.
Mountain Yoga is just down a dirt road from the temple, surrounded by a stout wall and guarded by two big, shaggy mutts. The courtyard complex where I stayed had sloping tile roofs, overhanging eaves, colorfully painted lintels and intricately mullioned windows. Beyond that, the retreat was rustic, with old carved stones strewed across the grounds and an empty fish pond. The guest rooms around the courtyard were buggy and had little more than fans and beds.
I practiced asanas, yoga postures that are the same in China or L.A., under a colossal ginkgo in the courtyard, led by Xiao Jo, a young Chinese yoga instructor who had come out from the city. She didn’t speak English, and my Chinese was limited, so we communicated mostly in the universal body language of yoga during two classes a day plus meals, which were taken in a dining hall overlooking the vegetable garden from which most of our organic food came. I read and napped the rest of the time and figured myself lucky to have spent about $125 for a weekend that left me feeling as if I had awakened from a deep sleep.
Village of artists
When I cast about for other ways to get out of the city, I found the Chinese Culture Club, a local tour company that has a packed schedule of excursions, including Great Wall hikes, calligraphy courses and cruises on the old, imperial canal linking central Beijing to the Summer Palace. I chose a bus trip to Songzhuang Artists Community, about an hour east of the city.
Songzhuang grew up in 1994, when three Chinese artists, squeezed by high rents and government pressure in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests, left their previous enclave in northwestern Beijing. The farming village they chose as a new home has since burgeoned, drawing about 2,000 young artists to newly built quarters that have plenty of light and studio space.
Now, Songzhuang looks more like a suburb than a pastoral idyll and has a new museum dedicated to contemporary Chinese art.
Other than during the fall Songzhuang festival, the village is not open to the public, but the Chinese Culture Club arranged studio visits for the group. So we got to see, among other things, massive, abstract cityscapes that are the signature works of painter Zhao Dewei.
Hikes and excursions like these kept me sane and centered in Beijing. They also reminded me that, mushrooming though the city may be, it remains linked to the surrounding countryside, where you can still sit, listening to bird song, on the base of a pagoda.
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