There is a well known park on the Western edge of Beijing called the Fragrant Hills. It is quite old, and revered for the color of red that the leaves turn in the fall. Ever time I asked for directions to the park, I was informed that it wasn’t a good time of the year to go, and that I should wait until the fall when the leaves will be the right color. I was far less interested in the leaves, and more inclined to find a place that had some terrain to climb around. Beijing is nothing if not flat, and I have been feeling a need to get out and go for a hike. I wanted to see some change in the terrain, some countryside, anything other than traffic. Fragrant hills seemed like the perfect choice.
I had tried a few days prior to get to the same spot, but incorrect directions led to a disastrous attempt, and I got nowhere near my destination. This time, I got a much earlier start with the hope that it would give me room to correct any navigational errors that might occur. To date, I have taken very few days trips that did not involve an obscene amount of walking and a good bit of guesswork, but as long as I have enough time, this tends to add to the overall experience. I enjoy that short-lived disorientation that occurs when you get off at the wrong stop, or find that the bus you were meant to get on no longer exists. These are strange moment in which to world looks just a little bit different.
It was not so difficult to get to the park once I found directions that were accurate. I got off the subway, and shortly thereafter hopped on a bus that would take me the final distance. It was strange knowing that I was some 10 miles from where I began my trip, and still very much within the city of Beijing. This section looked and acted nothing like the area that I am staying, and it was nice to see some places that were not purely tourist. Long rows of small shops lined the sides of the streets, selling all variety of things. Dismal looking five and six story apartments ran past as, showing their age in the discoloration of once white tiles. This was much more what I was after. We were still in Beijing, but I felt transported.
Arriving in the section of city at the base of the park, I wasn’t quite sure where to head. There were plenty of signs saying “Fragrant Hills”, but they all pointed into oblivion. I find that the greatest problem with street navigation in China is that every bit of signage is meant for someone driving a car. If you are on foot, this is little to no help and frequently forces you to walk a much greater distance than may be reasonable. I have given up on asking Chinese for directions for two reasons. One is that they tend to be very hard to understand in the way that they provide landmarks, and the other is that if they aren’t sure, they will either say that they don’t know (the appropriate answer), or make something up. Sometimes this comes close to the right answer, and other times it just sends you in circles. I prefer to just take my chances in guessing. In the case of Fragrant Hills, I was able to see the summit in the distance, and that helped quite a bit in determining if I was headed at all in the right direction.
I do not remember the exact size of the park, but I have no doubt that you could spend the entire day there and still have things to see. The land and some of the structures date back almost a thousand years, and though most of the original structures were destroyed, you can still see a significant number of remaining foundations and brickwork. The bricks that were set 500 years ago were done with much greater care and skill than anything I have seen from the last 30 years, and I have no doubt that what remains of the old will outlive the new.
I began my hike uphill, headed toward the are known as Incense Burner Park, all the way at summit. The highest point is just over 500 meters high, which runs in great contrast to the dead flat plains just to the east. I was happy to be moving and in the woods, which I have missed greatly since leaving the mountains in New York. The paths in the park are laid entirely with stone and concrete, which, although nice looking, can be very hard on the knees and feet. As I moved further into the grounds, I began to notice that there were large number of older couples in the park, walking around listening to small radios that hung from their necks or sat in their bags. I would usually hear them coming before I could see them, the high notes of Chinese music drifted through the trees giving away their otherwise silent presence. I would never have thought to bring a radio as an addition to my time on a hike, but in most respects this was more of a park with large hills, and just like every other park, the elderly could be found relaxing in the shade and enjoying a day of quiet.
Everywhere I went, the air buzzed with the sounds of birds and the deafening hiss of cicadas (or perhaps large crickets?) that characterize a Beijing summer. I know many people that hate the sounds of these little creatures, but I cannot picture the place without them. They are a part of the greater whole. As I walked, I would periodically see a Chinese men standing in the bushes, staring off into nothing, as though searching for the source of the bodiless sound within the trees.
Nearing the top, I found myself sweating and unusually out of breath. I can’t but wonder if the Beijing air is already taking a toll, but I hope not. Hundreds upon hundreds of steps lead to the top, and at times they can get very steep. I can imagine that during the busy season I would be a bit scary to climb some of these sections within a large crowd. I arrived at an overlook and was completely taken by the view of the hills that sat all around us. It was a very smoggy day, but the haze added to the appeal, giving definition to the hills in the distance. I wanted to climb far out into those unknown valleys to see the small places that sit in the horizon. I have always felt this way near the tops of mountains, when everything below you suddenly seems to be much more coherent. The world looks small down below, and for some reason I always find that it seems to be a different place, a mystery that needs to be explored. Once I arrive back at the bottom, however, it is hard to take hold of those feelings in quite the same way. I could hike forever, and I don’t think I would feel the same way while closer to the ground.
The top of the hill was not particularly thrilling, but after the long hike it was nice to feel the wind moving past, and I got a bit of that cold tinge that results from an overheated body cooling off too fast. I watched as Chinese men puffed up the hill, many of them business men with their shirts tucked in and their feet clad in leather loafers, drenched in sweat. I was surprised to see so few people that appeared to be hiking on their own, and over the course of the day I saw only one other westerner. There is a chairlift that runs from the base of the hill to the top, but due to my fear of in-house Chinese engineering I decided I would rather walk back down. It was a nice day for a walk, and soon enough I was back at the bottom looking up.