Friday, March 14, 2008

Fresh Air

Beijing is said to be the second most polluted city in the world, after Mexico City. There is a growing environmental movement here in China but that hasn't yet changed the fact that Beijing residents don't often get to see the sky. Parents here are relieved of answering a question that plagues many American parents: "Why is the sky blue?". In a ploy to try and see the sky, and breathe some fresh air, I joined the group Beijing Hikers for one of their full-day hikes outside of Beijing City.

I met up with over 30 other hikers from around the world (China, Germany, U.K., Italy, France, Australia, U.S.) in the Starbucks Cafe in the luxury Holiday Inn Lido Beijing in northeast Chaoyang district at 8:30am on a recent Sunday morning. There was a large, clean comfortable bus waiting to drive us the hour and a half to the trailhead. As we embarked we were presented with snacks: fresh bananas and Snickers bars. During the ride we were given a map of the trail we'd be taking and the cell phone numbers of the hike organizers, just in case we wandered away from the group and needed help. We were told that the woman leading the hike would mark the path with red ribbons along the way and the man who would be at the rear of the group would be taking the ribbons down. The two of them would communicate with walkie-talkies as we went along, to communicate any information about anything interesting or any safety issues (once it was to warn of a rabbit trap right next to the trap, to ensure that no one stepped on it).

The hike started when we disembarked from the bus on the side of the paved road and started to walk along a gently sloping dirt path. After a few minutes we were out of sight of the road and could see only nearby scrub brush and trees in the distance, and a few power lines nearby. At the end of February the ground was still frozen and the bushes were still barren so the landscape was various shades of brown and beige, interrupted by evergreens in the distance. As we proceeded over gently rolling hills we walked past a small village and could see other hills off in the distance. A nearby schoolyard had exercise equipment, a basketball court and a pingpong table. After we passed the town we saw a small chicken farm, with white chickens pecking their way around a fenced in pen, then a large greenhouse for growing produce during the frigid winters. While passing through empty farm fields we encountered a farmer and his herd of goats, foraging for edible remains on the ground. After this the terrain started to change and the hills became steeper. From one we could look down at an area reservoir, which at 20 meters below the usual levels gave us a strong visual indicator of the drought affecting the Beijing area.

When we reached the road after four hours on the trail our bus was waiting to take us to a local restaurant in a nearby town. There was a dining room set aside for the vegetarians, more than ten of us, and we feasted on vegetable dumplings, noodles in broth, peanuts, cold tofu salad, a salad of a red radish like vegetable and chili oil, steamed rice, tomato omelette, a bean salad, and a number of other dishes, all accompanied by tea, beer and Coca Cola, before we were told that we could visit the other dining room for coffee, hot chocolate, nuts and cookies. After we'd eaten our fill we were ushered back onto the warm bus for the ride back to Beijing, arriving at approximately the time that had been estimated for our return.

Cloudy weather on the day of the hike prevented my seeing a blue sky. I still consider it 300 RMB well spent. I'm looking forward to more hikes in the future.

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