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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 22, August 20 - 26

Escape From Beijing
(Four Trips Out Of Town)

Sleeping on the Great Wall
by Lynne Stewart
If you don't climb the Great Wall, you are a wimp! " (bu shang changcheng fei haohan.) So said Chairman Mao, and even imperialist running dogs have to agree. This leaves you with a choice: you can head for the ticketed, signposted, souvenir-swamped Badaling and Mutianyu, or you can be a real people's hero and take a gentle country lane to a section of the wall without ticket booths, trinket stalls and overpriced restaurants.

Huanghuacheng is a picturesque section of the wall in steep mountainous area. There is no rebuilt brickwork here, and some sections of the wall are mere rubble. Sounds just like Sanlitun, but at least in Huanghuacheng you won't get a hangover, be harassed by tabloid journalists or hassled by VCD vendors. The whole surrounding area rewards exploration, but a sure-bet for a good hike just follows the Great Wall for a spectacular four or five kilometer stretch.

Getting there is easy, and doesn't require your own car. Take the subway to Dongzhimen station and walk east past the KFC until you reach the bus depot. Every fifteen minutes or so bus #916 ( rmb 5) departs for Huairou, made famous as the suburban venue of the Beijing International Women's Conference in 1996. From Huairou, hire a minibus to Huanghuacheng. This trip, winding along tree-lined rural fields and villages should cost about rmb 30, one way.

By the time you arrive at Huanghuacheng, you'll probably be ready for a snack. Welcome to 'Pair of Dragons playing with a Pearl' - (shuang long zhu jiujia), a small family-run restaurant where you will be handed a fishing rod and invited to wave it about in the pond which runs off the nearby Huanghua reservoir. The pond is well stocked with fish: within five minutes of casting, our meal was flapping impressively at the end of the line. We order accompanying dishes, enjoy the beer and refuse enticing offers to spend the night there.

To walk up the wall, cross over the dam wall holding back the Huanghua reservoir just 50 meters north of the restaurant and then head straight for the first tower. Do not take the sensible-looking level path which heads off to the left. Walk through the window of the crumbling watchtower and climb up it on the right. You are immediately rewarded with views of the wall across the road to the west and the water below. At dusk you may also be treated to the sound of pipe-playing on the opposite bank.

Climb on to the second tower where parapets have fallen down and locals have removed the bricks. From here, you can walk as far as you want to, before bedding down for the night. It's best to walk in daylight since the rodents in the fourth tower elicit screams from more sensitive hikers: a large rat forced us to turn back to bed down in the third tower, where we slept surrounded by walls but under clean open skies. Bedding requirements depend on the temperature but the ground is hard and stony, so take something soft if you don't like sleeping on rough ground.

The next day, you can continue walking eastward, as far as Huairou if you are an exceptionally fast walker. But Chairman Mao said you just have to get on top of the Great Wall to be a hero, he didn't say how or require any further physical activity. My personal feeling is " bugger walking fast " so we take a shortcut back to the road.

About four hours' walk east of the restaurant starting point, the wall takes a ninety degree turn northwards. After this bend is a well-preserved watchtower. Just downhill from this is another intact tower with a stone tablet inscribed with Chinese characters in its south chamber. The tablet is supposed to date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

There are stairs leading down from the wall on the southeastern side of the tower. Follow the stairs to a path leading down to the valley floor. Back on flat land the path takes you through orchards and back to the road. To get back to Huairou, turn right and walk on to the bridge where there is water for sale and drivers will vie for your patronage.

If you're not ready to go back to modernity yet, don't go down the stairs at the stone tablet tower. Just follow the wall until you reach the valley floor, from where you can reach the same path through the orchards. This route requires some serious scrambling, so avoid high-heeled shoes, mini-skirts and suits.

Title-Badachu By Subway
by Joshua Samuel Brown
I have pet names for the various cities in which I've lived, names usually intoned most when I'm in the process of escaping. Taipei, situated in a wet and slimy valley surrounded on all sides by lovely mountains, is 'The Bowl of Pus.' Beijing, flat and impossibly dusty, is 'Grit Bath 1.'
I've been in Grit Bath 1 one month, and haven't been much further than the third ring road. I need to get out, but I have no idea where, so I do the logical thing for an impoverished writer-get as far out of the city as the subway can take me.

Armed only with a bottle of water, two oily croissants and a fengshui (geomancy) compass, I get on the subway at Jianguomen, and ride westward on the great underground dragon for 50 minutes to the far western terminus, a place called Pingguoyuan, or 'apple orchard.'

Getting off the train, I begin walking around the market behind the station. I run into a stall selling fresh-cut tobacco, and fine imitation 1950s 'Father Knows Best' style pipes. I buy one, chat and have a smoke. " What's fun to do around here? " I ask the tobacco vendor.

" Nothing! Nothing's fun around here! " she answers, smiling.
" Anything pretty? "
" None of that, either, " she says.
" Then why do you live here? "
" This is Pingguoyuan! " She says, adding " Why don't you go to Badachu, it's pretty. "
I hop into a motorcycle taxi. The ride to the Badachu park gates takes about 15 minutes and costs rmb 5, and the driver keeps telling me to not lean too far to the right.

Ninety minutes after leaving the heart of Grit Bath 1, with time for a chat, snack and smoke, I am at the bottom of the western hills at Badachu, sucking in clean air. Pagodas dot the hills, and the chant of religious scriptures combines with pop music in a soothingly cacophonous mix. I climb up the hill on cobblestone paths. At the top is a temple with an ancient 400 year-old bell, and I pay rmb 1 to strike the lucky bell three times with a wooden mallet.

Walking further into the hills, I run across four guys and their ponies standing in the road. They aren't hawking rides, but I ask anyway. " Yeah, sure, " says one of them, and we negotiate in a leisurely way for rmb 40 an hour. Mr. Wang runs behind me most of the way, but once he ascertains I can ride, he lags behind and yells at me " Faster! Faster! "

As I ride along the rocky ridge at the top of the Western Hills, Beijing is only a dim smudge of smog in the distance. I dismount for a while at the top, and Mr. Wang takes me to the temple and restaurant on the top of the peak. I grab some juice, and visit a Buddha in a cave. Mr. Wang has ascertained that I can handle Xiao Hong, his healthy and excitable Xinjiang pony, and lets me go off alone.

I ride around a bit longer until I hear Mr. Wang whistling to his horse. We ride down the hill, and I ask Mr. Wang how I can find him and the horses again. He tells me that the park is used as a grazing and boarding area for some of the local equines and their people, and it's pretty much catch as catch can. " Just look around on the top of the hill until you find one of us. Bring your friends. " With that I dismount, and begin a long walk back toward dusty Beijing as the sun sets behind the Fragrant Hills.

GETTING THERE: Take the Beijing subway east-west line to the western terminus station of Pingguoyuan. From there, take a taxi or motorbike taxi to Badachu .

Title-Cool Off Underground
by-jennifer Quinn

Heading south in the sweltering heat of this record-breaking summer might not sound like a great idea. " People are heading north, as did the emperors of old " my trusty interpreter tells me. If you want to follow the masses go north-but one answerto cooling off lies 50 kilometers south of Beijing and a few meters further down-straight down.

Qianzhen Cave, one of the largest grottoes in northern China, is located in the quaint Hebei Province village of Nancheying. The cool cave (average 11-13 C) is an underground labyrinth created by millennia of geologic magic. Limestone seepage and tectonic shifts occurring over 70 million years ago have created a landscape of beauty filled with stalactites, bats and a myriad other natural wonders.

The caves were discovered early in the Ming Dynasty, in 1379. A Buddhist monk named Guang Fa was roaming the hills looking for an end to human suffering, a quest that was supposedly fulfilled when he stumbled into the cave. The different parts of the cave still bear religious names like 'Temple of Disordered Pagodas' and 'Hall of Buddha' but ill-informed tour guides have taken the place of meditating monks.

Despite the colored lights and noisy chatter of yellow-capped tour groups inside the cave, a tour down below still rewards the visitor with a sense of calm. The tranquility ends when you emerge from the cave however: fiercely entrepreneurial trinket vendors whose stalls line the entrance to the cave ensure that the visitor is brought swiftly back to the commercial realities of modern China.

GETTING THERE: Qianzhen Cave can be reached via tour bus #7, an inexpensive air-conditioned coach that departs from Qianmen (terminal 22) and Fuxingmen (terminal 336) every Saturday and Sunday at 9:30 and 10:00 am respectively.
Cave admission ticket: rmb 48
The restaurant in the upper parking lot has a virtual monopoly on meals, but it is both inexpensive and excellent, using all local ingredients. Try their field greens, wild vegetables, and free range gongbao chicken.

Title-Western-Style at the Sheerwood Equestrian Club
by Yanhong Wheeler
For two weeks in a row, I ride in a friend's car on tree-lined gravel roads with zero traffic flow, along the banks of a small river, through corn fields and bean vines, into an open space, the borders of which extend as far as my eyes can see. Whitewashed Spanish-style houses nestle gracefully among flowers and shrubs, all shaded by gigantic walnut trees. The sky is blue, the clouds are white, the air smells of freshly cut grass.

I mount 'Motorcycle,' an orange stallion, and gallop over lush green lawns. At dusk, mist rises from the surrounding fields, seeps through rows of birch trees and spreads over the damp grass. The setting sun is a glowing fireball, painting red and golden shades onto everything.

I am not in Spain. Nor Mongolia. I am a mere 30 minute-drive away from Sanlitun. The 33,350-acre Sheerwood International Equestrian Club is one of Beijing's best-kept secrets. With a stable of 110 horses, two race tracks, one indoor and four outdoor equestrian arenas, the club is far more than just a horse riding venue. The elegantly built and tastefully decorated main compound can host barbecue parties in any of its gardens, and even extend the fun to the multi-terraced roofs of the houses. Soon-to-be-completed amenities include an outdoor pool, tennis court, gym, fencing facilities, art room, conference hall, restaurant and a dozen guest rooms.

" Most men are naturally inclined to love two types of animals, " says David Zhao, general manager of Sheerwood, " horses and dogs. " The 31 year-old native of Shanghai is himself a horse and dog aficionado as well as a skilled rider. His eyes glisten with affection and his voice emanates passion when he recounts dramatic anecdotes of his horses. Zhao is also the most patient and thorough teacher any rookie rider could expect.
" I have more confidence in teaching women, " says Zhao with an apologetic smile to my male friends there.
" Women handle horses better than men, no matter how they mount the horse in the beginning, either willingly or after much crying and kicking. It's because women are more patient, more affectionate and believe in communicating with a living animal, whereas men are instinctively inclined to conquer and control. Men don't have the patience to spend a whole day not riding, but brushing, feeding and grooming their horses. "

Sheerwood contracts its spare land out to nearby farmers and uses the harvested corn to feed the horses. Zhao's plan is to run the club like a farm. He intends his members to occasionally stay overnight to nurture a relationship with their mounts, instead of treating them as mere riding instruments.

For that reason, Zhao remains very picky about who can join the club. Membership is limited to 300, and money is not the only qualification. Zhao once firmly turned away an arrogant tycoon whose motorcade of Cadillacs honked and dashed through the tranquil road leading to the club, stirring up clouds of dust and fallen leaves onto the riders.

But Zhao loans even his own horse Okie, a Western-trained stallion, to people with the right attitude. Like Frank Hawke, the president of IMC-Asia (a major US pharmaceutical company) but at heart a cowboy-complete with mustache, Stetson, chaparejos, boots and big-buckled belt.

Having grown up riding horses in Tucson, Arizona, Hawke says that for someone from Arizona living in Beijing, " it is important to be able to see nature and be close to animals every now and then. " Frank hopes there will be more expatriate members in the club who like riding " Western-style. " At the moment, he is feeling a little lonely: most people ride English-style.

Zhao lets me try Okie. This is the first time I have ridden with a Western-style saddle. On previous rides I have sat on a variety of different saddles: Mongolian (too painful), Russian (too narrow), English (too scary) and Chinese (too dangerous). I never imagined that saddles could actually be comfortable. But a Western saddle is designed to give so much sense of ease and safety, I am told, that the rider can basically go to sleep on horseback.

Dressed with a Western saddle, Okie is simply the fastest, the supplest, and the steadiest horse I have ever dreamt of riding. He is easier to control than a power steering wheel of a car. You only have to move your body or the reins slightly for him to know what you want.

Now I see why Zhao thinks women are better with horses: we all love someone who is sensitive and who understands our needs even without us articulating them verbally, just like Okie.

The sun is setting now. I bring my mount back to the trainer, Mr. Li, who has been my technical escort the whole afternoon. The 23 year-old from a small town in Hebei greets me with a bright, boyish smile, his face bathed in the golden glow of the sunset. " It's a lovely feeling, isn't it? " he asks me. " When you are on top of a running horse and dash through the air, you feel this sense of freedom, of control and victory. You feel you are on top of the world. "

For more information about the Sheerwood Club, call Amy at 6500-7799 ext 107


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