A walk in the clouds

“It’s cold up there,” the young man in front of me said. “You should rent a coat.”

I was in line for the cable car at the bottom of Cangshan Mountain in Dali, Yunnan province. It was sunny and around 80 F, and I was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. How cold could it possibly be at the top of the mountain?

“I’ll be fine,” I said. Continue reading

Fragrance of fitness vs. KFC’s 11 herbs and spices

Over the weekend, I hiked to the top of a mountain at Fragrant Hills Park, an imperial garden in northwest Beijing. The park is well-known for its Smoke Tree leaves, which turn red in late autumn, attracting thousands of tourists.

I reached the peak – 557 meters above ground – in an hour and a half, and after I climbed the final set of stairs I turned around to take in a view of the city. Just as I pulled out my cellphone to take a picture, an old man using a walking stick passed me. He was hiking barefoot and shirtless, and moving at a brisk pace. He must have been at least 60 and was fit too, especially for his age.

The man who passed me at the top of the mountain.

I wouldn’t want to challenge this guy to a race.

While I stood in the shade to collect my breath and give my burning legs a rest, the man kept going, passing a large rock formation and an ancient temple, until I could no longer see him. Continue reading

Walk on the wild side

If you ever visit the Great Wall, go wild. As in wild, unrestored sections of the wall.

They’re a lot less likely to be crowded and reaching them can be an adventure in itself. Last May, a friend and I hired a driver to take us from downtown Beijing to Jiankou, a section of the wall on the outskirts of Beijing built in the 1300s.

Our driver didn’t speak much English, and my Chinese was pretty bad at the time. I knew we were going to be in for an adventure when our driver, who was already talking on one cell phone, took a call on a second and used his knees to steer the taxi through heavy traffic. Continue reading

Vanishing into thick air

My biggest complaint about Beijing is the pollution. Nothing saps the energy out of me first thing in the morning quite like looking out the window and not being able to see a building that I could probably hit with a baseball. It’s depressing and bad for my health.

But I put up with it because I live near the heart of a booming metropolis. Public transportation is great. The food is cheap. And, when I need a respite from the congested streets and noisy shopping markets, there are plenty of art museums and well-maintained parks to get lost in.

I recently traveled to Tai’an, in the eastern province of Shandong, to climb one of China’s holiest Buddhist mountains with a friend from college. We left in the morning, on a high-speed train from Beijing’s South Railway Station. A light haze hung over the city. Continue reading

Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way

One of the first places I visited after moving to Beijing was the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It sits above a charming village that has benefited greatly from tourism. Group buses from Beijing, only 70 km away, whiz past farmers carrying wood and crops on narrow roads all day long.

The road that leads to the Wall has been taken over on both sides by vendors hawking T-shirts (I climbed the Great Wall!), Chairman Mao hats, poster prints of the Wall and dozens of other souvenirs. There’s even a Subway restaurant, but sadly no McDonald’s or Starbucks. I thought about turning around but kept going.

To get on the Wall you can either walk a steep trail or ride a ski lift. I chose the ski lift and as I waited in line, I walked past pictures of foreign dignitaries who had visited Mutianyu. One of the pictures was of a sweaty Bill Clinton boarding the lift (“Must have been sitting behind some young co-eds,” an American in front of me quipped).

It was a clear day, and the views of the mountains were spectacular. But the Wall, still intact in most places, had a sanitized feel. Many of the towers and bricks at Mutianyu have been restored. I wanted to experience the Great Wall in its natural, crumbling state.

View from a tower window.

Sunset at Mutianyu.

Several months later, I went with three friends to an unrestored section called Huanghua (Yellow Flower). We hired a cab driver named Mr. Li to take us there. Our only request was that he get us to the Wall before dawn so we could take pictures of it at sunrise. Continue reading

Where emperors galloped

I went to Chengde on a whim, and it turned out to be the best city I had never heard of. My mother and brother were visiting Beijing from Kentucky, and I wanted to take them somewhere outside the Chinese capital so they could experience a different part of the country.

I picked Chengde because it was close and had a lot of history. During the Qing (1644-1911), China’s last dynasty, it served as a getaway for the royal family. Situated 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing, Chengde with its rolling mountains and thick forests provided a cool and scenic escape from the capital’s blistering hot summers and flat landscape.

Pule Temple, with downtown Chengde in the distance.

This pagoda, located inside the imperial summer resort, houses a statue of the Buddha.

We went in the fall, when the leaves had turned brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. Chengde’s main historical site is Bishu Shanzhuang, an imperial summer resort that began construction in 1703. Admission was pricey – 120 RMB ($19) – twice what it costs to tour the Forbidden City in Beijing. But the resort’s impressive mountain lookouts justified the expense. Continue reading