Finding what's serene to me far from the scenery
Updated: 2011-11-01 07:37
By Ellie Buchdahl (China Daily)
There are moments when Beijing can get a bit too much.
I, for one, have days when the twisting hutong and quirky little street-stalls dissolve into a mire of hysteria, spitting, honking motorbike horns and jabbering stinky tofu salesmen.
Ever since I moved to Beijing in August, people had been raving to me about the Fragrant Hills - particularly the autumn views they offer.
My guidebook promised I would "leave the crowds behind" and see "the maple leaves saturate the hillsides in great splashes of red".
I gathered up two friends - all three of us bumbling laowai with 20 words of Chinese between us - and my battered Nikon zoom, anticipating memory cards full of snaps of glowing autumnal leaves and persimmons thudding to the ground. I couldn't wait to smell the spiced smell of the pines in the crisp October air.
We took a taxi and, amid swearing and rapid Beijing-accented Chinese from the driver, eventually popped out onto a vast ring road interchange, boiling with traffic and people coming from all angles. The driver flicked her meter off and hurled us into the maelstrom.
Even without the guidebooks and the eulogizing, the words "Fragrant Hills" alone conjure up images of natural beauty and harmony - not Ibiza-like rows of tat shops, greasy-spoon cafes and bawling vendors hawking drinks, roasted sweet potatoes, souvenirs, ridiculous fluffy bunny ears to attach to your iPod or head and umpteen other unnecessary things.
It seemed that all China had decided to come to the Fragrant Hills that day - most by car, motorbike or tin sanlunche (three-wheeled tuk-tuk).
Hysterical families collided with vehicles speeding up and down the roads. Children howled. Grandmothers bellowed at their daughters-in-law.
And my head began to pound.
After half an hour of struggling through the sea of bodies, we made it into the park.
We bought a map and reasoned, in despair, that the part colored brown and with a dotted line denoting a path was likely to mean "off the beaten track" and, therefore, less crammed with people.
All pretences of polite "Britishness" were washed away as we physically moved people out the way with two hands - the only way of making progress.
A couple of times, we attempted a bit of wandering off the path, only to be brutally stung by poison ivy. Fearing anaphylactic shock, we sadly returned to the throng.
Then suddenly, just past Shansen Temple, we spotted a dirt track. The people vanished. Aside from one or two couples quietly strolling along, we were the only ones there.
There were our golden leaves and peaceful pine forests. Even so, through the trees, a strange bubbling was distinctly audible - an ominous reminder of the crowds lurking a few hundred feet below.
Exhausted, we collapsed onto rocks and brought out our picnics of sandwiches, peanuts and little lunchbox biscuits. Thankfully, we had remembered the whiskey, too.
From the upper slopes of the hills, the haze of pollution could almost have been a melancholy Scotch mist.
Jingcui Lake came with the requisite drooping golden willow branches, even if the shores were decorated with tourists devouring cold vacuum-packed sausages.
We actually found one tree that was orange enough for a few posed snaps.
At last, we gritted our teeth and plunged downhill, getting flashbacks of those blockbuster movies in which the gung-ho hero thunders towards an army of orcs (or similar throngs) that can be heard massing for the attack.
As we fought tooth and claw toward the exit, a volley of - and I kid you not - budget fireworks started exploding not 30 yards away from us, scattering empty shells and gunpowder.
Darkness had descended by the time we staggered back to the ring road. It took another half hour of fruitless waving before we could collapse into a taxi.
At about 7 pm, I stepped out of the subway at Huixinxijie Nankou - tired, aching, my temples buzzing.
Home sweet home, I thought.
I had found my Fragrant Hills, my oasis of calm, my harmony - in Chaoyang district, just between the third and fourth ring roads.