October in Beijing and my thoughts inevitably turn to The Western Hills, otherwise known as Xiangshan or just “the shan” (“the mountain”). For four years, 2009-2013, Xiangshan was one of the most important places in the world to me. We would mountain bike there every weekend. It is what kept me sane through difficult times. If I am to die in China, I’d like to be buried there. If there is a zombie apocalypse, that is where I will make my stand.
On Saturday morning we would meet around 9 or 10am (depending on how crazy things got the night before) at Passby Bar in Nanluoguxiang. There we could park our bikes and have a coffee and eat a breakfast. After a bit of chat we would cycle out to the Western Hills. It’s a 45 minute ride down Di’anmen Dajie past the Second Ring Road, past the Third Ring Road, up the Fourth Ring Road to Four Seasons Bridge (Siji Qiao) where we’d jump on Xinshikou Lu and race out toward Badachu just past the Fifth Ring Road which is where the mountains begin. Sometimes it would be a group of us. Most of the time, though, it was just me and Julian. If we were in luck, we would be able to see the Western Hills grow closer and closer. If not, then they came upon us suddenly through a chalk grey haze.
The Western Hills, like everything in China, have a long, important, completely irrelevant history. Emperors went there regularly, a bunch of temples were founded there–a few of them you can still visit. None of that, though, is why Xiangshan was so important to me. Xiangshan for me meant freedom, health and decency–three things which are incredibly rare in China.
All Beijing people know the Western Hills. It’s a popular weekend destination. There’s a ticket office and a ski lift and a bilingual tourist map and stairs and crowds and gift shops selling plastic swords and pissing monkey dolls and all of the stuff which makes Chinese tourist destinations so utterly horrible. No point to even mention the situation in October when literally everyone comes out to view the leaves changing colors.
But we never saw that horror show because that’s not where we would go. We had a secret route onto the mountain that started from next to an old army training base near Xingshikou, passed through some fields where the pumpkins grew big in the fall, and entered into what was basically total wilderness–the kind of wilderness I remember from America. Trees and trails and gulches full of leaves and surprising vistas–all less than an hour from the city center. (In Shanghai I have to take a bus two+ hours to find nature.)
We climb the 560 meters up to the top, half on single track, half on tarmac. Slog. Up.
At the top we take a rest at the chapeng, otherwise known as Grannie’s, so named because the proprietor was an old lady who lived in the village on the other side of the mountain (“zhu shantoude!”). Over the years we developed a familiarity. If I came by myself, she would always ask about Julian. She also would always complain about her deadbeat son who had gotten divorced and refused to help her carry the crates of drinks up the mountain. The old lady lived with her husband, the deadbeat son and a mangy dog.
Her husband was one of the funniest people I have ever met–he should have been doing stand-up comedy (xiangsheng) on the national circuit. He cracked jokes and chain smoked. One day he asked me if I would ever become president of the USA someday and if I became president could he become vice-president? It was that kind of scene.
Every year we would look forward to the first ride when we could expect Grannie to be there, usually May holiday. In 2012, though, I saw her and asked about her husband, the old man. “Ta chugou,” she told me (He left the country). I thought for a minute before I realize what she meant. He had died during the winter. The mangy dog was still there, curled up under the concrete slab which served as table. The old man had gone off to be vice president after all.
After the pitstop we would go off the back of the mountain, flowy single track down to the reservoir where we would pick up another single track climb tracing a rocky, dried up stream bed which took us up the back of the mountain. This was the fitness test. Up then down then up then down then up again and a short cola break before down again and off the mountain as the sun mellowed behind us in the west. About two to three hours. We would rock back to town, back to Passby for a risotto and a milkshake, talking about the ride, about bikes, about chicks. We’d show up covered in dirt, mud, nature. Everyone would stare at us. Then home by 4pm for a hot shower and lie down and the weekend wasn’t anywhere near spent.
It used to be that I would be pretty shattered after a day on the shan. Later, after I got my legs, I could do a full day biking and full night partying. I did that many times over three years and those were golden years.
But that’s all over. It ended this year. Last year the whole area was declared a national level park and all the entrances were shut and ticketed and staffed by assholes. Then this year at our secret entrance, a military sentry was posted and he won’t let anyone through, even though he is more apologetic about the whole situation. The Xiangshan area is apparently pretty critical to Chinese national security–many retired generals and leaders live out there.
Like everything good and decent in China, Xiangshan was temporary. The money moved in, the officials moved in, the military moved in, the assholes moved in and claimed it. The last time I went, earlier this year, an 18-year-old soldier in a suit 2x too big waved me away. I didn’t bother explaining that I had been using this entrance for the last 3 years. There is no logic you can use on the PLA. Xiangshan was closed and that was that. I stopped bothering to try, contenting myself with memories of blue skies and sweat and that sense of healthy accomplishment that is so rare in China.
Now I am back in Beijing for a few weeks and it is October again and my thoughts turn to Beijing’s Western Hills. The dirt trail girt by blood orange and rust red, the air crisp and clear, the sky a brilliant form of blue. Grannie at top sling the last few popsicles of the year. Rocking down the trails, sweat drying in the cold autumn air. Good stuff in, bad stuff out. Regeneration in a dead world.
Nothing else mattering.