Hiking Badachu

Beijing, China, Badachu

Badachu Park is a collection of rolling hills, trails, and narrow roads just outside urban Beijing’s northwest corner. It was a gorgeous day, and we spent about 6 hours hiking a fairly large (and often quite steep) loop through the area around old monasteries and temples.



Beijing in Panorama

The visibility in Beijing in notoriously awful, a by product of rapid urbanization, an exploding vehicle population, and reliance on coal for personal heating and power generation. So, when opportunities like this present themselves, to see the urban and suburban sprawl of Beijing (and its 20 million or so residents) spread out across the North China Plain, its quite fun. These were taken with the Hiking Around Beijing crew, from the peaks at Badachu Park, an area filled with old monasteries that overlook the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

China, Hiking, Mountains, Beijing

China, Beijing, Hiking, Photography

Beijing, China, Badachu, Hiking, Photography

Pictures of Things: Beijing Smog

beijing china

A view from our 26th floor apartment in central Beijing. Readings from the US Embassy reported as ‘beyond-index’ at over 800, a measure of ambient respirable particulates in the air. Visibility was well under a kilometer.

Pictures of Things: 100 Floors

hong kong, skyscraperLooking east across Kowloon from the Sky100 observation deck in the International Commerce Center (ICC) in Hong Kong. A singularly vertical city (it has more buildings above 35m, 100m, and 150m than any other), Hong Kong is a place where even apartments and flats are built to massive scales.

hong kong, skyscraper, tall buildingA couple enjoys a breathtaking panoramic view of Victoria Harbor from the 100th floor of the ICC. Victoria Harbor is home to one of the busiest ports on earth, carrying manufactured goods from China to the rest of the world.

Surviving Winter


So this is how Tibetans survive the darkened boredom of bitter, unrelenting winters. I watched a 70-80 year old man harvesting a couple towering plants growing in downtown Kangding, Sichuan Province, China. I am sure these shrub like weeds are used for a variety of purposes, its edible seeds, making rope, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from large yak populations, or as ground cover for erosion prevention.

Build a Bike, See a City

china, chengdu, travel, photography, bicycle

I bought a bike in Chengdu, China in October and it got me thinking about modes of city-seeing. And here’s my pitch:

A perennial topic of discussion among the books, blogs, and conversations of travelers is the best way to see a city, or the best way to experience both familiar and unfamiliar urban environments. Although ‘walk cities,’ seems to be an article of faith, taken as gospel, and despite the fact that per-ambulatory strolls are high on my list of enjoyable activities, I’d like to put forward an argument that the bicycle represents the method par excellence for taking in a city, whether new or familiar.

As the argument goes, walking permits the traveler to really soak in the nuances of a city, to discover by virtue of meandering pace the dives and shops, tiny eateries and curios from which ‘real’ character emerges. Walking paints a detailed portrait while other, faster, forms of transportation render abstract blurs punctuated by random detail. This argument is true to a certain extent: walking does offer the most intimate way to understand small parts of cities, to take in individual neighborhoods, but the methodology breaks down if you want to understand larger swaths of a city, its environs, and how larger structures interact with each other.

Bicycles provide an optimal mix of speed, control, access, and most importantly, independence. Put simply, bicycles provide a great deal of freedom and the ability to traverse long distances while simultaneously observing surroundings. On a bicycle one can understand far better the rhythms of a city, how major avenues interact with discrete neighborhoods, the spatial and temporal relationships between exurban, suburban, and interurban regions. To bike around and outside of a city is to develop an understanding of its almost organismic nature. Armed with a bicycle, the range of potential activities for any given period of time is also increased without serious loss of interaction between yourself and the surrounding city. Proximity is a function of time, not of space.

So, have I settled the debate? Nope, both forms have obvious merits, as buses, camels, rickshaws, elephants, running, and hot-air ballooning most likely do as well, but I do hope I’ve at minimum made a believable case for the bike.

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A Brief Trip to the Edge of Tibet

Some things you can find out about Kangding County, China from the internet. It is home to Kangding, a ‘quaint’ Chinese town of 100,00 people and the capital of communistically named Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The internet will tell you that Kangding was for centuries an important trading town to which underpaid coolie laborers lugged massive loads of brick tea up and up and up from Chengdu, 200 kilometers to the north-northeast, to trade for Tibetan wool. A search for Kangding County will lead to Zhilam Hostel (which is probably the best hostel in Kangding, and highly recommended by this author), and to lists of mountains, elevations, regional ethnic histories, and available activities.

What the internet can’t communicate effectively  is the sheer mindblowing geographical vastness of the place. I can tell you (right here, via the internet) that  transportation is often contingent upon weather and road conditions, but its impossible to know if you’ll end up snagging a ride with any local drivers so brave/foolish/spiritually assured they’re willing to simultaneously pass multiple vehicles uphill around curves in unlit, unpaved tunnels. One of my drivers possessed enough ambition to barrel past a line of trucks in the outside lane on a curve above a 200 meter precipice – in whiteout fog conditions. The internet can tell you that Kangding County is at the extreme eastern edge of what is customarily considered Tibet, at the foot of the Himalayas and the true Tibetan Plateau. But it would hard for me to fully explain what its like to stare out at an ocean of grass and rivers and young peaks that tower over their middle-aged American counterparts and feel pleasantly, justifiably unimportant. It is positively Stegnerian in its unbroken emptiness, if you’ll permit my application of an Amero-centric adjective to an ethnic and geographical area entirely different from the Western United States.

I encourage you to seize upon any opportunity you might have to visit the Tibet regions of Southwest China. I barely touched the edge, escaping just a few bus rides from the megacity provincial capitol of Chengdu and it was spectacular. An 8-12 hour bus ride from Chengdu (depending on traffic delays) gets you to Kangding and from there the opportunities for backcountry, off-the-grid, yak derived foodstuffs, giant mountain adventuring multiply to seemingly infinite dimensions. TaGong, DanBa, Litang – theres a long list of places you can head to from Kangding, all worthwhile, all small, tucked into the phenomenal landscapes beside rivers. Homestays with nomadic herders are popular, as is hiking, and for the truly hardcore there are plenty of peaks available for bagging. Just go and wander around for a few weeks if you get the chance, and remember, from Kangding west it only gets better.



Grass Land

Hiking outside of TaGong (or Lhagang), a small town is western Sichuan Province. The tallest of the peaks in the background is Mt. Yara (or Mr. Zhara Lhaste) which stands an impressive 5,820m/19,090ft in elevation. As is evident, the entire region is breathtaking and TaGong is a wild town of horse and yak trading, a mix of sedentary and nomadic life, and just all around awesome.

tibet, china, travel, photography, mountains, grassland

china, tibet, travel, photography, grassland, sichuan

The Ruins of Guyaju (And the Future Ruins of Jackson Hole, Beijing)

Guyaju, China, Beijing, Travel, Tourism, Photography

That’s me! My awesome beautiful girlfriend took the picture from a rocky lookout point about half a klick away by foot.

Dongmenying village, a part of Zhangshanying town, lies in northwestern Yanqing County, one of Beijing’s 16 administrative districts. And once you’ve waded through the confusing strata of prefectural and subprefectural nomenclature, and have conquered the incomplete or deficient maps, and have pushed on in the face of wrong turns and vague directions – once all that is done and you arrive in Dongmenying village you will find just beyond its drowsy outskirts the ruins at Guyaju, China’s largest network of ancient cave dwellings, which I will address shortly. But First:

It is not, in fact, as difficult to find the cave complex as I’ve colorfully exaggerated, provided of course one is armed with a friendly, knowledgeable driver from Beijing, and are in the company of people who speak Mandarin with conversational proficiency. Meet those two prerequisites and the caves can be reached from the city center within two hours. There are several straightforward alternatives, it’s not all ordeal, but some of you enjoy ordeal and self-discovery of routes and locations and transportational methods, so the easy ways are at the bottom.

And now the relics:

The ruins at Guyaju are truly fascinating. 170 caves and more than 350 rooms make up this 1000 year old community and although they’ve been uninhabited for centuries the structures are extremely well preserved. The two-story buildings are connected by carved stairs and steps, and presumably by ladders at some point, which could’ve been withdrawn to delay anyone looking for free livestock and women (that last thing, about the ladders, is an assumption and not historically proven, it would’ve made a lot of sense though right? and probably a great setting for an epic battle scene in a subtitled Chinese film).

Other features that make total sense: differentiated rooms for livestock, cooking, storage, living, communal events, royal quarters, and religious rituals; drainage and water storage systems; a network of elevated, defensive observation posts carved in what should be impossible locations. Rooms, doors, and windows of varying sizes that open into 100 meters of air.

Guyaju, Ancient caves, china, beijing, travel, photography

Looking up into one of two primary living networks from the main ‘square’, a flat area of rock about 150 meters off the canyon floor. Behind and below-left of the camera is the ‘throne room’, an area with carved columns and 4 alcoves, two above and beside the main dais. This area is large, with rooms and windows and tunnels set at least a hundred feet up in a narrow slot canyon.

These ancients, which some archeologists believe were Xi people escaping raids and banditry during the Liao dynasty, lived a vertical lifestyle, nestled into hand carved warrens high and safe above the waning edge of the North China Plain.

A second exercise in historical supposition: it is easy to imagine the residents of Guyaju cautiously shepherding animals through the narrow enfiladed and defiladed canyon entrance to their village and out onto the spacious grassland a mere 2 kilometers away. Coincidentally, that grassland is in possession of a once broad river that most likely watered their crops, animals, and selves. I say once broad because it’s been diverted and dammed and poured onto industrialized orchards and cornfields so much that it doesn’t really exist anymore.

What else is important to know about Guyaju? It’s 20 kilometers from Badaling, the most Chinese and foreign tourist infested stretch of Great Wall in existence, including any single kilometer or individual site on the primary, secondary, or tertiary walls and other structures.

beijing, Guyaju, Jackson Hole, suburbs, china, travel, photography

Looking out from the highest accessible point at Guyaju. One of the northernmost open spaces of the North China Plain can be seen, as can the ideologically ironic Jackson Hole, Beijing resort. This monster of a vacation home complex will probably demand more water than the region can possibly supply, and appears to be replicating not only the American propensity for residential spread, but the prototypical American disregard for environmental carrying capacity. Also: a firm belief in the impossibility of real estate bubbles. In the foreground is the uppermost slopes of the narrow canyon by which the ruins can be accessed.

Do not go to Badaling (unless you want to see a Nixon-eye view of China circa 1972). Go to Jiankou, which is also close to Guyaju, and camp there and feast your eyes on the unreconstructed grandeur of a hand built rock highway that has laughed and laughed at brutal winters and sweltering summers and wars and a revolution predicated entirely on demolishing evidence of China’s history for something like 2000 years.
China, Longqing Gorge, Travel, Photography, Beijing

A smoggy day at the Gorge, but not smoggy enough to entirely obscure the epic scale and impressively jagged scenery.

Longqing Gorge is a half hour jaunt by car from Guyaju, and despite the fact that it’s now a giant resevoir, it is absolutely spectacular. Go ahead, Google picture search ‘Longqing Gorge’ and see what I mean. I suppose that’s pretty much it for the ruins of Guyaju.

Is it worth your time and more importantly, your money? Yes I say. 200 kuai (32 dollars at current exchange) per person will get you a driver for the whole day who, should you choose your driver wisely (check thebeijinger.com or couchsurfing.com for references), be able to navigate anywhere you want to go without getting lost for more than 15 minutes. There are entrance fees at all interesting locations, but they’re marginal, and if you forget food and water, snack and drink stands are ubiquitous throughout what is probably the entirety of China. You will survive as long as you have a few crumpled bits of Chinese currency. A hilarious……..thing is also available for visitation and its barely a half kilometer from the entrance to Guyaju. It is called Jackson Hole, which you might rightly argue exists in America, but now, thanks to the triple marvels of international trade, a status hungry Chinese upper middle class, and a bunch of Americans looking for work abroad because the domestic economy is flatline, there is a new, even cheesier and wasteful attempted replica of Jackson Hole in the scrubland of northern Beijing. I’ll let this Foreign Policy article do the talking:

Wild, Wild East – lots of pictures here illustrating the ridiculous, yet humorous, existence of a symbol so overtly capitalistic right in the heart of the ChiCom empire.

Less cheekily: Guyaju is a pretty incredible place, hewn from granite, hundreds of meters tall, vertigo inducing in some places. It is surrounded by some of the most rugged scenery near Beijing, great hiking, and faultlessly hospitable people who will feed you until coma. There are nearby attractions, and it is an objective fact of the reality we all inhabit that the air out at Guyaju is probably fifteen hundred times cleaner than inner city particulate soup. If you’re in Beijing and you have a day to plan and a day to wander, go see Guyaju and the wall and the gorge. It’ll be fun.

And a final note: check any of the activity schedules on the following sites and you may be able to find a guided tour of the area which will also be conspicuously affordable.

Culture Yard – An esoteric collective of young people who wander all over Beijing and its environs. Very cheap, well organized, lots of different activities all the time.

Beijing Hikers – The best, most organized, oldest, most respected group of outdoors enthusiasts in Beijing. Probably one of the best guided outfits in the capitol city. Always bilingual, accommodating, extraordinarily well organized and probably thousands of trips worth of experience. This group is almost solely devoted to hiking, although occasionally other activities make it to the events lists.

China Culture Center – A bit pricier than the others, but very professional, lots of different activities, they are primarily concerned with your comfort. If you see any trips with Andy that look interesting, take em’, he is an awesome guy.


Beijing, from my brief experience, is a city going through a massive and, despite appearances, gradual collision of past and present. Steel and glass skyscrapers, monuments to the current economic boom, don’t just dot the skyline, they dominate it, rising in clusters from horizon to horizon. Air within the city, and indeed as far as 50 miles beyond, smells, in the words of a friend, like, “wet rust, barbecue, rotting lemons, and concrete dust.” It also has a leaden aerosol pallor the color of brushed steel, a particulated testament to the growth of manufacturing and personal vehicle ownership, and the wave of modernization which has swept across China over the past 30 years.

Beijing hasn’t devolved entirely into shopping malls and Versace stores though, snaking amongst the feet of modern office and apartment buildings are networks of Old Beijing, alleyway communities called ‘Hutong’ that meander with ever increasing density as one moves closer to the city center. Hutong, while usually lively, are a far cry from the cacophony of car horns and pounding feet of commercial or business districts. Sometimes they’re even shady, which is a blessed thing at 93 degrees fahrenheit. Hutong, fromwhat I’ve gathered thus far, are part of Beijing’s history and character, a traditional way to establish and demarcate communities from the group down to the individual. Major Alleys break down into complexes, accessed via paths, those complexes break down into family domains, which in turn break down into rooms.

Hutong are a social, cultural, and architectural model that provide all kinds of niches, corners, hideaways, and interesting spaces. They are fun, dense, surprising, and wonderful to explore in general. Here’s some pictures: