Beyond the city, retreat to activities in tune with nature

November 04, 2007|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- Aside from the obligatory trip to the Great Wall, visitors to Beijing rarely stray much beyond the Second Ring Road, although the municipality encompasses 6,500 square miles.

There are mountains to the north and west, with reservoirs, hot springs and sleepy villages. To the south and east, farm fields take over, supplying Beijing with peaches, strawberries, cherries and watermelons in season.

Only recently have more Beijingers, enabled by new sport utility vehicles, touring bikes and camping gear, begun venturing outside the city. I joined the weekend exodus with the help of tour agencies and clubs that specialize in excursions around Beijing.

My ventures convinced me that seeing the city beyond the Sixth Ring Road, its widest concentric circle, should be high on the wish list for visitors before, during or after the 2008 Summer Olympics.

My favorite weekend trips were with Beijing Hikers, founded in 2001 and dedicated to helping people, especially English-speaking tourists, discover places beyond the Sixth Ring Road. Hikes can be easy saunters suitable for families or long, steep climbs on the Great Wall.

I did the three-mile Silver Pagoda Loop on a beautiful spring morning. The countryside through which our bus passed had the same well-worn feeling as much of rural China. Small towns looked half-deserted, drained by the gravitational pull of the city.

We started from the pretty hamlet of Haizi, which has a 300-year-old opera stage, tucked deep in the mountains of Changping County .

Leader Huijie Sun took about 30 people on the Silver Pagoda Loop hike. As she walked, she tied scraps of red cloth to tree branches to make sure people behind her didn't lose their way. We crossed a ridge and passed an abandoned quarry en route to the top of Silver Mountain. The summit affords a fine view of the pagoda park in the valley below, where many of the Buddhist temples date from the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234).

Another weekend, I booked a getaway at Mountain Yoga, a retreat in an old villa about a two-hour drive northwest of the city. The retreat van met me at the entrance of the Beijing Botanical Garden. From there, we threaded our way along country roads to Beianhe village, at the gate of Dajue Temple.

Mountain Yoga is just down a dirt road from the temple, surrounded by a stout wall. The courtyard complex where I stayed had sloping tile roofs, overhanging eaves, and intricately mullioned windows. Beyond that, the retreat was rustic. The guest rooms around the courtyard were buggy and had little more than fans and beds.

I practiced asanas, yoga postures, under a colossal ginkgo in the courtyard, led by Xiao Jo, a young Chinese yoga instructor who had come out from the city. She didn't speak English, and my Chinese was limited, so we communicated mostly in the universal body language of yoga during two classes a day plus meals, which were taken in a dining hall overlooking the vegetable garden from which most of our organic food came. I read and napped the rest of the time and figured myself lucky to have spent about $125 for a weekend that left me feeling as if I had awakened from a deep sleep.

Susan Spano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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