Up in the northern part of Beijing, some 90km or 1.5 hour drive from the city’s center, lies Yunmengshan, a scenic area very close to the Miyun reservoir. In summer, visitors can “hike” the stairs up the mountain, past waterfalls and steep mountain cliffs. In winter, it becomes a frozen fairytale land when the water turns to ice and creates fantastic shapes and natural sculptures.
When coming here during winter, visitors can access only the first quarter of the overall scenic area, making this destination suitable for a relaxed half-day trip. It is not a particularly strenuous climb, as you mostly walk up stairs and along the frozen pools. You can certainly take it slowly and not even break a sweat. The only time it does get a little tricky is when passing through a “cave”, but this can also be avoided by taking the steps to the right side up the mountain.
Within the Yunmengshan scenic area there are several areas with ice sculptures, frozen branches and hanging icicles. While most of the icy sights are man made the park is still a pretty place to visit, and it’s nice to explore Yunmeng mountain on a sunny day with a hot tea in a thermos to keep you warm.
We finished our exploration of this frozen winter wonderland in time to head for a late lunch in our favorite restaurant in Miyun. After five times going there I still don’t know its name, but their barbecued sauerkraut (or 酸菜 in Chinese) is incredible and if it wasn’t for the fact that it is located almost 80km outside the city we would come here much more often.
The past week has been uncharacteristically cold with almost everyone agreeing that this is the coldest winter in Beijing since a along time. While I think its somewhat similarly cold as in February 2016 – when one of my best friends came to visit Beijing and we were almost unable to leave the comfort of the indoors – I have to agree that is was (and still is) ice cold. Figuratively as well as literally. And unlike last year when temperatures did barely go subzero, the arctic weather of the last few weeks had all bodies of water freeze over permanently. Perfect conditions for one of Beijing’s most beloved winter traditions to come to the fore – ice biking and skating on Shichahai.
What I remembered from two years ago and the years before was that on the west side of Shichahai (basically the west end of lake Houhai) the amount of visitors would be a little less. It turned out however that despite our relatively late arrival at around 3pm the crowds were still arriving, with queues to go onto the ice some two hours long. Different was also the location of the ice skating “rink” and the open ice for other games, such as the ice biking. It used to be the same entrance with two different sections leading either onto skating or riding ice, yet this year the two activities had completely separated access locations. We went around the ice until we finally – and after two false starts at queue up – arrived at gate #6, from which we could go onto the ice biking section of Lake Houhai with only a 15 minute wait. We diligently showed our green health code, paid the stiff 80 RMB entrance fee and then were off onto the ice. Grabbing a bike was easy enough and once you remembered how to steer it and accelerate, the only trick left to learn is to dodge the other people on the ice who have not yet learned those crucial skills. Every year I’m newly surprised at how much fun this is.
And while it was not super cold this Sunday we were still glad to have brought a thermos with hot tea and heated soles inside our shoes. Usually you cannot be longer than 60 minutes on the frozen lake and after a few rounds around and across the lake, your fingers and feet start freezing no matter your degree of preparation. Traditionally we go for hotpot after this frozen adventure, but this time we settled for Vietnamese Pho to heat us back up instead. A truly delicious end to a fun afternoon out during Beijing’s winter.
Beijing has many sighs and historic gems that attract millions of people every year. We visited most of them in the five+ years we have lived in this bustling city. At some point we stopped going there under the pretense that we will return with friends who visit town and show them around. With last year’s developments and the uncertainties of both inbound and outbound travel, not only have we redecorated our guest room into a study, we also vowed to return these icon places in 2021.
The Temple of Heaven
The temple of heaven, built in 1420, used to be the place where the Qing and Ming dynasties went to worship heaven, pray for bumper harvests and favorable rain. Most of the architecture we see today were reconstructed in the Qing dynasty and are based on the designs handed down from the Ming dynasty.
It’s a very interesting experience to drive from Chengdu halfway across the province to reach Sichuan’s Tibetan roots in the west. Starting in an urban metropolis most of the route goes merely along highways and speedways. If you pay attention, you may notice the ever so slight climb in altitude, but truth be told the first few hours simply fly by without much to see. It is in fact the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in an audio book during the steady drive higher up the Tibetan plateau. While we listened to Bob’s adventures in the multiverse, the air got thinner and thinner, the sky appeared to be increasingly farther away, as if going up that mountain somehow magically pushed the skies farther back into the universe.
There are only a few roads that cars can take into this direction with the main national road forming a loop north and south from Chengdu to Kangding. We took the southern line into the backcountry both on the way to and from the Tagong grasslands and never got to see the northern route. Yet even taking the same road both times it didn’t feel like seeing the same landscape again. It’s like walking somewhere you have never been before and turning around every once in a while – it never looks the same as in the direction you are going.
At the intersection where national road G318 splits and shares a few kilometers of road with highway G248 going west we checked into the Tanggute hotel and set up camp for the night. Since we were leaving for our three day hike across the Tagong grasslands the next day, we repacked our backpacks and suitcases to prepare for the upcoming horseback ride, tent stay and day-long hikes. Most of our luggage would be stored in our car trunk while the outdoor essentials and warm hiking gear would come with us. Satisfied that we were good to go the next day we went across the street to have a hotpot dinner.
These towns are really not much to look at and most of the people apparat to either be passing through or working in the hotel/restaurant business or building new houses. Driving into the small town there were also locals waiting by the side of the street offering rooms in their homes for the night which I would have preferred. But since I wanted to make sure that we actually had a place to stay that night and not have to sleep in the car I didn’t want to take the chance and be stranded in the middle of nowhere. We apparently had booked a room in one of the larger establishments sitting right at the corner of the intersection. They had loud music blasting from tall speakers near a small stage on their parking lot, an attempt to attract visitors keen to sing karaoke before going to bed. We only had food and maybe a glass of cold beer on our mind so the checked Dianping and found a restaurant with good recommendations right across the street from our hotel.
For a really long time I wasn’t a big fan of hotpot and found the broth either completely bleak or way too spicy. That night it was a quite pleasant version of the dish, with dried mushrooms, dates and goji berries stewing in the soup. I was still recovering from a bad cold I had caught only days before departing to Sichuan, and eating the soup and veggies felt very soothing to my throat. They also sold home made fruit liquor by the glass and while we definitely didn’t plan on getting drunk, the hot soup in combination with the drink and the thunderstorm that was raging outside did wonders to make us relaxed before heading home and hitting the sack early. The next day we would be leaving for the Tagong grasslands and start our three day hike across the plains.
On our road trip from Sichuan’s capital Chengdu to the autonomous Tibetan region farther west we made a stop at the ancient town of Liujiang where we spend a night at a beautiful traditional courtyard hotel. At night we sat on the veranda on the second floor outside overlooking the main street and drank a local beer.
Built over 800 year ago the town is hiding under an almost constant cover of clouds and mist. This humidity contributes significantly to the lush green bamboo forests we drove through to get into town. It’s towering poles grew across and above the street and built a roof over the cars passing below. On the side of the road elderly women sold pickled bamboo shoots and other vegetables homegrown in their own yards. The Yangcun river runs all the way through the small town and when the tide is lower there are walking stones on which people can cross it to get to the other side.
This courtyard was built by Zeng Yicheng who studied architecture in France and combined both Chinese and Western elements into the construction. The overall layout resembles the Chinese character “Shou”, implying longevity, and includes three drama stage inside the courtyards, which is quite unusual in residential courtyards.
Liujiang turned out to be a great place to try the local cuisine and we snacked our way along the main food street to try most of the delicacies on offer.
The rain followed us all the way from Leshan to Mount Emei and we arrived in the small town at the foot of this important Buddhist mountain somewhat soaked. We planned to drive up to the temples of Emeishan very early the next morning so we took the restaurant recommendation of our hostess, had a nice dinner there and went to bed early. At 5am the next morning we awoke refreshed and well rested and took the car to the park entrance. We were told that there are only a limited amount of cars allowed to enter the road up Mount Emei every day, and I didn’t want to take any chances and be too late. I admit I might have calculated the amount of time we needed to reach the Wannian temple a little too generously, and we drove onto the parking lot under the cover of darkness and more than an hour before it opened. We ate a snack of eggs and Baozi in the car and settled back for another cat nap until the doors opened at dawn.
The rain of the night before left glittering drops of dew all over the trees and conifers along the path and we found ourselves in a quiet and serene forest while taking the climb up the steps to Wannian temple. Under a blanket of mist we walked past closed shops and restaurants until we finally ascended to one of the most important Buddhist temples on Mount Emei.
With the fog clouding the view all around us visiting the temple almost felt like exploring another world. There was a pond on one of the squares that was rumored to have singing frogs in it and I was glad for the excuse to take a quick rest there to see if we might find one of them. Much harder to miss was the massive bronze and marble statue of an elephant with six tusks in the main hall of the temple.
Before the arrival of the local tourists we headed back down and ate a more comprehensive breakfast in one of the now open restaurants. They offered a delicious version of pickled cabbage and radishes with fresh mantou and a bowl of rice soup and were kind enough to refill our thermos with hot water as is customary all over China.
Returning to the parking lot we took our car and drove further up the mountain and changed into an official tourist bus that brought us the remaining kilometers up to Mount Emei. Since it was still early just after noon we settled into our spartan hotel room and caught up on the sleep the sacrificed in the morning. We woke just in time to still make the trip up to the cable car station to check the options for ascending all the way up to the main viewing platform on the Golden Summit. Satisfied that we could make it up there before sunrise the next morning we climbed back down, rain-proofed Jeltes shoes, had dinner and then settled in for the night.
Like the days before we woke up in a big cloud of mist and rain on the day of our ascent to the Golden Summit. Although we were still in pitch blackness during our cable car ride up it slowly became clear to us that it was highly unlikely that we would see the infamous sea of clouds from the top of Mount Emei. It was still a very unique experience to await the highly anticipated sunrise.
During the 2020 national holidays we decided to go see the Sichuan province and discover China’s Buddhist and Tibetan roots. With the pandemic still in full swing all over the world international travel was not an option anyways and instead of mourning all the places we could have gone we made the best of it and got to know the country we now call home for more than five year a little better.
As with a couple of trips before we flew to the capital of the province and rented a car for a road trip. In Chengdu we therefore went straight to the CAR rental and drove 130km south to Leshan, where we went to see the world’s biggest Buddha statue made from stone. This 1300 year old 70m high deity was carved into the Lingyun mountain during the Tang dynasty with the purpose to calm the turbulent river flowing before it.
The main entrance leads visitors to a viewing platform on shoulder height of the Buddha, which at its end leads to a passage all the way down to the the Buddhas enormous feet. Usually the queue to get down closer to the water to look up at the statue is hours long, but in pandemic times it only took us some 30 minutes. It rained a little while we were at Leshan but that didn’t spoil our mood, on the contrary, it made the whole experience even more fun.
We have been given a rare treat this winter in Beijing – two consecutive days of snow have covered the city under a fluffy white blanket. In Chaoyang Park, where we usually have our picnics during summer, the lawns are hidden below more than 10cm of snow. Taking a walk in the park is a welcome relief after days of quarantined home office to prevent the corona virus from spreading. While it isn’t airborne it is still recommended to wear face masks when mingling in larger groups of people. Fortunately, the park is still fairly deserted and it wasn’t necessary to keep your face covered. The cold air felt nice and clean and gave a much needed release after days indoors.