Summer in Beijing is usually HOT. July is both the hottest and wettest month in the city. Temperatures easily reach up to 40 C and almost every night you have to be prepared for heavy thunderstorms with torrential rain. Hot temperatures might sound great to some people, but in a city like Beijing it is just not pleasant. As I cycle to work every day I am usually soaked in sweat when I arrive in the office – not pleasant, no. But still better than taking the subway and sharing the sweat with hundreds of other people.
Anyway, July is a good month to get out of the city and that is what I did. My favourite hiking group – the Beijing hikers – organised a trip to Hebei province, or to be more precise, to the Bashang grasslands. The Bashang grasslands are 280 km north of Beijing and are sited on the junction of the Mongolian Plateau, A journey which takes around 6 hours by minivan. It is on average 1,300 – 1,600 meters above sea level which makes it the perfect escape from the heat in Beijing. The temperature was around 20C and at nighttime you certainly needed your fleece.
The 6 hours journey to get there was already quite interesting. We passed the Great Wall a few times and a few temples built alongside the mountain range . Also interesting is that there is a lot of construction going on wherever you go. So even in the countryside you come across some high-rise buildings where there seems nothing much else around.
I guess this could have something to do with the government’s plan to move 900 million people into city living by 2025 (currently only half the number are). Thus, they started replacing small rural homes with high-rises, paving over vast areas of farmland and drastically altering the lives of people in the countryside. The primary motivation for the urbanisation project is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. Their idea is that people who live in rural areas do not consume as much as people living in urban areas. However, obviously this also causes many challenges. Now-landless farmers have been thrust into city life. Many are giddy at their new lives — they received the apartments free, plus tens of thousands of dollars for their land — but others are uncertain about what they will do when the money runs out. Instead of creating wealth, urbanization could result in a permanent underclass in big Chinese cities and the destruction of a rural culture and religion. Many farmers are often unwilling to leave the land because of the lack of job opportunities in the new towns but quite often their land is forcibly taken.I found this quote of a local farmer in NY times: “We had pigs and chickens. Here we got nothing to do. We just sit around and people play mah-jongg.”
But back to my trip to Bashang.
When we arrived at our hotel in a small town in the Bashang grassland area (certainly not a particular nice town) we were greeted with a traditional Mongolian welcome ceremony. Like Tibetans, Mongolians also use khatas (scarf -The khata symbolizes purity and compassion and is presented at many ceremonial occasions), but unlike the Tibetan khata the Mongolian khata is usually blue – symbolising the sky. We were also given a cup full of Baijiu (a strong Chinese spirit) with which we should bless the sky, the earth and our friends by dipping our finger in it, sprinkling it in the respective direction – before downing it.
The next day we got up early to go on our first hike – but unfortunately the weather Gods were not on our side. It rained heavily. But as the saying goes: There is nothing like bad weather, just bad clothing, so we started our hike anyway. Unfortunate that most of us actually brought only ‘bad clothing”.
Only showing me their bottoms – horses in the rain
We also passed through this little village where life is still very basic. It is difficult to imagine these people, who have been working here all their life herding sheep and cows, to be put in a high-rise building where the is nothing really to do.
When we got back to our hotel in the late afternoon, we were all soaked. The afternoon was free so we went horse riding and explored the town a little. These days every weekend thousands of city dwellers come to the Bashang grasslands to escape the city and that is what the town caters for. It is full of restaurants, liquor stores, horses (on which you find quite a few Chinese women in fancy dresses & high heels) and karaoke bars.
In the evening the hotel organised a lamb BBQ (where people eat the meat directly from the skewer) which also seems a common thing here to do. I guess due to all the food scandals in China, people coming to Bashang can be quite sure that at least the meat is fresh here and not 40 years old (referring to the recent food scandal).
Something which struck us foreigners as quite odd was the ongoing fireworks – to us rather annoying in such a peaceful environment. We were being told that they have firework on every single day of the week to entertain the tourists. But it was not one properly organised fireworks, no, someone set off some fireworks here, someone some firecrackers there and this went on until quite late at night. That paired with the sound of karaoke made it quite challenging to get some sleep.
The next morning the rain had stopped and we got up early for another 12 km hike. This hike was even more beautiful than the hike the previous day. Flowers, flowers, flowers.
The local shepherds were very curious about this group of laowais which walked through the grasslands without any obvious aim. The old man below joined us for quite some time while we were having our lunch break. He is 76 years old (and looks even older), has 75 sheep to take care of and no, his (remaining) teeth do not hurt 😉
In the afternoon we started our return journey. That time it took us almost 8 hours to reach our destination- a common thing to happen on a Sunday afternoon all around Beijing, as people make their way back to the city.
Despite the traffic situation I still felt full of energy when I returned to Beijing – the power of nature – or Flower Power 🙂