Sascha passed away on the 9th of April, 2015, aged 40. We last met a year earlier to his final day in Beijing, during his residency in the Three Shadows in Chaochangdi. The Fotografie Forum Frankfurt shows some of what remains: his photos. The exhibition will be still on until January 29th. As Sascha has put it before: "The perfect moment has to vanish. Otherwise we would just stay". Sascha was a romantic traveller with a camera.
In the last weeks, during the APEC conference, we were spoiled with blue skies. But today Beijing put on its grey face again, as if it wanted to remind me, that it is really time to go. Something changed though, since APEC is over. The website of the American Embassy air quality monitor is censored now by Government Order. And the published reading for the city average shows AQI 78, which is now called “good”. Somehow I can’t match the view out of the window with the data. I must be just in an exceptionally bad area, if the city average is still 78. Happy for you guys out there in the rest of Beijing. And sorry for dragging down the city average.
I wanted to post a small photo gallery of some of our Saturday walks in Beijing. But since APEC is over, not just the smog came back, but also the Internet is more crippled than before. There has been a lot of cynical talk about Beijing being able to clean up its mess for the international conference, but not for its own people. But I think this was a very interesting experiment, determining how much industrial production, traffic reduction and economic activity actually has to be shut down or switched to something else to make Beijing healthy again. At least we have a data point now. Getting 50 % of cars of the road, is one of them. Closing more than 2000 factories is another one. Good to get a feeling for the magnitude. This needs more than just a few filters in chimneys and another subway line. It means a whole structural change, not just of Beijing, but also in the wider surroundings. And another datapoint we have, is to see how nice Beijing could be. When I had lunch with a friend last week, he named Beijing “The World’s Worst Paradise”. Compared with other cities, I agree.
As of Internet, a few days ago my VPN account expired and won’t expand its service only for a few days more until I leave. The the upgrade of my MacBook’s operating system seems not to be very helpful either. So, I don’t exactly know what cases the problem. Luckily, my website can receive mailed in posts, which do not require me to log on the system itself. That makes it easy to publish, as long as I can send e-mail. But the features are a bit limited. So, I don’t know what you see, until I have a chance to open my website myself again.
All I attach for now, is a photo of the small bridge in my favorite Beijing Park, The Temple of The Earth. More will follow, after we crossed the Great Chinese Internet Wall. I have seen this bridge many times and in different seasons, also with lush grass and bright flowers around. This time it is having the atmosphere of cut flowers after you had them for a week. Don’t want to let them go, but happily looking forward to go to the flower market again and get some new ones. That’s the mood I am in looking at the whole city these days. Time to leave in a few days from now.
Beijing made us really a wonderful farewell gift, as we are strolling through it this weekend under APEC conditions. As the impression often is shaped by how the whole experience ends, this looks like a perfect epilogue to our time in Beijing. Today we drove along the Changan Avenue, passing by Tiananmen Square to visit friends on the other side of the city. The sky was blue and the traffic in flow. The traffic management simply took half the cars off the road and put at least one traffic police every few hundred meters. The Tiananmen Square itself is heavily guarded by military and armed police. While we were driving along the landmarks of our memories of Beijing, we nearly felt like a "state guest" ourselves, even we were not in one of the black limousines, but just on the back seat of a shabby Hyundai taxi. Even the air is really clean in some areas you are advised not to open the window, as there are snipers on the roofs, which might misinterpret that move. Well, there is nothing I want less on my last days here than a nervous sniper. You can't have it all. But that's fine for me. As we say here: Ente gut, alles gut.
"Die Grosse Chance" is a solo photo exhibition of the German poet Dieter M. Gräf in the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Caochangdi, Beijing. It will be shown from August 09th until September 5th and represents a series of pictures, taken by the poet while (re-) exploring his parent's house after both's death. The hanging shows the ups and downs, like walking though the house. The location is a village near Mannheim (Germany) and I can quite well relate to these pictures. What surprised my technically, was that they are all taken with an iPhone, and still come out quite well in large print. The exhibition is curated by Nina Zlonicky who, as an architect, reanimated house's building layout on the gallery walls. Beside the artist's work, there have been many people involved in technically turning a USB-stick into a fully fletched photo exhibition in just a few days. It was supported by the Goethe Institute Beijing and what made it special for us, was not just the nice collaboration of many professionals, but that Feibai got an insight into the process by being part of the team.
These are windy days and it is nice to see the blue sky and even some stars in Beijing. Also the traffic was not too bad this weekend. Well, I spend most of the time away from the busy crowds anyways and enjoy my last few months here, to keep the city in a good memory. A weekend like this one, make it easy.
Finally my arms got too short to properly be able to read small text. They call it Hyperopia, and it means I am getting far sighted. First I though of getting longer arms is not that easy, and may look rather imbalanced when I am scratching my feet walking along. So we went to the Beijing Glasses City. Here you get custom mades glasses starting from 5 Euro, and it is quite some fun also.
I found 5000 Names is a very interesting exhibition on the Chinese work and legacy of the Dutch born curator and scholar Hans van Dijk. It shows works, letters and artifacts of the time in the 1990, when he was a mentor of the coming generation of contemporary artists, when there was no such thing in China.
The exhibition is running until August 10th in the UCCA Ullens Center of Contemporary Art in the 798 Art District, Beijing.
In the South-West of Beijing lies a limestone area resulting in a magnificent karst landscape, North and South of the Baojin Shankou Canyon. There was a bit of haze today, but it clear weather it must be even more beautiful. On the South there are gardens and small farms. In the past all over here food was grown. Now there are just remains left, but they are still active.
You may download here the GPS track in gpx- and tcx-format. We started a bit late today and did not explore the area to the fullest. Given the geology, there must be caves around. We met a teenager with a torch (and an acrobatic throwing knife, which impressed me a lot) who was heading for one of them. But we returned to avoid sunset before reaching clear trails again. To reach the starting point you will have to cross a bit of "Tourism with Chinese characteristics". But no worries, they will all disappear into some sort of park worshipping with their mobile phone cameras some sort of plastic Confucius. This absorbs them all, really.
Here comes position and GPS plot:
Before traveling to Europe for about a fortnight, I cycled along some old residential places in Beijing. Actually, they are not old by normal standards. But they have become rare here, while land has become incredible expensive. They are not in good condition either, and would be costly to renovate; not even to think of the "opportunity cost" versus putting a few high rise buildings there. They are not Beijing Hutongs, which have been partly accepted to be a heritage, and they are neither "useful". So, they are neither seen as heritage, nor are they viewed as something of value. Their time has come.
I decided to come back with a camera and take a few snapshots. I was lucky, because when I returned today, some of them were already demolished (the satellite photo underneath still shows the blue roofs which show that this was a more recent development) . They are/were along the canal, outbound the city, beyond the 4th ring. Please refer to the co-ordinates in the grid below for exact location.
Of course every day has nice moments. They appear spontaneously, and so I will note them down or capture them in other ways as they come. But looking out of the window today, seeing another Kafkaesque scene of the city in constant smog, I decided not to keep a diary for the time being. Like that, the time in Beijing will blur into the grey shades that it was. There will be memories, letters, photos, sketches and other artifacts - but no continuos record.
At 7 in the morning, with humidity above 90 % and an outside temperature reading over 30 Degree Celsius in the morning and a thick layer of clouds above the city of Beijing, it was obvious there will be quite some rain coming down. But we sticked to our plan hiking up the Yun Meng Shan, which is about 85 km North of town. In this weather, every view looks like a Chinese painting. The same hike on a clear day, must have a completely different character. A good reason to come again and exactly take the same paths. It is a very nice route and you may download the GPS log here in gpx- or tcx-format.
We have been lucky with the weather in recent days and it is always a pleasure to make it out of Beijing on the weekend. For that you can hike from the Yunmeng Mountain up over a saddle North and then follow the crystal clear river through the canyon towards the reservoir. You will see some Watch Towers which have been built there "by accident" off the Great Wall in the Ming Dynasty (don't get me going!).
The trail is bushy and in some sections quite steep. There is only one village left, as all the others have been washed away by a flood about a decade ago. It is unlikely you don't see anybody in the remote places. I recommend to upload the exact log on to your GPS (gpx-format, tcx-format).
In the morning we went to the other side of of the city, to the neighborhood of the Central Music Conservatory, to rent a piano. You can get them from 120 RMB per month, if you sign up for a year. The Yamaha piano sounded softer though, so an upgrade to 150 RMB (18.76 EUR or 24.40 US$) per month was very appropriate. It includes a piano chair and a cloth cover. Delivery is free, tuning (any time needed) included. Let me put this into relation: it's about what I would pay for my mobile phone package per month (if I would pay for it). For the price of an iPhone 5, you can rent a piano for nearly 3 years. Usually iPhones break after one year tough. The economics of happiness is an interesting one.
Unfortunately, I had to cancel this year's Easter egg hunt. I always thought that it would be a hide and seek game with the eggs. But now I learned that it is really called "egg hunt". Imagine the sound of horns in far, dogs running though the woods, horses, gunfire - and this time we are after eggs. Sounds a bit like Monty Phython to me. But anyway since I am in Beijing, the whole world sounds like Monty Phython. So why not that one also? Not sure, whether it is also a comedy, that North Korea declared yesterday to be in "state of war" with South Korea. Kim Jong Un, commonly known here as "Prince Fatty", is quite a clown though. Let's hope it is just another of his jokes, and we just don't get his humor.
Yesterday I had a nice walk with friends in the mountains West of the Great Nation's Capital. Still a bit overrun, because it is too easy to reach. But it was good to be above the smog for a while. Passed bye a honey farm. The peach trees are not blossoming yet, but was told that end of May the honey here is best. Not really organic. Amazing the bees don't die in the cocktail of smog and pesticides. Must be a special breed. Unrefined honey is said to be good for the immune system. These bees at least must have a "super immune system". So, this honey must be really good. I tried. It's sweet. And yes, it is unrefined. It really is.
If you like to go along the trails, you can download the GPS track by clicking here (in GPX-Format).
We constantly have discussions, which is the best way to move in Beijing. Quickly the topic comes to electric scooters or e-bikes, which are becoming more and more popular. And then comes the question, everybody answers differently: "How far can you go with one charge?"
Today, I did not talk about it. I did it. I went out to drain my bike to the last electron. It is a hybrid, which can be driven fully electric or as a supported bicycle - a so-called "Pedelec". The advantage to a scooter is, that you can extend range by pushing into the pedals and also, should the battery be really empty once, you can at least still get home. The manufacturer does not give information on the battery capacity or the power of the engine. Just the salesman said something like 25 km. So I expected this to be Chinese 25 km, which then should equal about, let's say 12 km.
I started with a full charge of the about 6 months old lithium ion battery and rode off into the haze through the Hutongs of Beijing, passing Tianamen Square and back to Dongzhimen.
Me, my clothes and water bottle made 90 kg payload. There was not much wind and temperature was around 20 Degree Celsius (that defines the battery capacity, which is lower at low temperatures). The route taken was quite flat and speed was sometimes limited by the traffic. As a result, the range was a surprising 33.2 km on electric drive. Then the engine suddenly fainted and I only had to make a few hundred meters on a conventional bicycle. Looking at the GPS track below (red line in the map), there is one outlier in the measurement which goes up to 120 km/h, which is of course an error. You can go quite continously at around 20 km/h and the average moving speed is with 13 km/h about what you can make with a car in Beijing. Quite good. Impressed.
One advantage of Beijing is, that you can easily get out. The Megcity has mountains in the North and West, which mark a sharp boundary between 1950s style coal power plants and a beautiful natural landscape. You might want to avoid tourist destinations, but still use public transport. And actually, this is quite well possible.
For example take the subway to Ping Guo Yuan (=Apple Garden, but don't be confused when you don't see any apple tree). It is the last stop of Line 1 in the West. Then walk 300 meters further West, until you see the bus stop for line 892. The bus service starts at 7:00 o'clock in the morning and runs very frequently. Stay on the bus for about 2 hours and get off at at the Fa Cheng bus stop, at N40 00.113 E115 47.949. This is a good starting point for a hike over the mountains and the decent to Jian Yuntai (N39 56.132 E115 51.110), for the bus 929 back to Ping Guo Yan station. The whole hike will take you around 7 hours. The last bus at Jian Juntai leaves at 17:40. If you miss that, you are (!) in trouble, as this is just a remote village which has no (!) other transportation.
The route gives a beautiful outlook over the mountains. There are nearly no people up there. The villagers do not grow nuts or fruits like in other rural regions around Beijing. Still the terraces along the slopes witness an agricultural past here. The trails are just kept open by a few hikers per year and you need a thorn proof jacket. Strictly stay on the trails, which are occasionally steep and going along fringes. Hikers here use 435.000 MHz and 437.900 MHz.
As development comes first, and China took the path of making itself the World's Factory, it also turned itself into the world's trash can. Last week the result was a smog layer covering large parts of the country's East. Most monitoring stations went off the scales, and you could actually taste the air instead of smelling it. Environmental laws are strict in China, but there is not much implementation.
Beijing's three core virtues are corruption, pollution and congestion. And all three have something to do with each other. Living is not cheap in Beijing, but life is. This is a very stable atmosphere to trap emissions and a large incentive to cover things in a foggy environment. Air pollution in Beijing is not a meteorological problem.
The Immortal Valley Loop is a very nice hiking route which brings you up to a peak of 800 meters, overlooking the North-Eastern reservoirs of Beijing, as well as the mountains around. It takes about 4 hours walking to return to the starting point.
The route contains a few steep sections which are equipped with metal staircases. At this season the waterfalls, are frozen into amazing sculptures of ice. Amazing in overview and detail.
It is a cold day with gales today in Beijing. A beautiful day, as it is sunny and the Beijingers are enjoying the clearness after a day of rain washing out, and then strong winds blowing away the haze. The Hutongs are filled with golden leaves, and live their anachronistic slowness and quietness in the middle of the capital city.
After dinner, before going to bed, I still went to my favorite place in this city, which is The Temple of the Earth. There is no God in the centre of this temple. It is an open space to worship the Earth itself, pray for luck, harvest, and ask for forgiveness. There is no "person" on the other side - nobody you can make a deal with. I love this temple and the park around it. I spend as much time there as I can. Even I am not religious at all, and last prayed in a German kindergarden (when you got beaten up if you did not follow instructions), today I felt like asking for a few things. Of course, I am aware that I can only ask myself, and no supreme being. And then, I can hope for luck.
I regret, that I cannot read Shi Tiesheng's "The Temple of Earth and I" in Chinese. I have to rely on translations and found one on Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping . The book is the description of the Temple of the Earth Park through the eyes a man who has been crippled in young age and spends all his free time there. Even I am handicapped only having the translation to rely on, it is a beautiful record of the place I like most in Beijing.
It begins like this:
"In a number of my stories, I’ve referred to an antiquated park: in fact, this is the Temple of Earth Park. Some years ago, before tourism had developed much, it was as desolate and neglected as a wasteland. People seldom gave it a thought.
The Temple of Earth wasn’t far from my home, or perhaps it’s better to say my home wasn’t far from it. All in all, I felt I was related to it by fate. It had reposed there for four hundred years before my birth, and ever since, when my grandmother was a young woman, she had taken my father to live in Beijing, my family had lived near it: in more than fifty years, my family had moved several times, but always to a place in its vicinity. Each time, we moved closer to it. I often felt this was something foreordained—as if this old park were waiting especially for me: it seemed it had been waiting for four hundred years—through all the tumultuous changes of those centuries ..."