Hiking Club Helps City Dwellers Experience the Great Outdoors
    2009-06-09 15:24:48     CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Jiang Aitao

by Dominic Swire

June 9, 2009

While Beijing may be one of the world's most dynamic and exciting cities, its sheer size and population (around 17 million at the last count) mean once in a while it's necessary to escape into the beauty and serenity of the surrounding countryside. One of the most practical ways of doing this is to go for a hike. However, if you don't know any Chinese, have no idea of where to go, how to get there, and don't know anyone else willing to join, organizing such an excursion can be tricky. 

Fear not. This is where Beijing Hikers steps in (excuse the pun). Founded in 2001, Beijing Hikers is a club designed to take the hassle out of arranging walking trips for people based in the Chinese capital--and in doing so create a community of like-minded people who love a brisk stroll in the countryside.

One of the guides gives a detailed introduction of the walk in the bus. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Dominic Swire]

"It's nice to get out of the city air in Beijing and see the green trees and local farms," says retired US fire fighter and regular Beijing Hiker Tod Onken, raising his voice above engine noise on the way back from an excursion to the Great Wall. "The people in the villages are always friendly, and the temperature there is often a little bit cooler, too," he adds.

Beijing Hikers organizes two to four outings per week, which are described in detail on their impressively organized website (www.beijinghikers.com). Each hike is given a difficulty rating of between one (the easiest) and five (the most demanding). Company Director and Hike Leader Huijie Sun, a young Chinese lady who speaks with a slight antipodean twang, explains that levels one and two are designed to accommodate young children and old people. Level 3 hikes usually take about 3--3.5 hours, are situated no higher than an altitude of 400m and are around 7-10km long. Levels 4 and 5 are progressively longer in distance and time, and usually cover steeper and higher terrain.

"We don't really go on many level-one hikes because they're too easy," says Huijie Sun. "And you really need to be in good shape for the level 4 and 5 walks." She adds.

The hikes are not free and usually cost around 200 -- 300 Yuan (30 -- 45 dollars), but for that you get some snacks and water, along with maps and walking sticks available to borrow. There is also an explanation of the trip, a quick talk on the cultural and historical background of the destination and a guarantee that you will have a far more interesting experience than most other tourist outings. This is one of the attractions that drew seasoned hiker Chris Godwin to the group two years ago.

"Some of my favorite destinations include the great wall hikes where the organizers use local guides to take us to places the general public usually can't go," said Godwin who estimates that he has been on around 50 hikes in total with the group.

As the waking speed of people in each group can vary greatly, Beijing Hikers employs an ingenious method of keeping all members on the same path. In each excursion there are always at least two guides, one at the front who lays red ribbons to mark the trail, and one at the back who stays with the slowest walkers and collects the markers. Two guides also make it easier to deal with any unforeseen circumstances. In the level 4 walk that this correspondent attended from Gubeikou to Jinshanling, which covered some of the unrepaired parts of the wall, one lady was struggling at the back, so Huijie Sun was able to walk her down a shortcut and order a taxi to take her to the ultimate destination: a wonderful outdoor restaurant serving fresh food and cold beer.

Unfortunately for her this meant missing out on some stunning scenery. The landscape of shrub-covered hills and valleys was like a stormy sea frozen in time, beautifully outlined by the Great Wall, which in places dates back to the 5th century BC. While the unrestored parts of the wall are certainly interesting from a historical point of view, severe erosion has led to parts of the trail tapering to less than two feet across with no barrier or rail to protect you from toppling down into the bushes on either side. Those suffering from vertigo should beware. But this is part of the reason the trek is given a level 4 rating.

The hot weather and challenging terrain meant the party was very pleased that the leaders had asked a local farmer to meet us half way with a box of cold drinks and ice lollies. During the walk we encountered few other tourists, which enabled a fuller appreciation of the splendor of this ancient fortification snaking off as far as the eye could see. Another testament to the ability of the organizers to choose superb destinations.

Beijing Hikers has been in existence since 2001, when it was started by Huijie Sun's sister Huilin and husband Gary. The pair were originally fond of mountain biking but quickly realized that organizing cycling trips involved far too much potential for riders to get injured or lost - or quite possibly both. Hiking proved to be far easier -- and popular, too. But despite quickly developing a group of regular walkers Huilin and Gary decided to emigrate to Australia in 2003. Before leaving, the pair managed to persuade Huijie Sun to give up a good job designing 3D graphics for computer games to take over the business.

"It was a big decision. They said it would be good experience, enable me to meet different people and go hiking. But communication was really hard to begin with. I was shy and not very good at English, so my sister made me stand at the front of the bus and give the introductory speeches to practice speaking."

On top of this Huijie Sun was responsible for memorizing over 40 different trails and scouting for new ones. But she quickly grew into the role and improved her English, helped by meeting her husband from New Zealand in 2004 who now also works for the company and explains her slight Kiwi accent.

Six years later the business continues to grow. The operation now employs six, boasts a membership of around 100 and offers between two to four hikes every week.

Membership costs 200 Yuan per person per year and enables a 10% discount of hikes and the possibility of joining the organizers on scouting trips. Members also qualify for a 10% discount in the outdoor equipment retailer Sanfo (and soon Decathlon), and 15% discount in the Irish Volunteer pub just opposite the Lido Holiday Inn in the Chaoyang District, which is the destination most trips start and finish.

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