The taxi conversation always began the same: “Where to?” “Badachu.”
Badachu park is just west of Beijing’s 5th ring road, south of the more popular and larger Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) park. But we never actually went to Badachu. Once we got to the signs just outside the ring road that pointed us in that direction one of us (me or another Chinese speaker) would pipe up with “OK, now just go straight, then up there on the right – ting che (stop the car)!” In the middle of a few dilapidated houses and shops our group of 3-5 foreigners, all in full running gear, would hop out of the taxi and hand over our ~70 kuai fare. We’d then cross the road and pick up a small path behind a family-run smokes and liquor shop and just start jogging up the mountain behind it.
So there we’d be, somewhere in between Badachu and Xiangshan in the outskirts of Beijing, steadily jogging uphill for 40-45 minutes. There was no straight path or trail to follow — you basically had to know where you were going, and I learned all that in my first few weeks from two fellow crazy foreigner 老外 long distance runners and endurance athletes. There was M, an Australian who has lived in Beijing and speaks Chinese fluently, a hardcore endurance athlete and also mountain biker, who on occasion would drive us to and from the place we’d pick up the paths. And there was L, a Swedish runner who also happens to be a 2:30-ish marathoner and regularly wins races for his home country (when he’s not also running a popular fitness program in Beijing). They both went to these hills regularly for 2-3 hour runs, and when I located L through TheBeijinger forums – where he was actually recruiting more normal people for his fitness programs when I said I wanted to run long – I just couldn’t wait to join them. I’m not sure they believed I wanted to also run 2-3 hours, but the first time I joined them it was around 8AM on a weekend morning on a cold day in early December (probably -5 to -7 C) and we ran at least 2 hours from what I remember. When I got home later I had to spend at least 15 minutes in the shower regaining warmth, but I had an absolute blast out there in the boonies, and from then on my commitment was in no doubt.
The route, like I said, was not a straight shot, and to this day I don’t know precisely where we were. But I’ve always been good with directions, so it only took being out there twice for me to know the standard route for a 2-2.5 hour run. The first bit always took us through some farms, or gardens really, then another part we ran along a forested path next to a cement wall. Then we’d go through some more forested area on paths, a paved road or two for a bit, passing by a small gazebo or temple, and sometimes the occasional weekend hiker with a boombox backpack – usually blaring the radio – strapped to his back. (When my husband visited we did this run and he had two questions for me: “why do Beijing taxi drivers play chicken when passing large vehicles?” and “why do hikers strap heavy radios to their back when hiking up steep hills?”) … As we got further up the main hill, if it was a low pollution day, you could see all the way to the tower of the summer palace. Up and up through the scraggly forest we’d go, until we’d finally reach the very top around the 45 minute mark. From there we got a nearly 360 degree view. There was some kind of radio tower up there too, and a cement paved road leading to it, and your standard shack with a peasant who sold overpriced bottles of water and tea. Occasionally he’d also have some of that bottled and overly sweet minute maid drink with less than 5% actual juice in it – absolute heaven after 45 minutes of uphill running. Sometimes there would be a group of middle-aged or elderly hikers at the top taking a break, too. They’d stare at us in a what we perceived as a combination of awe and admiration, but more like it was just for realizing the sheer craziness of a group of foreigners spending a cold and windy day in Beijing running to the top of a mountain.
I can still vividly recall the view and landscape from the top, looking down into the valley and at the undulating hills stretching far afield. Typically, to this point, this was a route that we all learned, and if someone new was along they’d just tag along and learn it too. From here there were multiple variations, but the one I liked the best took us up and down one of the hills in the middle, where looking down either side one could see the valley below. You’d follow a metal fence towards the end, then carefully go down a steep bit and end up in a drained riverbed (given how dry it is in Beijing I don’t think I ever saw much water in that). From here, you’d follow the path at the end of the drained bed and back onto some paved areas, then a few other gravel roads and by a gazebo sitting below. One time when we were down there we ran right through a group of two dozen men sitting down listening to another. I’m fairly certain in hindsight they were army recruits of some sort, but at the time a few chuckled and others shouted at us three blonde foreigners: “jia you, jia you (add oil, add oil)!”
There were a few other points – sometimes when we’d end up on more obscure paths – that led me to believe we were actually running in military training areas that were off-limits. I saw a few trail markers with just red numbers, never any obvious directional signs, and there was a sign near one of the hideous white-tiled complexes on our way up (near the cement wall) that said 八一 (Ba-yi – or August 1, the People’s Liberation Army).
But most of the time we saw no one down there in the valley, or in the hills when we snaked back up to the overpass before reversing course on the same path back to the bottom (in contrast to going up it only took about 20 minutes to get back down). No one ever stopped our little group from running around up there. Finding a taxi back to Beijing could, however, be a bit of a pain. It wasn’t a common place to stop and sometimes we’d have to walk a bit to flag one down.
Only once did we end up in Badachu, but in retrospect it was one of the most memorable runs. For one, I went on a weekday with M, the fearless Swedish leader of our Chaoyang Park training runs (he was usually along for these long runs and he had a day off), and N, a Finnish woman new to Beijing and another “serious” distance runner. We ended up with one of those taxi rides from hell. But we made up for it by running through Badachu and its temples, and then sneakily left the small park full of steep-steps-from-hell through some fence or back path to explore the nearby area. At the top of one hill, on a lovely but windy blue skies day, we were afforded a panoramic view and lonely Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind. Eventually, after choosing one path or another, we somehow made it to a recognizable path and after 3 hours or so of running found a taxi home. (And had a fantastic mid-day meal of about 8 dishes at the traditional Beijing restaurant around the corner from my apartment.)
I loved these runs. Often times this was the only respite I got the whole week from the oppressiveness of the city – the pollution, noise, huge population, and traffic jams really zapped my energy. I cherished being out there, often on a weekend morning, without anything else to do but run through those deserted military training areas.
UPDATE: I recently discovered that two sets of photos from a group run along this route (albeit one that took place a few months after I’d left already) are online! Photo set 1 and photo set 2 were taken just a few days apart, but now you have visuals to go with my description above.