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Beyond the Wall

An easy ride from downtown Beijing, the mountains and rivers in the northern counties of the capital make for a breath of fresh air with a side of homestay hospitality

By NewsChina Updated May.1

Practicalities Getting to and around Miyun isn’t too difficult. The cheapest way is to catch bus 980 from Dongzhimen Bus Station, but when out in the suburbs, it might prove slightly difficult to get back to the city, due to the unpredictable (or often non-existing) bus schedule. If cycling seems too extreme, hailing a cab to take you around is not too challenging. For Liyuan, bus 916 goes to Huairou and then take a cab or bus h12/h25/h13 to Jiaojiehe. Local restaurants and homestays around Penghewan village and Duijia River valley offer plenty of fresh local delicacies with a plethora of meat, potato, and noodle dishes. All four areas are within driving distance and could serve as a full weekend getaway. Otherwise, savor it and enjoy one at a time.

Growing up surrounded more by lush green woods than buildings (or people for that matter), I must admit, I’m often one of those who endlessly whines about Beijing’s gray urban setting and the difficulty of accessing nature. Parks around the city with neatly paved roads and off-limits grass certainly do not cut it and the sights in the mountains surrounding Beijing often pack crowds just as big as the ones in the city. Not what I am looking for. 

But if you’re on the hunt for spots to admire the wonders of the natural world, Beijing’s suburban county of Miyun keeps popping up. Home to mountains, gorges, and rivers, Miyun County, as well as its neighboring county of Huairou, offer a plethora of places for those looking to get on the wild side. Of course, the caveat is that the level of wilderness around Beijing is generally lower than European or North American counterparts, but it still scratches the itch for my nature-craving gene. Miyun is easy to locate on the map, thanks to the huge spider-web shaped Miyun Reservoir. While more popular parks and gorges have entry tickets and thus clearly marked paths with free wandering highly discouraged, there is plenty of less-touched nature to explore.  

Among the mountains and curvy roads following the Qi River lies a unique architectural monument that sneaks up upon an unsuspecting visitor. While mountains around China often hide tiny temples, grand monasteries, or other traditional sights, seeing a modern minimalist creation in a setting where a pagoda would usually lie is at the very least unusual. Right on the Miyun-Huairou border, an easy stop on the way to other sightseeing spots, Liyuan Library was built to revive the village it’s next to and make it more attractive to visitors. The library’s core is constructed of glass and the whole surface is neatly covered in branches and sticks from the local flora. I took the road leading up to the library late in spring, the time that spoils the visitor with lush mountain scenery and deep-green trees crowded on both sides of the road.  

While Liyuan Library is not as popular as the other long-standing attractions in the area, the small space dictates that even with a hundred visitors at a time it feels uncomfortably crowded. I headed there early in the morning before it opened and managed to get a glimpse of the library before it welcomed the heavy flow of visitors. The surrounding area is impressive by itself, with a little stream heading right up to the library and pooling right at the side of it. Just seeing the exterior of the structure is worth it for any architecture enthusiast, but if the lines allow, take a peek inside, where visitors are invited to hang around and browse through the collection of Chinese and English books.  

The village next to the library offers humble but hearty restaurants that will fill the stomachs of hungry travelers with a country feast. Just ask the locals for recommendations.  

Running down from the mountains and into the Miyun Reservoir, the Duijia River valley is a great spot for hikers at all times of the year. The whole length can easily be hiked in a day with a barbecue stop (and a cheeky dip in the river) for lunch. Duijia River is one of many that flow into the reservoir and offers a great scenic road for driving or walking. The starting spot could be just off the Miguan highway, which also offers many places to stay overnight or eat. Following the river bed is easy enough, with an obvious path curving just next to the rocky mountains that once in a while seem to threaten anyone walking under them with loose rocks, as the warning notices inform.  

Black Dragon Pool, a set of waterfalls and pools, the biggest of which gives the name to the whole area, is a pleasant walk of a few hours. It is one of the wider-known attractions in Miyun area and offers stunning scenery in both winter and summer. While summer days spoil visitors with the calming sounds of running water and neatly lined paths closely hugging the mountains, I prefer seeing Black Dragon Pool after it has been struck by cold and all of its many water bodies turn into ice. It truly strikes me as a fairy-tale ice kingdom, with frozen streams crawling out of the rocky surroundings. Winter also brings fewer visitors, which is always desirable when traveling in China.  

Continuing north from Black Dragon Pool and taking a turn to Penghewan Village provides another great route for cycling, driving, or walking. Bai River widens out to look quite fierce and wild in places and in others turns into an easy-flowing and shallow stream. I stayed in one of the many homestays in a village over the Chinese New Year period and was fully spoiled with great food and mountain views. While swimming in the Bai River around Penghewan Village could seem problematic due to its rocky bed and questionable water quality, nobody gets scolded for dipping your toes in for a refreshing fix. The villages dotted around Penghewan offer fresh country grub and rural hospitality that is difficult to find in urban areas. The end of the road also hosts a small tourism center, closed during winter but quite active in summer, where you can feast on a freshly caught fish.  

Miyun is a treasure for those looking for a quick nature fix and satisfy the craving for greenery that is not a sterile urban park. If you are feeling brave enough for a night in a tent, it is possible, but not officially allowed in most places. The lack of real enforced regulations offer a loophole to those willing to try, but having a transport option back home might also be in order since you never know when the law will suddenly be in action. And unfortunately for die-hard camping fans, open fires are rarely permitted and even if they are, should be treated with extreme caution, due to the dry conditions around Beijing.  

As someone who has lived in urban Beijing for years, I treasure every opportunity to get at least a glimpse of wild water bodies and plants, even if it means following a man-made path. As long as it is not paved with tiles, it does the trick