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Day Trippers

As cities across China ratcheted up Covid restrictions earlier this year, outdoor activities boomed – with droves of newly outfitted city dwellers escaping to the rural-urban fringe and beyond for a breath of fresh air

By Ni Wei Updated Oct.1

Since spring, Chinese violet cress was not the only thing sprouting up on the Wenyu River’s banks.  

Every weekend, clusters of colorful tents stretch for kilometers along the river between Beijing’s eastern Chaoyang and Shunyi districts. Families and friends gather to picnic, barbecue and soak in the sunshine and scenery. Many are calling the Wenyu River “Beijing’s Ueno Park,” the central Tokyo spot famous for cherry blossom viewing.  

“Don’t rush back to the bustling city again. Drop by and find yourself a place by the river. There you’ll find the very comfort and ease you long for,” Wang Xiaokun, a singer-actor from Hebei Province, posted to his followers on Douyin about the Wenyu River over the Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 4.  

When Beijing prohibited restaurant dining after a Covid outbreak in late April, picnicking along the Wenyu picked up: People came with tents, stoves, barbecue grills and more for a much needed nosh with friends.  

Day camping is among the many outdoor activities finding mass appeal across China’s major cities. Thousands who had never thought to venture into nature for fun are turning to niche activities like hiking, cycling, fishing, rock climbing, camping and mountaineering – and buying up all the high-end accoutrement that go with them.  

As more activities like concerts, restaurant dining and public gathering are discouraged under China’s zero-Covid policy, trips to the parks and scenic areas in the urban outskirts provide a much needed respite for socially starved city dwellers. 

On the Road
Huang Guosong cycled the Changping-Cibeiyu trail in outer Beijing, a 100-kilometer accomplishment intertwined with pain and desperation.  

Huang said he only started cycling a month after Beijing forced gyms to close in May, another target of the city’s Covid restrictions.  

Huang prefers cycling at night. He often heads out at 9pm and bikes around 50 kilometers in two hours, taking different routes.  

He had never seen Beijing so shuttered: skyscrapers and shopping malls were closed with lights out. However, public squares thronged with people. Outside the Taikoo Li shopping mall in the city’s trendy area of Sanlitun, people of all ages played badminton and tennis, roller skated and skipped rope – all clad in the latest gear.  

“It was so different before. Sanlitun is known as the place where hip young people hang out and amateur photographers linger to take snapshots. Now the landscape has totally changed,” Huang told NewsChina.  

As a possible hard lockdown loomed and traffic thinned, cyclists seized the moment to cruise their city’s streets.  

Lin Haonan, an avid cyclist in Beijing, racked up about 1,700 kilometers and over 10,000 vertical meters this April, breaking his personal record. Since April, after cycling organizations in Beijing stopped organizing group activities, members either hit the road alone or in small groups.  

“If you don’t get out to cycle right now, you probably won’t be able to tomorrow. That acute sense of uncertainty and helplessness drove us to get out and about,” Lin told NewsChina.  

For Lin, his two hobbies – reading and cycling – held new significance during the pandemic restrictions. But because Covid restrictions threatened his cycling, it took priority.  

“The meaning of cycling for me is not only that I’d meet a lot of interesting people on the road, but these encounters provided a powerful message – always be positive, stay curious and never let the weariness and absurdities of life get you down. At the very least, I’ll try to keep fighting as long as I can,” Lin told NewsChina. 
Li Xuan is the founder of James Outdoorlife, an outdoor equipment brand based in Beijing. Recognizing the growing market potential, he recently expanded the brand to include fishing and hiking equipment.  

“I believe the boom in outdoor activities will go nationwide. Lots of areas are still underdeveloped – hiking, mountaineering, camping, cycling, cross-country running, surfing, diving, sailing, paddle boarding, canoeing, rock climbing, skiing, fishing, golfing and horse riding,” Li said in rapid fire as he unboxed newly arrived fishing tackle. 
Lin Hong visited Li’s store on June 1 with her son and parents. Her family started camping this year, quickly purchasing a tent, cushions, a folding table and some stoves. She was still shopping for comfortable chairs and a portable refrigerator.  

Over the past two years since the pandemic spread, Lin would barbecue in friends’ backyards in the Beijing suburbs. She aims to capture that same atmosphere with camping.  

“We don’t own a house in the suburbs. Camping equipment for me is just like having a small mobile home in the suburbs. It’s a pretty good deal,” Lin told our reporter with a smile.  

Lin is typical of Beijing’s middle class. She and her husband are college teachers, who used to travel overseas every year, but the pandemic changed that. For many like them, outdoor activities in the suburbs are the next best thing.  

“On the surface, they are camping and barbecuing. But behind the trend is an intense longing for gathering with family and friends. In the meantime, the boom in outdoor activities also reflects people’s growing need to explore the wider world,” Li Xuan told NewsChina. 

Climbers stand next to Five-colored Lake, Yading Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, October 2020. Sitting at 4,700 meters, the lake is the highest in the reserve

Mountain Highs 

On May 17, Zhang Qingyang successfully summited her first mountain – Haba Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province at 5,396 meters. Zhang is a 37-year-old HR manager at a Shenzhen-based internet company and mother of a 9-year-old boy.  

The weather that day was particularly bad, but she was determined. She already had two failed attempts, both ending below 5,000 meters.  

One by one, members of Zhang’s climbing team turned back in the last few hundred meters. The decisive factor to her success was an extra pair of gloves to stave off frostbite.  

Zhang has been climbing for three years. Her first attempt on Haba Snow Mountain was in May 2019. At 4,800 meters, the climb was called off when a team member slipped down.  

She then successfully climbed the 5,276-meter-tall Mount Siguniang in Sichuan Province, biked around Qinghai Lake on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, hiked the trail of Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock from Lugu Lake to Daocheng Yading in Yunnan Province, as well as ascending the north face of Meili Snow Mountain in northern Yunnan.  

“I felt renewed each time I finished an outdoor challenge,” Zhang said. “Particularly in recent years, when the pandemic has messed with daily life, people crave relief from pressure and anxiety. Mountaineering is the way I do it.”  

Modern mountaineering is relatively new in China, with amateur mountaineering teams first popping up in the 1980s.  

In Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, hiking is reaching new heights. While the city does not have a mountain taller than 1,000 meters, the Shenzhen Mountaineering Outdoor Sport Association promoted “Shenzhen’s 10 Peaks,” which groups 10 local mountains to promote the sport in the area.  

More than 330,000 people claimed to have summited “Shenzhen’s 10 Peaks” on WeChat. Children also make up a large portion of amateur hikers. Zhang Qingyang’s 9-year-old son has already climbed all of Shenzhen’s peaks. Hiking is his primary way to meet up with friends. 

Freedom, Solitude and Socializing

China’s outdoor sports boom is not merely driven by a newfound affinity for nature, but rather a longing for normalcy and freedom during the pandemic. 
“Most people settle themselves in a tiny patch in cities. When you ride outside the Sixth Ring Road, you see a totally different Beijing. You feel the road ahead goes on forever and at that very moment you feel a strong sense of freedom,” Lin Haonan told NewsChina.  

Lin works at a Beijing-based internet company and often does night shifts. For him, cycling is the perfect escape: all he needs is his bike and good weather.  

Before finding cycling, Lin was into mountain climbing. He feels a cyclist can go much faster and farther than a climber. And unlike road tripping in a car, he feels immersed in nature.  

Whether in snowy mountains or in wooded wilderness, the outdoors offers solitude. For Zhang Qingyang, each trip is a meditative experience that strengthens her.  

“It’s not a cheesy cliché. When you’re thoroughly prepared, equipped with unshakable willpower, and achieve seemingly unachievable goals, you feel that power growing within you,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

Unlike Zhang, many seek outdoor activities to socialize.  

China has witnessed several major changes in the ways young people socialize. A decade earlier, dinner and karaoke was a standard night out. But that changed in recent years with the rise of board game cafes, escape rooms, and role-playing games, known as larping. Now with Covid restrictions still in place and getting a big push on social media, outdoor activities have found widespread appeal.  

Xu Sipeng, a team leader of Beijing Hiking Club, told NewsChina that in the last two years nearly 3,000 first-timers joined up after seeing posts about hiking on popular lifestyle app Xiaohongshu (little red book).  

“Since travel is restricted, more and more people choose to hike instead,” Xu said. There are currently over 100 hiking clubs in Beijing, with Beijing Hiking Club boasting over 10,000 members.  

People are also finding love. Xue Ling, founder of the Beijing-based cycling club Candies Fan, told NewsChina that eight couples met at the club since it began in 2017. Xue said there are dozens of cycling clubs in Beijing, with membership ranging from 300 to 500, while some bicycle brand-sponsored clubs have over 10,000 members. 

A paddleboarder jumps on a board, Liangma River, Chaoyang District, Beijing, July 10, 2022

Cyclists from the Beijing-based Candies Fan cycling club bike the scenic Yanqi Lake area, Beijing, April 22, 2022

Zhang Qingyang hikes on the north face of Meili Snow Mountain in northern Yunnan Province, October 2021

People set up tents for day trips to the Wenyu River Wetland Park in Beijing, October 3, 2020

Safety Concerns

Experienced outdoor enthusiasts have mixed feelings toward the surge in popularity. While pleased about the increased exposure, safety issues remain a concern. After seeing filtered photos and videos on social media, many inexperienced people are rushing into the wilds with no awareness of the dangers.  

Last year on Qiniang Mountain, the second-highest in Shenzhen at 867 meters, an inexperienced climber fell to his death while trying to snap a selfie from a cliff edge. It took rescuers two days to recover his body. Xie Xiaojun, a senior trainer at the Shenzhen Mountaineering Outdoor Sports Association, was among the rescuers.  

Xie detests the new selfie culture in mountaineering. “The photos only show you the most beautiful side, but not what risks you put yourself at to take a picture and how many people have fallen doing so,” Xie told NewsChina. His association’s team conducts an average of 40 rescue missions annually.  

Xie said most mountaineering accidents resulted from an ignorance of safety and lack of training. “Mountain climbing is not simply walking. It’s a sport that requires systematic training. I hope anyone considering trying it understands this,” he stressed. 

For cycling, the major risk is speed. Xue Ling of cycling club Candies Fan recalled a severe accident in 2017 when the cyclist ahead of him suddenly braked at high speed. Xue could not react in time, and the collision left him with an arm broken in three places.  

He underwent physical therapy for the next six months, which involved painful stretches to rip apart any scar tissue. He described the process as “cutting deep into his own flesh.” “Hell knows what kind of torture I’d been through,” Xue said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to experience what I’ve suffered.”  

After his recovery, Xue founded Candies Fan to educate new cyclists in safety. Xue said a common misconception is that road bikes are like the ordinary flywheel cruisers that commuters ride to work. “If you don’t have well-developed muscle memory, when the speed gets geared up beyond your control, you risk a collision or falling,” Xue told NewsChina.  

Every outdoor activity has potential dangers. Camping comes with risks of fire, carbon monoxide poisoning, drowning, torrential rains, and flash floods. On December 12, 2021, a person died of carbon monoxide poisoning on a family camping trip near Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, as they burned charcoal to keep warm at night.  

Li Xuan of James Outdoorlife does not recommend that newcomers buy tons of fancy equipment. He advises just starting with a picnic.  

Li said many outdoor sports novices in China simply copy what others do without educating themselves first, whether it be acquiring expensive equipment or traveling to remote locations.  

He advises starting simply. “You can just lay a bunch of hefty plastic bags on the grass and have a picnic. Don’t care about what other people do or what they think about you. Do it freely and naturally and don’t be so easily seduced by those fancy social media posts,” he said.