Fragrant Hills: Beijingers flock here in autumn when the maple leaves saturate the hillsides in great splashes of red…
–Lonely Planet: China
…and it can be a nightmare.
If you must join the legions of Beijingers who make their annual autumn pilgrimage to the western hills – up to 100,000 pass through Xiangshan at this time of year – try going on a weekday. On weekends you’ll be cheek to jowl with fellow sightseers, and on the streets leading up to the park pedestrians will jostle for space with cars and buses.
For people who have normal working lives and must go on a weekend, I advise you take the southern path up Xiangshan that leads you away from the chairlift and towards the Hongye (red leaf) Area (though you may want to track back to the Temple of Azure Clouds – admission RMB 10 – in the north).
The southern path is a bit more difficult, though Xiangshan being a Chinese “mountain,” it’s not that hard, unless you can’t stand inclined sidewalks. Along the way you’ll see no shortage of red leaves, which really are pretty, and history buffs can take a quick detour to Shuangqing Villa, once a temporary home for Mao Zedong and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
If you find yourself walking underneath the cable car towards Xianglu (Devil Frowning) Peak, also nicknamed Incense Burner Peak because it looks like an incense burner, be prepared to use your elbows. Here you feel the full brunt of the internal tourism boom, and for every group of visitors who seem happy and enthusiastic, there are a few more who are downright gloomy and can’t stop muttering, “Tai lei le” (so tiring!). At the top are souvenir stalls and food vendors selling sausages and popsicles at slightly marked up prices.
On the Sunday I visited fog blanketed the mountains, so the peak offered no real view of anything but people – hordes and hordes them. Things got downright silly when, around mid-afternoon, a Disney-esque line formed for the cable car, starting from the incline of a hill and looping around a pavilion. Someone not close to the front complained he had been waiting 30 minutes; it took me 35 minutes to walk down.
And now we come to a rather ugly subject, one I’d prefer to avoid but can’t because it was that bad: the amount of trash that hordes of people are capable of depositing on the ground. There are several signs that preach – entreat, really – against littering, with some written in verse: “Love the environment, don’t litter / Love the forest, don’t walk through.” They are summarily ignored. You can blame the park for not hiring more trash collectors or the habits of Chinese people, or say the problem lies deeper, as a residue of the Cultural Revolution – it doesn’t matter. The end result is the same – a royal park is regularly sullied by human pollution.
Those who are sensitive to criticism of institutionally ingrained poor habits, or are quick to cite the endemic of overpopulation, or resignedly say meibanfa – no other way – may want to turn away now.
The way I see it, there are two kinds of litterbugs: in the minority are those who didn’t get enough hugs when they were young, who decorate branches with plastic bags and dig small holes to serve as cup holders for their empty bottles. In other words, they make an effort to defile the land.
Then there are the passive litterbugs who either don’t know better or can’t be bothered to carry their garbage for any length of time. To them I say, “People – you are not insects.” You have agency, and the ability to pocket your refuse. To the already diverse array of flora there is no need to add Lao Binggun wrappers, Nongfu bottles and cigarette butts (yes, people smoke amid cypress forests; yes, there are signs that forbid this). Maybe it’s time to bring back the pre-Olympic pamphleteers.
This may sound like yet another environmentally sensitive expat ranting over a dead horse, but I was born in Beijing and I think something quite simple and essential is at stake here. Xiangshan is a beautiful park, deserving of its name, Fragrant Hills, and all the hoopla that comes with its imperial antecedents. On a nice day the park offers gorgeous vistas of rolling hills and natural forests, along with reflective ponds, classic architecture and a dignified memorial to Sun Yat-sen. It would behoove the people to take it upon themselves to take care of their treasures, lest they become trash.
Fragrant Hills Park
Until November 15: 6am-6:30pm, RMB 10.
Nov. 15-Mar 31: 6am-6pm, RMB 5.
Cableway: RMB 50 (weekdays)/RMB 60 (weekends)/RMB 20 (children).
Anthony Tao recently acquired a VPN and has resumed blogging at heartofbeijing.blogspot.com.