Ten day trips around Beijing

Free yourself from Beijing's city-life with these nearby escapes

Mat Gallagher
Get outside of the Fifth Ring Road and into the countryside with our round up of some of the most beautiful places to visit – and coolest ways to get back to nature – on the capital’s doorstep.

See beautiful historic gardens

Fragrant Hills Park

fragrant hills 1

Originally cultivated in 1186, Fragrant Hills Park has been a dynastic hang-out spot for centuries. Recognising the area’s inordinate beauty, the emperors of the Jin, Yuan Ming and Qing dynasties all built palaces here. Chairman Mao also lived in a villa here as he directed the final battles of the revolution.

Upon entering the park (15RMB), the etymology of the name is obvious: the delicate aroma of the cypress trees lingers in the air. Enter through the north gate and amble towards the unique Biyun Temple (10RMB). First built in 1331, it’s a beautiful house of worship in its own right, made even more outstanding by its harmonious marriage with nature: thick shrubbery shrouds the buildings, wild ivy climbs the walls, cedar trees tower above the halls of worship; mountains perfectly frame the whole scene. Be sure to check out Arhat Hall; enshrined within are over 500 gilded wood statues of arhats (a Buddhist that has attained Nirvana) that are 1.5 metres in height; it’s like nothing we’d seen before.

Head up to the mighty Vajrasana Pagoda, the focal point of the temple. As the name suggests, its aesthetic borrows heavily from South East Asian temples, its angular stone pillars reminiscent of those more commonly seen in Cambodia. Head to the top for a fabulous panoramic view.

Retrace your footsteps and head into the park proper. From here you can take a 20-minute cable car ride (60RMB) to the top of Xianglu – or ‘incense burner’ – Peak for an epic view, or continue exploring the beautifully manicured grounds. Wide, winding pathways are flanked by colourful flower beds and benches for resting or picnicking; this is perhaps the best-equipped and cleanest parks we’ve seen in Beijing.

A good route is to follow the signs to Mao’s residence (Shuangqing Villa) for an hour-long stroll through the gardens. Be sure not to miss Jingcui Lake on your left. With lily pads resting on the glistening water and wilting willow trees all around, Jincui looks like a classic Chinese watercolour, so picture perfect it almost feels clichéd.

Shuanqing Villa is equally as beautiful. Mao stayed here in the summer of 1949, overseeing the last few months of the revolution. He directed ‘the crossing of the Yangtze River’ campaign from here – a battle that was one of the final few key victories for the Communists. As military bases go, it’s not a bad place to overthrow the decadent bourgeois class. You can also enter the modest villa to peer at his office and austere sleeping quarters.

It’s no wonder this place has been a magnet for the nation’s leaders over the centuries; the park is simply stunning – a place where one can feel truly inspired. LW

Get there Take bus 360 (runs 5.30am-10pm) from Beijing Zoo (137 Xizhimenwai Dajie, Xicheng district, 6839 0274; 西城区西直门外大街137号) and get off at Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan; 香山) after 25 stops. It takes about an hour. The bus station is easy to find after you get out of the subway station (Beijing Zoo) on Line 4.

Have a vertical adventure

Yan Mountain

via ferrata

A via ferrata is a rock climbing route made amateur-proof by periodic handholds and footholds and a steel cable fixed to the rock. These aids – and expert supervision – give inexperienced climbers the chance to scale difficult peaks and explore routes that would normally only be accessible to a professional mountaineer. Originally started in the Alps, there are now via ferrata in mountains around the world, including Yan Mountain (or Yanshan), north of Beijing.

Via ferrata is Italian for ‘iron road’, and as we stare up at the pathway of iron rungs installed in the cliff face that we’re about to ascend, it becomes obvious how appropriate the name is. Insignificant as these modifications may look from ground, the footholds actually allow one to scramble across the route as nimbly as a mountain goat. Our initial trepidation as we stare up at the face of the mountain is quickly replaced with excitement after we easily tackle the first hurdle.A short 20-minute hike later, we arrive at the start point of the second, more challenging, course. Here our group tackle sheer-drop rock walls that curve around a pristine lake and then cross a tricky bridge – more like a tight rope – made of three cables. Course three tests climbers’ strength more than the previous two, but we were still well strapped-in and safe. And the effort proved well worth it when we clambered to the finish: a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and clear blue skies greeted us. With the adrenaline still pumping and such a beautiful landscape to take in, it’s impossible not to feel exhilarated. After a quick break to take pictures, we head back to the start point for a freshly prepared barbeque lunch – a delicious, much-needed protein hit.

It may be the ‘iron road’, but the Yan Mountain via ferrata hardly requires muscles of steel – in fact, it makes mountaineering accessible to all.
By Caroline Hernandez

Get your hands on organic goods

Shared Harvest Farm


Shared Harvest is a communal agricultural project with the aim of changing the way we grow and eat food. And, luckily for us city rats, it also runs a very open and welcoming farm that doubles as an educational outpost.

The farm is run by a collection of farmers, sustainable agriculture experts, chefs and farm hands, all of whom have an infectious passion for organic food. Visitors are welcomed to join in with the daily work – picking vegetables, feeding livestock and preparing produce for delivery.

Seeing as we consider a stroll through Ritan Park an arboreal outing, we weren’t sure how we would fare on the farm. But our concerns were soon put to rest and we really enjoyed pitching in. We mostly helped out by picking some ripe fruit, sneaking a few succulent baby tomatoes straight into our mouth as we went.

But you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your own home to reap the fruits of the farm. For a regular donation you can become a shareholder, which gets you hampers of fresh organic vegetables, eggs and pork delivered to your doorstep every week (from 1,600RMB for one season).

After a day on the farm, we paused to consider which life we preferred. Okay, not for that long; we’re city people. But it’s comforting to know there are folks forging a path for a healthier and more sustainable Beijing. Nick Gollner

Get there Take Line 2 and get off at Beijing Railway Station ( 北京火车站). Leave via Exit B and take bus 804 to Tongzhou Mafang Village Stop ( 通州区马房村) after 31 stops (about 50 mins).

Experience breathtaking scenery

Longqing Gorge


With such stunning scenery, it’s difficult to believe Longqing Gorge is just an hour-and-a-half drive from central Beijing. Its narrow peaks and dramatic rock faces look more like a South East Asian tropical paradise or the incredible limestone peaks along the Li River in China’s own Guilin (as depicted on the back of the 20 yuan note). In fact, the resemblance is so uncanny locals have dubbed Longqing the ‘mini Li River’.

Enter the park (40RMB) and walk through Culture Square. It’s here that the Longqing Ice and Snow Festival is held every winter. A kind of scaled-down version of the famous Harbin fest.

Head to the Flying Dragon Escalator; a bizarre 258-metre-long yellow dragon with six escalators in its fibreglass belly. A real kitsch treat and a hilarious juxtaposition with the celestial scenery.

From here the striking landscape reveals itself. Take in the luscious, lagoon-like water – a rich green in colour – and towering, angular peaks made of prehistoric dolomite.

Board an open-top boat (15 minutes; 100RMB) and cruise along the river. Go in the morning if you can, when the sun’s rays cut through the lingering mist, adding to the ancient, ethereal feel of the whole area.

The boat drops its passengers at an attraction area downstream. From here, thrill-seekers can bungee (200RMB) or zipline (50RMB) the gorge while those looking for something a little more serene can check out the charming Diamond Temple, built in 1065. Take a moment of reflection in the shade; the smell of incense pervades the air, and mountains tower above the temple. There’s almost too much for the senses to take in.

From here you can also rent a small rowing boat (50RMB; maximum three people per boat) and row down a secluded, shady gorge – a particularly beautiful and romantic spot. To head home, board the boat again and you will be ferried back to the start point. Lay back, feel the breeze in your hair and the mist on your face, and lap it all up before you have to head back to the city. Because, short of putting on an Avatar DVD, you won’t see the likes of this landscape anywhere else in Beijing. LW

Get there Take express bus 919 (5.45am-7pm) from Deshengmen Bus Station (德胜门); address is 9 Deshengmen Dong Dajie, Xicheng District; 西城区德胜门东大街 9号. Disembark at Yanqing Dongguan (延庆东关) after nine stops. Then take a cab to Longqingxia. It takes about one hour and 40 minutes in off-peak hours. Deshengmen Bus Station is right in front of Beijing Ancient Coin Museum (北京古代钱币展览馆).

Stop and smell the flowers

Beijing Botanical Gardens


A mere 40-minute drive from Dongzhimen, a trip to the Beijing Botanical Gardens is perhaps the quickest and easiest way to escape the city and immerse yourself in nature; hell, most cab drivers will take you out there. Pay the meagre 10RMB entrance fee and meander through these beautiful gardens; a rambling, exquisitely cultivated space made up of 12 unique areas specialising in different plants, of which there are over 6,000.

Walk straight ahead to the Peony Garden and amble among the 200-plus examples of this traditional Chinese flower. Favoured by emperors and courtesans since the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907 AD), the flower is an ancient symbol in China and is known, unofficially, as the PRC’s national flower. Due reverence is paid here with a beautiful arrangement of species. Keep going to the equally beautiful rose garden – a large square with parkbenches reminiscent of a garden in an English stately home – or turn left towards the greenhouses.

These rusty, grubby-windowed hotboxes might not look much on the outside, but they hide a world of tropical, rare species of plant inside. The greenhouses are a maze of over a dozen interconnected rooms, meaning you can walk between different areas without going outside – the perfect way to get stuck into nature on a rainy day. For colder and wetter days there is also the Tropical Conservatory, boasting 9,800 square metres of indoor space to the west of the gardens. Every plant in the garden is labelled in English and Chinese (although, frustratingly, many labels only give the Latin names rather than their common household names in English) and the various areas also have large information boards in both languages. Some provide useful information, some are less useful – we could have died happy without knowing that peonies are used to treat gynaecological diseases, for example.

That aside, the botanical gardens make for a fun family day out – the signs make the trip educational if you want, but can just as easily be ignored. This place, after all, is mostly all about strolling along the winding paths and breathing in the fresh air and fragrant flowers. LW

Get there Take Line 1 to Pinguoyuan (苹果园) and then bus 318 (5am-10.20pm) to Beijing Botanical Garden (北京植物园). It takes about one hour and 30 minutes from Pingguoyuan to Beijing Botanical Gardens.

Go to war in Chaoyang Park

Joyee Ray War


Okay, so we cheated a bit. Chaoyang Park isn’t outside the city, not by a long stretch. But as the biggest slice of nature within the Fifth Ring Road – replete with lakes, grassy knolls, and even a couple of small forests – it’s the best place to get into nature without going out of your way.

But if taking in the natural beauty is a bit too sedate for your liking, the park also has an outdoor laser tag course. Joyee Ray War is named after, and based on, first-person shooter video game Counter Strike, and the action has made the jump from the virtual world to reality near the east gate of the park. The game is essentially laser tag, but outdoors – no sticky floors, black lights or sweaty teenagers to be found here. In fact, the course is an outlandishly fun way to get some exercise and run around a beautiful forest unleashing your inner child. By blasting people with laser guns.

Before the battle begins, each player is kitted out with a camouflage vest and hat, and attached laser sensors. A plastic gun, equipped with videogame-esque shooting and reloading sound effects, completes the look.

Players divide themselves into two camps and navigate the park’s tree-laden terrain to outwit and outmatch each other. Abandoned cars, sandbags, tyres and wooden boards are scattered throughout the battlefield, providing shelter from oncoming laser rays. Running through the course, ducking behind trees, and leaping to the safety of your team’s camp really is as fun as it sounds. This is an activity best shared with friends (groups over 16 people need to book in advance) but those who go it alone will find it hard not to develop camaraderie with their brothers and sisters in plastic arms. Cole Delbyck

Hike in secluded hills

Mangshan National Forest Park


A mere 40km from the city centre, Mangshan is the largest national forest park in Beijing – and arguably the most beautiful. The mountain range snakes its way through the surrounding countryside, hence its name: mang shan, or ‘python mountain’.

Pay admission (20RMB) at the gate and veer right towards the stone Maitreya Buddha statue. The ten-metre-tall structure is mighty impressive, being made up of 1,500 tonnes of granite. Behind is a traditional walkway – a perfect spot to get some shade.

Head up the stairs to a spacious, open courtyard featuring several picnic tables – perfect for a spot of lunch with a view – or take the pathway through the Health Forest. The thin trail, shrouded in evergreens, is packed with blooming wild flowers and shrubbery.

To delve deeper into the park, follow the signs to the ‘Climbing Steps’. Only the brave need apply for this 1,299-step trek – the longest in Beijing. But their endeavours will be rewarded by a beautiful hike – the mix of evergreens and maple trees turn the mountain a brilliant tapestry of green and red in the autumn. At the top is a commanding view of the mountain range and, to the west, the Ming Tombs Reservoir. This massive man-made lake is one of Beijing’s major water supplies and during the 2008 Olympics was the site of the men’s and women’s triathlon.

Alternatively, pick one of the picturesque pagodas that sit atop the many peaks and set your course. This park is for real exploring. LW

Get there Take bus 888 (7.30am-8.30pm) from Deshengmen Bus Station (德胜门) and get off at Mangshan Park ( 蟒山国家森林公园), the terminal stop. It takes about one hour and 30 minutes.

Monkey around in the mountains

Beijing Climbing Club


Owned and operated by intrepid Englishman Simon Adams, Beijing Climbing Club takes groups to the city’s lush mountains to put their strength to the test. Concerned about our ability, we opted for the beginner-friendly trip, and while most of the other climbers were group regulars, we did meet a few fellow first-time climbers.

Two hours after embarking our van pulls up at the bottom of a wooded gorge and, after readying our gear, a short hike brings us to the base of the rock walls that encase the gorge. Experienced climbers set up the routes we’re going to climb as Adams runs through all the safety procedures and climbing basics.

Harness, helmet and climbing shoes securely adorned, we step up to one of the easier routes, nerves jangling. Thankfully we scale the first route successfully, but not without a fair few moments of sheer terror in which we are convinced we are going to get stuck, clinging to a rock, waiting for Adams to belay us down with the safety rope. It’s mostly thanks to the encouragement of those on the ground that we persevered.

We spend the whole day in the gorge, climbing on whichever side is shaded from the scorching sun and breaking only for lunch. By the end of the day, we have successfully climbed two routes and made it halfway up a third. All in all, Adams has nine routes set up, and the more experienced climbers in the group scale around five each. A few minutes into the drive back, we stop at a small convenience store, where Adams buys a round of beers for all the climbers to celebrate a successful day. And boy have we earned them: it was a physically challenging – but hugely enjoyable – experience. Turns out scaling rocks using nothing but your body strength and some chalk is pretty tough going. Who knew? CH

Enjoy a haven for birdwatchers

Hanshiqiao Wetland Nature Reserve


In the northeast of the city, past the mechanical birds of Beijing Capital Airport, is a haven for Beijing’s actual avian beasts – Hanshiqiao, the city’s largest wetlands. It’s an expansive environment of verdant marshes and reed-covered lakes teeming with birds chirping happily, oblivious to the fact that the one of the world’s largest metropolises is only a few kilometres away.

Hire an electric-powered boat and cruise around on the tranquil water, carving paths through the algae and ducking under the wilting willow trees, or hire a bike and skirt around the edge of the lake, keeping your eyes open for rare species as you go. Don’t worry about colliding with anyone while you gawp – the place is so peaceful we only saw a handful of visitors on the weekday we visited.

Head for the Bird Watching Pavilion (15RMB) to the north for the best view of the wildfowl. The ‘pavilion’ is actually a large air-conditioned room with four telescopes for viewing behind floor-to-ceiling windows – a very comfortable way to get back to nature. We saw some pretty rare species: buzzards, pheasants, owls, even an eagle. Unfortunately they were all dead and stuffed, on display in glass cabinets behind the telescopes.

But there was plenty going on outside the windows, too; we saw mandarins, mallards and plenty of herons. Okay, so it’s no white rhino spotting, but if you’ve lived in wildlife-free Beijing for long enough, it feels like a pretty big deal indeed.

We saw plenty of other species but weren’t able to identify them – the biggest downside of the platform is the lack of a guide to help you spot breeds and give some background on the habitat. Instead we used their dead bretheren to identify them – very bizarre.But it’s the environment, not the wildlife, that’s the biggest draw here. A phenomenal landscape dissected along the horizon: innumerable shades of green below and a brilliant, clear-blue sky above. A perfect city getaway. LW

Get there Take bus 918 (5.40am-7.30pm) from Dongzhimen Bus Station and leave at Yangzhen ( 杨镇), taking around two hours and 30 minutes. Hanshiqiao Wetland Reserve (汉石桥湿地公园) is then a ten-minute taxi ride.

Soak your weary feet 

Chun Hui Yuan hot spring resort

After traipsing around parks and scaling mountains, you’ll have earned the privilege of soaking your feet in the warming waters at Chun Hui Yuan. In fact, given its remote location – situated in the outskirts of Shunyi – you’ll likely have earned the indulgence after merely getting there.

There are hot springs closer to the city centre but this is the classiest one around (no screaming kids, cheesy music or fake plants here), whatever time of day you arrive. Come at night and you can gaze up at the stars as you unwind in the outdoor dipping pools – which come in a variety of temperatures (39-42°C) and are filled with different floral scents. There are also hot tubs looking out over a large lake, prettily lit by buildings opposite. Venture inside and you’ll find a large pool, saunas, and hot-stone beds, which are perfect for lounging on in small groups. And if you’re feeling really indulgent, you can always treat yourself to a spa treatment – massages start at 350RMB for a 45-minute traditional Chinese massage, and cost up to 1,800RMB for a 90-minute massage and skin treatment. Go on, you’ve earned it. Gabrielle Jaffe

Get there Take bus 942 from Dongzhimen Bus Station to Yu Zhuang; from the stop, turn left and walk just under 2km to the resort. Alternatively, most taxis will take you direct from central Beijing.

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