A Beijing Road (Ever so Slightly) Less Travelled

“The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.” - Anthony Bourdain.

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A popular saying amongst overseas residents in China imagines the fate of an alien crash landed within the reaches of the country’s vast and varied regions. A touchdown in Shanghai would enrol the unsuspecting visitor within a circus, while arrival in the southern city of Guangzhou would be a trip straight to the menu. A final fate awaits within the metropolis of the nation’s capital, Beijing; immortalisation within it’s museums, thus forming another chapter within the consciousness of a city boasting history stretching back over three millennia. 

The world’s most populated capital, Beijing is as enigmatic as it is divisive. For many first time visitors to China, the beauty of the city that most often forms a gateway to the adventure is often not fully realised, and understandably so; as travel weary visitors wrestle with a sometimes overwhelming bustle of humanity.

Amongst a place so vast, though, lies endless paths and possibilities for these first time eyes. While these tips are by no means definitive, and may not always stray too far from the beaten path, they hope to help pave a way that’ll leave you as captivated as I was, and remain, by my time living and working in the city.

Where to Stay?

Location is always key, especially when time is limited - in that sense the central street of Wangfujing and it’s immediate surroundings of the inner Dongcheng District certainly can’t be beaten; putting visitors within a stone’s throw of the Forbidden City and Beijing’s often perceived centre. While in that sense it’s ideal, today Wangfujing is flocked to by domestic and foreign visitors alike as a shopping mecca, albeit one where malls of household western names are found, rather than more traditional markets or vendors. The sheer volume of people, at times, can be overwhelming, and reminiscent of a popular Chinese idiom which translates approximately to ‘people mountain, people sea’.

Arguably, however, like any metropolis of its size, Beijing is the product of dozens of districts all melting into one, with no definitive centre - with such a vast and effective transport system, it’s simple to stay connected.

As an alternative, within just 20-30 minutes walk, or a subway ride from the northern reaches of Wangfujing, lie both traditional and more western style accommodations alike within some of the city’s incredible networks of Hutong. Traditional courtyard, single room family residences lining often narrow alleyways, they’re the iconic image of preserved Beijing life you’ll crave but don’t yet realise exists; at least not quite like this. Getting lost within their reaches is a truly unforgettable experience. That’s not to say, though, that it’s purely a lesson in history. While Beijing wrestles with it’s evolving identity and culture in the 21st Century, generations-old families live in amongst the artist studios, restaurants and businesses of both a younger, entrepreneurial generation and an older one preserving their crafts; none quite so much so as Nanluoguxiang, which stretches directly north from the subway station of the same name.

That’s also not to say that Nanluoguxiang, or it’s surrounding Hutong are free at times of a mass of, mainly domestic, visitors; however an escape along the one of the countless side streets and alleys is a Narnia-like transition into much calmer surroundings, that never fail to lead to unexpected, undiscovered gems.

Where to Eat & Drink?

While feasts in the city’s iconic culinary locations are often high on the agenda, from the Peking Duck restaurants of the Forbidden City’s surrounds to the fusion foods of Sanlitun’s western district; dining in Beijing is another experience in which the greatest treasures are found only once you surrender to becoming truly lost, in every sense of the term.

To truly fulfill this brief, and to experience the place that Beijingers go to eat, a mesmerising wander along Gui Jie Street, often known colloquially in English as ‘Ghost Street’, awaits. Take the subway, or a taxi, to the transport hub of Dongzhimen Station and walk directly west; over 100 restaurants, in almost a mile of aromas, cover the cuisine of a nation truly without rival when it comes to culinary diversity, and there’ll be no mistaking your arrival. Scores of locals await available tables, while sat on seas of stools lining the pavements; waiters scramble to serve beer and bowls of sunflower seeds, to the often near party atmosphere outside.

The adventure doesn’t end there - at the doors of many comes a refreshing end to the comfort zone, as a menu in English is no guarentee; instead, throw caution the wind and try your hand at ordering from the pictorial guides lining the walls, and enjoy everything from traditional Hot Pot, to the hand pulled noodles of Shaanxi and the sizzling spices of Sichuan. After eating, continue west through Beixinqiao and into Beijing’s hipster streets of Gulou, for a post-dinner drink and dessert in a courtyard lined coffee shop.

Where to See and Explore?

For many, time in the country’s capital is short, and understandably so, as so many destinations in China wrestle for position in a most commonly 2-3 week first time visit. With so much of Beijing to see and explore, it’s easy to not know where to begin, or to follow the most overwhelming, bustling paths.

While entering the vast grandeur of the Forbidden City’s former imperial palace walls can be a daunting undertaking of crowds and security checkpoints, take a different angle from which to witness a first beautiful glimpse; visit the neighbouring gardens of Jingshan Park, taking a leisurely climb to a pagoda upon its central hill, and witness the breathtaking sight from above in all its glory. All whilst in the midst of groups of elderly locals dancing, singing and forming haunting choirs, with hymn like songs that celebrate their creative freedom from the country’s so-called Cultural Revolution of the 1970’s.

Take a wander or a subway ride to Shichahai station and explore the lake complex of the same name, and in particular its largest, Houhai Lake. Explore it’s banks, local bars and restaurants with nightly live music, and watch locals who famously take a dip 365 days of the year; particularly impressive in winter, as the lake freezes over and forms the most spectacular winter playground of ice skating and ice biking.

Take full day adventure to a section of The Great Wall of China, of course. While though sections such as Badaling or Mutianyu are popular and accessible, the crowds are astounding, and modern visitor centres, fast food outlets and gift shops are becoming common place; instead, hire a guide and take a 3-4 hour hike from Jinshanling to Gubeikou. In doing so, take a literal walk through history, from the relatively restored and kept wall of the former to the rugged, wild and beautiful unrestored Ming Dynasty watchtowers of Gubeikou.  

Finally, draw your time in Beijing to a close on the final evening with a trip to the breathtaking, and often so rawly emotional feats and achievements of the cast of Chaoyang Theatre’s Flying Acrobatics Show. A constantly evolving masterpiece of acrobatics history, the almost unnerving discipline and commitment of its performers are more than just a physical performance; it’s a window into the evolution of a nation, and a bridge from its culture to the outside world.

Now

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I dreamed of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a journey which, starting out, I thought I couldn't finish; that was probably the greatest part of the adventure.

It's still mind blowing to think about how the last three months were once unlikely plans on paper, that came to life and evolved into experiences that I couldn't have imagined seeing and doing as long as I'd live. I was never, and will never be, a hiker - this was about something different, and not least to strive to live in the moment.

After close to 1,000 miles and the experience of a lifetime through highs and lows, the difficult realisation has come that the moment has passed. It's time to find it elsewhere.

It's been a privilege, as has meeting the people who made it what it is and was, and the receiving of incredible love and support from the outside - thank you so much.

Something I wrote previously may not be completely true - maybe some day I'll be back, but most likely not for some time; enough for now.

- Mousetrap

📷: Tommy Corey (Wrightwood - 22nd May)

Trail Life & Family

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I met Birdie in the first week of the trail, as we took each other's photos at the 100 mile marker. Months later we're now very shortly about to reach 1000 miles of the journey to Canada; although we've had to say goodbye to most people within our trail family, I'm so happy to say she's still a part of it.

Surrounding yourself with the right people will make or break your time here and I could think of few better candidates. People who know the sacrifice needed purely to be here, have inspiring outlooks on the largest of hurdles and who itch to tell the story of what we're doing in the right way, that's always so beautiful.

It's a challenging year, not least with the most extreme snow and water conditions in decades, and the financial toll on tackling them, along with the extra time needed to do so, is causing plenty of people to head home and abandon something they've worked so hard for.

Birdie has taken a long thought-out decision to reach out for help, and anything at all would be amazingly appreciated. It's certainly not intended to be a tale of woe, and life will go on whatever the outcome; I'd love though to see a great friend achieve a dream. The link is below, thanks so much! 

Click Here - https://goo.gl/cG8AQG

 - Mousetrap 

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A Bump in the Road

'Trust in the timing of your life.'  

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Things don't always go quite to plan, but bumps in the road were always going to be a part of this journey.

We set off from Bishop back over Kearsage Pass and into the Sierra for a ten day adventure through to Mammoth Lakes; tackling traverses on a major snow covered Mountain pass each morning, descending into alpine valleys and across raging creeks, via snow bridges or by crossing in well drilled formations, by afternoon, and climbing back above the tree line by evening to stage for the next morning's daunting climbs.

We might not be a million miles from highways, towns or more than several hours from the Metropoleis of the west coast - but it's still a world apart from life outside; it's also a world that I realised so few people get to see - especially in a year when just a few months ago it was referred to as impassible, and on a daily basis we cross and conquer things that some still do.

There aren't any words for the experience, but approaching half way into the stretch it started to take its toll. Huge days started to lead to exhaustion for me, which caused anxiety about the passes and a lack of sleep, and then loss of appetite. It had been snowballing since the end of the desert and while any of those things in isolation could be managed, together something had to give.

We woke at 4am, pulled on still wet clothes and started the approach to the next pass, and I hit a wall. I know I could have continued, but in that state, instinct said something wasn't right. After some time I said goodbye for now to my friends and spent the next two days wearily climbing down the steep valley of a side trail, across the floor of the Owens Valley and towards the highway.

It's not goodbye to my friends or the Sierra, just a few days apart and a few miles missed for now, until I can rejoin at the next gateway to the mountains. It's been a hard thing to swallow but a valuable lesson. It'll be good to be back.

Thunder and Sunshine - The High Sierra

'All that you are experiencing now will become moods of future joys. So bless it all.'

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Things are starting to feel real as we gear up for the high mountains.

The last 150 miles of the desert were the most mentally challenging of the trail so far for me - climbing up from, and down to, the floor of the Mojave for long days on end. Through everything from near freezing temperatures to flash 105F/41C heatwaves; gale force winds on soft sandy climbs to shadeless, sweltering stillness in waterless Joshua Tree-lined stretches.

Above all though there was an Elephant in the room; it's an uncertain year for the conditions in the Sierra. If the weight of that knowledge doesn't weigh down enough, everybody from other hikers, to trail angels, to locals and just about anyone who has the opportunity to give their two cents - will surely do so. They're either blissfully unaware that their words, well informed or otherwise, have the power to swing the emotions of others who's mentality on this journey can at times rest on a knife edge; or perhaps they find power in that, regardless of the consequence.

Some of the people who have been a big influence on my journey have made the right decision for them - to jump ahead past the Sierra to Northern California, and I'll miss them hugely. Unlike most of my friends, I find myself here a long way from home, with a solid group of people; standing at the gateway to the next part of a dream that was always about living in the moment.

It's in turns terrifying and exhilaratingly anticipated, but what would the trail and this journey be if anything less. I don't plan to return in future years - the time is now and while we can always turn back at any time, we'll always be able to say we were fully in whatever moments present themselves in the course of the pursuit.

 June 21st - Mile 702. 

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To Run with Giants - Bigger than Myself

 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.'  

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As I write this, it's fast approaching one month since I first set foot in an entirely new and bewildering type of home - a home that, in the words of another, demands only that you keep moving.

The last month has taken myself, and those who have helped to carry me through my days, through almost as many ever-changing twists and turns as it has emotions and states of mind. From the searing heat of desert floors to the bliss of alpine forests, to the dizzying heights of mountain-top ridges; from apprehension, to crushing and questioning lows, to overwhelming triumph. All of which turn full circle on a daily basis and present themselves perfectly without warning.

I guess it's been very much a month of finding my feet - and by that I mean usually finding them beaten up and in a lot of pain. But beyond that it's been about working out my place within this crazy journey - going into an experience that seemed definitely out of reach, it's become easy to grapple with the question of wether or not that place is deserved, or how it must be earned.

Something that's become so clear though, is that to reach the goal of standing wearily and triumphantly at the Canadian border monument in another four months time, is an achievement which certainly won't be made alone. Like all of the greatest experiences, it's been the people who have shared in and contributed to the ride who give so much strength. From people who have shared the trail since day one and understand what's going on in your head, to the kindness of complete strangers who come along and remind you that what you're doing is much bigger than just yourself.

I hope to be able to put everything into words a little more in the coming weeks and months, but for now here's some photos of the last few weeks. Thanks so much to all from home and beyond for the amazing support, it really means an incredible amount.

 - Mousetrap 

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Additional portraits by Tommy Corey - www.tommycoreyphoto.com 

To Run with Giants - Horizons

'Why on earth would you want to do that?'
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As I write this, it’s less than 6 weeks until I depart for the US, and exactly 8 weeks to the day until it’s time set off from San Diego to begin an attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada. Along the way will be over 2660 miles of trail, from the deserts of California to the rainy canyons and passes of Washington; all of which, for me, are most definitely the terrifying and exhilarating unknown. 

No amount of preparation and research can change the fact that this is still very much a dive into the deep end, with depths that I know full well may not be able to be reached. It’s that thought that’s become an obsession, and has turned a dream of the last few years into a fast approaching reality. When was the last time I started something I didn’t think I could finish? Have I ever?!

On a trail where it’s estimated that 20-30% of thru-hikers succeed and achieve their goal of reaching Canada each year, it’s clear that for me especially, every mile and day that passes will need to be earned, and absolutely nothing is a given. In that sense, it seems impossible that being a part of that select group standing wearily and triumphantly at the border monument at Washington’s end, could be anything short of life changing. 

This is a chance to leave behind the all too familiar feeling of forever living over the next horizon and for the next goal, and become present in an adventure that’s about relishing the here and now in it’s unfiltered, honest form. The six months that lie ahead will, for me, be one of the biggest challenges imaginable; so much so that a lot of this time is spent wondering what on earth I’m doing. And that’s exactly why it must happen.