The second last day of the holidays and I was invited to go on a picnic in the outlying areas of Beijing with one of my new friends, Rui, and several of his friends. I was the only foreigner (non-Native Chinese speaker) and so I was a bit nervous. Still, Rui’s English is excellent and I only hesitated for an instant before accepting the opportunity to see some of the outskirts of this city and to meet a new group of people.
We went to an area called “Shi Du” which means the ten ferry district. It’s about an hour’s drive south of Beijing and it leads into ten separate valleys around small, jagged mountains which each include water access and stunning scenery. Because it’s become a popular travel site, there are also shops and various other leisure activities locate in each.
This is a time in Chinese history when people from the city have enough money to actually visit the country as a leisure activity – to enjoy the fresh air, the open skies and the natural wonders that lie outside of the concrete and glass. As a result, we were not the only ones with this idea!
We arrived at the fifth “du” and walked along the rocky ridge of a beautiful lake and scoped out our picnic site. We were about twenty feet from another group and the lake was full of people on leisure rafts with large sticks to propel them forward. When everyone was satisfied with our choice of location, all the men then went back to the cars to get the food and coolers and other items while the women stayed with the dogs. I stayed too, of course, considering my gender and the complete surprise that I garnered when I offered to help too!
When they returned, there was the typical arguing about where to put the cook stoves and then the men all mutually failed several times at starting the fires. I had to laugh. Everyone had a better idea than everyone else and it was just comical. It could have been happening in any country, in any language. Eventually, the coals took and the cooking began, as did the laughter and the good times.
Here in China, it seems as though picnic blankets aren’t the norm. Instead, plastic is used. Large strips of cheap plastic was pulled from a roll and was laid out flat and held down with rocks. The food went on top of it – a veritable feast of kabobs and salads and beverages. My friend had stocked up on vegetables from the market that morning and so I ate vegetable versions of what they were eating. I tried my best to overlook where they had been cooked considering my status as a guest and my desire not to stand out any more than I already did.
Besides, I had a hard time with the language. I couldn’t have explained myself properly even if I had tried. Everything happened so quickly that I often found myself the only one not laughing at a joke I hadn’t understood. It was hard, but they were all really nice and Rui translated as often as he could. Eventually the group was offering to teach me Chinese. In fact, they said “you don’t need a school! You just need to hang out with us!” That felt good.
Across from the feasting, we could see children playing in large, thick, plastic balls that were floating on the surface of the water. It looked like an enormous amount of fun – like those huge indoor walking wheels for pet mice but big enough for humans. They were tethered to the edge of the waterway so that they couldn’t float away and I could hear the laughter bouncing off the liquid sunshine.
After the food, my friend and I walked down to the edge talking about music and lyrics. He sang a few songs to me in Chinese and then started to share all the songs he knows in English, most of which were incredibly cheesy and huge hits from the past. He sang them word for word (sometimes the wrong words in misunderstood English) and I joined in when he sang that Jack Wagner song “Nothing’s Gonna Change my Love for You” (made famous again by Glenn Mederios in the 80’s), Richard Marx “Right Here Waiting for You” and George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” (I’m pretty sure he was still with Wham at that time!)
Imagine us: me, the only foreigner for miles around and him, a young Chinese man without any kind of self-consciousness, singing his heart out on the edge of a lake. When I sang along, our voices reverberated against the cliffs and echoed over the water. No one stared any more than they already had been staring. In fact, we were even interrupted by someone trying to get us to buy time riding on a horse. So, I guess we weren’t being so “xiguai” (or strange) after all. Either way, there’s an absurdity that I felt in that moment that still makes me laugh at the thought of it.
One real downside to the day was the waste everywhere. I saw so much litter — so many wrappers and plastic everywhere. It was sad to see such a beautiful landscape with such dirty evidence of previous picnics.
The toilets, too, were just cement blocks surrounding pits that were absolutely FULL of human waste. I could barely walk by them without gagging, let alone use them. Eventually, though, I had no choice and I’ve discovered that I’ve become particularly good at holding my breath. Even thinking of it now makes me queasy, though. I’m not immune to disgusting toilets yet and perhaps I never will be.
We climbed back to the picnic site and had more food before helping clean up.
One of the women had laid out plastic “blankets” for the dogs and was desperately trying to convince her dog to lie down on this “blanket” to stay clean rather than laying in the dusty dirt. The dog was not interested and eventually settled right beside the blanket much to her disgust.
(At the end of the day, I watched her clean him with a wet napkin — a “moist toilette” and they’re very popular here. She washed his underside from paws to buttocks while her husband held him in the air. Then he was deposited in the vehicle without much ceremony.)
The group just piled the waste in a large central area after everything of value was gathered, and then left it there for hovering “recyclers” to sort through. Just like in the city where elderly people collect bottles and recyclables, I had noticed several older people eying our picnic and awaiting our departure.
I have such a hard time with this coming from such a beautifully maintained country, especially our forests and provincial or national parks. We have so much education about “no trace camping” and having a “light footprint” on the earth. I am conscious that these recycling people will extract the valuable recyclables but then leave the plastic bags and food waste there to rot (or collect dust because they aren’t biodegradable) like all the other small piles I saw.
I left with my friends feeling a sense of guilt towards the earth and a helplessness to relieve it. I also felt incredibly grateful to have been given such a great opportunity to see a part of China that I wouldn’t normally have seen. Everything is a mixed blessing and I try to feel the balance at the best of times. I’m not sure how to reconcile it all.
We drove onwards and stopped to photograph the “shidu” or “tenth ferry.” There were cable cars here and a bungee jumping platform. There was also a small island and a lake filled with pedal boats and happy vacationers.
One the way home, I noticed that this section of one of the “shidu” lakes is a popular car-washing spot. People drive their vehicles right into the water and then wash the cars right there. You wouldn’t see this in Canada!
The long ride back to Beijing was quiet. Everyone was exhausted by the sunshine and the large amount of food intake. I smiled out the rear window of the vehicle and felt a sense of pride at being invited and included in such an outing. I felt like I had been adopted by this group and given a true modern Chinese picnic.
Next time, I’m going in those water balls!