Years ago, there was a regular announcement in the New York Times classified section. "Learn five languages a year while striding for exercise, “it announced. That idea fascinated me; on the one hand, it seemed the ultimate in over-achievement; on the other, the thought of seeing the world by walking (though maybe not striding) and engaging with it in its own idiom(s) was just so appealing. I disagree with American travel writer, Bill Bryson, who says that not being able to speak the language is actually "the glory of foreign travel" and that it's better not to know what people are talking about because it gives you a sense of childish wonder as your whole life becomes "a series of interesting guesses". It's an engaging perspective and I do love his books, though I get my sense of childish wonder from trying to speak the language wherever I am. Living in China has certainly been my biggest linguistic challenge thus far, but I survived.
In China, I’d walk endlessly around Shanghai, where I was writing a book about language learning with a Chinese co-author. Since I wanted to practice my Chinese, I usually walked in parts of the city where few westerners venture, and nearly every walk offered a small adventure. One day I got in trouble with a police woman who wanted to know what I thought I was doing going around without an interpreter. She was trying to scold me about some infraction I must have committed but I couldn't understand what it was. Another time, I went to the corner store for toilet paper and a sales clerk came up to me and said something I couldn't understand – They were on sale? Some other kind was better? Two for the price of one? So, in bad Chinese, I said, “Wo Xiang mai,” which means, “I want to buy.” This must have sounded idiotic, but at that point, those were the only words I could put together that seemed relevant to the situation. The clerk eventually gave up trying, but came back with a kind smile and basket for my groceries. It was then that I realized I should not leave my front door without a dictionary and a phrase book.
To construct opportunities to practice Chinese, I bought one or two things in each shop, instead of all at the same time. I learned by trial and error and every foray out of my small apartment was a new language lesson. A market stall owner asked me if I wanted a “jin” of chestnuts. I had no idea what a jin was but I said yes, and it seemed to be about a pound, so after that I knew how much to ask for.
While my sister was visiting, we saw two men melting sugar and grilling peanuts in enormous woks over open fires, then smashing the resulting mass with perfectly synchronized strokes of huge mallets, their back-and-forth motion like the moving figures in old Swiss clocks. My sister clambered onto a table to take pictures. A crowd gathered, mesmerized, holding out their money as the sticky mass metamorphosed into a shiny, melted light cross between fudge and pastry. It was obvious there wouldn't be enough for everyone and, although I was in front, the vendors handed it to everyone around me, despite the efforts of one man in the crowd who kept calling out (and I understood!), “the foreigner wants some!” But in the end they relented and gave us the last of it and we scuttled off with our prize.
After three months of being a flâneur (or perhaps a flâneuse) in Shanghai, my part of the book was done and it was time for some more serious hiking. My husband was coming to spend the last few weeks in China with me and we wanted to see more of this enormous and diverse country, preferably on foot. But it isn't easy for foreigners to know where to go.
By chance I heard about Beijing Hikers, a hiking group mainly for foreigners living in Beijing. They organize group hikes each week to little known trails in the Beijing area and will also put you in touch with a guide if you prefer to hike on your own. Their walks are coded on a scale of 1- 5 with 1 meaning "very easy with not much climbing, normally takes one hour" and 5 described as taking 4-5 hours and "physically challenging, suitable for experienced hikers". The hikes cost 200 RMB per adult, 150 RMB per child and include round trip transportation (they charter a bus to get to the trails), snacks and beverages, and any park entrance fees. They are currently offering a hike/swim/eat day outing involving five silver pagodas, a panoramic mountain peak view, a swim and a trout barbecue as well as various other hikes, all described at the website. The website also provides some witty and wonderful description of its hikes and, though the group caters mainly to expats, the sensibility of the descriptions is very Chinese. For example:
The valley is wide and open, offering great views. The only sound is the singing and twitching of different birds, including a woodpecker. On the way up we met a hunter with a rifle in hand and the feet of a hairy rabbit in his backpack. I mourned the rabbit and felt for him when my ankle was caught by a loop of thin wire. A little red weasel quickly ran into the rocks when he saw us. He might hang around a bit longer if he knew that we wouldn't harm him.