Beijing's best day trips: lakes and rivers

Natural life abounds just a tadpole's jump from Beijing

Beijing is an odd city in that it doesn't have an historic river running through it. We may have a water-ringed Forbidden City, but natural tides of aqua are sorely lacking. So if you're chasing a day trip that will bring you a bit closer to Mother Nature's life source, or if you just fancy upping the humidity a bit, these rivers, lakes and gorges around Beijing will have you sorted – most don't even require a life jacket.
Shidu (十渡 )

Shidu (十渡 )

A deranged yet exhilarating carnival of water sports 

Shidu (十渡 ) is a small town etched around the tenth crossing of the Juma river where Beijing borders Hebei, deep in the western Fangshan district. Hemmed in by a spectacular mountain scape and within striking distance of the capital, it was only a matter of time before the carnies made their move on Shidu, repurposing a good section of the river into something of an extreme sports aqua-rave.

Shidu features bungee jumping (260RMB), zip lining, cable cars (150RMB) and much more, all backed by second-tier EDM cuts that ricochet from mountain to river, past the eardrum and deep into the central chemistry of the human body. It’s nature feat. Avicii out here, and if you can submit to the crude carnival atmosphere of Shidu, you’re going to love it.

Activities on the river are too many to mention, but an hour on a six-person, gondoliered bamboo raft (120RMB per hour), complete with bench chairs, dining table and plastic-leaf awning is a good place to start. Dodgem boats (30RMB for ten minutes), speedboats (30RMB per person) and Houhai-style boats (from 50RMB per 30 minutes) are all also available. For the thrill seeker, the zip lining looks terrifying, the bungee jumping – corroborated by much screaming – more so.

The mountain section is more inspiring. Head towards the military museum (free and definitely worth it) and head left. After 100m you should have more Aviici, dodgem cars (30RMB) and signs for the Tall Mountain Glass Walkway (高山玻璃栈道). Entry to the park is 50RMB and includes a knee-buckling 200m stroll over glass on the side of the eponymous pinnacle. The view from the summit is alone worth the sweat and offers a 270 degree view. Hikers may then descend in the conventional manner, or, as is custom at elevated Chinese attractions, take the creative option (see Great Wall toboggan): a giant glass slide (20RMB).

Getting there Take the 917 bus from Tianqiao Bus Terminal. Important: there are two signs for the 917, and indeed two types of 917 bus. You want the bus stop west of the Beiwei Lu and Dongjing Lu intersection. Buses leave Shidu across the road from the dodgems hourly, the last bus leaving at 4.30pm.

Travel time Three hours.

Cost 21RMB each way.

Yesanpo (野三坡)

Yesanpo (野三坡)

Gorges, mountainscapes and neon caves at the western border of Beijing

Yesanpo ( 野三坡) is a charming cluster of villages and gateway to some spectacular peaks just over the Hebei border. Nestled in a less-frequented stretch of mountain country than throbbing Shidu, Yesanpo is home to some spectacular mountain-based tourism, most of which is has been left to impress in comparatively natural condition.

Yesanpo Scenic Area encompasses several major tourism nodes including Bailixia Gorge, the Juma River, Baicaopan Forest, Yugu Cave and more. Realistically, one day won’t be enough time to cover all that Yesanpo has to offer, but if you leave Beijing early enough you should be able to squeeze a traipse around Bailixia Gorge and a lurk through Yugu Cave into a proper go-getting day trip.

The main event in Yesanpo, and therefore the busiest, is Bailixia Gorge – a 50km maze of stunning rock formations, valleys and peaks. Visitors can grade their experience according to fitness, with a 2,800-step climb to the tallest section of the gorge a highlight for those willing.

A few clicks along the highway by car (negotiate for one at the car park if you don’t have a driver) is Yugu Cave (Yugudong, 鱼谷洞). While seasoned spelunkers mightn’t get a massive kick out of Yugu’s manicured pathways and stairs, the cave is nonetheless an exhilarating 40-minute journey from start to finish. The neon lights spotlighting the cave’s more interesting formations are strangely effective, and if you time it right you’ll be by yourself for the entire eerie walk; as if simply being in Hebei wasn’t eerie enough.

Getting there Here’s the catch, getting to Yesanpo isn’t entirely straightforward, but the best adventures never are. There is one train per day from Beijing West and one back, but as the former leaves at 5.45pm and the latter at 9.30am, you'll need two nights in Yesanpo to do anything other than sleep. Opt instead for the 917 bus (on the hour from 6am) from Tianqiao bus station (there are two 917 stops, you want the one to the west of the Beiwei Lu and Dongjing Lu intersection), and take it to Shidu. From Shidu, there are minibuses heading periodically to Yesanpo, but you will need to flag one down – speak to a local as to where best to do this. Our minibus stopped right at Yugu Cave, and not far from Bailixia Gorge, but you will need to communicate this clearly to your driver. The last bus leaves from Yugu Cave at 4.30pm, but alas, so does the bus from Shidu to Beijing, so you will need to make well-considered arrangements as to leave enough time to make it back to the capital. Hiring cars between sights is also a good, if more expensive, option, and if you need to spend a night in Yesanpo (we did), well, at least you can sample the local take on yangrou chaun'r.

Travel time 3 hours to Shidu; 45 minutes to Yesanpo.

Cost 21RMB to Shidu. 15RMB in a minibus to Yesanpo. 65RMB for Yugu Cave.

Baiyangdian (白洋淀)

Baiyangdian (白洋淀)

A sprawling wetland home to diverse natural life

Baiyangdian (白洋淀), China's largest freshwater lake, is comprised of 143 smaller lakes connected by a network of over 3,700 waterways, as well as being the source for nine different rivers. Evidently, aqua is the main event here, but its rich plant and wildlife create sights unlike any within our city limits.

In spring, its wiry brown reeds burst out into greens, while lotus flowers and pads bloom upon the surface of the water, turning the place into a pleasantly colourful affair that’s perfect for a peaceful scenic cruise. Peaceful until your speedboat starts a-roarin’, that is.

The eight different paid attractions (40-50RMB each) found around its shores, including gardens, culture parks and even a water park, are only reachable by boat, with motorised, sailing and rowing options available and capacity ranging from five to 80 people.

As for the amuse-bouches, the staple scoff seems to be duck eggs squeezed out by the lake’s thriving waterfowl population, and there’s plenty to go around; vendors are everywhere, and a bag of six ready-to-eat blue ones will set you back a mere 10RMB.

Getting there Hop on the high-speed train from Beijing West Station to Baoding East Station (63.5RMB; around three trains every hour from 6.42am-9.33pm; last train back to Beijing 10.19pm). From there, take a driver to Baiyangdian’s front gate (45km; aim for no more than 150RMB each way).

The lake is reachable by public transport, but be warned: it’s a rather laborious trip. From Baoding East, take the K1 or K2 bus to Baoding Bus Station (保定客运中心; 1RMB; 25 mins). From there, take a coach to Anxin (安新汽车 站; 15RMB; one hour; last return bus 6.30pm). Finally, you’ll need to take a three-wheeler or taxi to the main gate of Baiyangdian (15RMB). If you choose the public transport option, you might consider extending your trip overnight given travel times; country guesthouses around the lake are plentiful and reasonably priced.

Travel time Three hours each way (with private car); five-plus hours (public transport).

Cost 190-360RMB transport; 40RMB entry fee (not including other paid attractions); 100-980RMB boat fee.

Beidaihe

Beidaihe

Get beachy just a couple of hours out of Beijing

Located just east of Beijing, Beidaihe is a resort town that's evolved from a Communist Party enclave to a popular tourist destination. If you're looking to get away from it all, this is not the place to do it. With throngs of beach-lovers drawn in from the surrounding areas, this is basically Beijing's Jersey Shore.

That said, there are still plenty of fun and bracing activities to get your juju flowing. Nearby is Liangfeng Mountain Park, which offers a 153-metre climb to the peak, after which you can grab some seafood at one of the beach-side restaurants and hop around the numerous bars in the area. It's also worth cycling from Tiger Rock Park, the centre of all the Beidaihe beach fun, along the tree-lined Xihaitan Lu.

Getting there Trains leave Beijing Station every hour or so (first train 7.13am; last train back 9.47pm). Be sure to book your tickets in advance as seats sell out quickly.

Travel time Two hours.

Cost 81.5RMB each way.

Qinglonghu

Qinglonghu

Camping, boating and strolling on Beijing's biggest freshwater lake

Qinglonghu may not be as famous as the Summer Palace's Kunming Lake or central Beijing's Houhai, Beihai and Zhongnanhai, but it contains more water than all of the above combined. With all that water-based fun to be had, it's no surprise that the shores are lined with campsites, dense forests, meadows and places to rent your own speedboats or pedalos.

For some peace and quiet, head to the park's edges where you can admire the mountains reflecting in the lake's clear water, or have a secluded barbecue on the sandy beaches. If all this lakeside tranquillity is too idyllic to tear yourself away from, you can camp on the shore or stay in a room at one of the on-site villas in the park (from 300RMB). 

Getting there Take Line 6 to Liuliqiao, and then the 983, 339 or 458 bus to Nangong. From there, take the 978 bus to Qinglonghu.

Travel time Two hours.

Cost 20RMB entrance fee.

Jinhai Lake

Jinhai Lake

A sporty lake for those seeking thrills

As one of the city’s three reservoirs, the water in Jinhai Lake is guaranteed to be clean (well, as clean as Beijing water gets). Surrounded by beautiful mountains, this spot offers tranquility as well as an adrenaline rush.

The main tourist hub is the reservoir’s massive dam. Those that like to keep their feet firmly on the ground can stroll along the 500-metre path on top of the damn and take in the inspiring views. To forge your own path, and get away from the crowds, rent a pedalo (80RMB an hour) or a two-person kayak (100RMB an hour) and head out to a deserted shore.

But for the more adventurously-inclined, do not miss the freakin’ jet skis. Sure, it’s 25RMB a minute, but that smile on your face will stay there for hours after. Technically, you’re not allowed to swim in the lake, but if you get a boat to one of the secluded shores, no one will see you.

Once you’ve squandered all your money on jet skis and speedboats (20RMB a minute but you can get a few people on board to split the cost), you might want a cheaper way to enjoy the lake. Jump on one of the tour boats (30RMB) for a 30-minute saunter on the water. Don’t bother with the small temple – it’s a pay-to-pray and isn’t worth it.

Getting there Take the 852 bus from Dongzhimen to Pinggu bus station (17 stops). Then take the 45 bus to Jinhai Lake station (12 stops). 

Travel time Two-and-a-half hours.

Cost Depends on how much fun you have with the water sports.

Purple Bamboo Park to the Summer Palace

Purple Bamboo Park to the Summer Palace

An idyllic float to one of Beijing's most famous palaces

Purple Bamboo Park (zizhuyuan) is one of Beijing’s largest and most spectacular inner-city parks. It’s made up of small islands and bridges dotted around three lakes, and filled with beautiful (duh) bamboo. From here you can take a boat trip (40RMB; 70RMB return) on the Changhe River up to the Summer Palace.

You’re never going to find total solitude in a Beijing park, or in one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, but there are surprisingly tranquil spots in both. The north part of Purple Bamboo Park is your best bet for some peace. There's also plenty going on, with a small amusement area near the south gate (around 20RMB a ride) and local park life – pensioners playing hacky sack (jianzi), basically. As for the Summer Palace… What, a Unesco World Heritage site isn’t enough?

The boat trip to the Summer Palace is a must-try. You may have to sit on rickety seats, most likely squeezed uncomfortably close to an ayi with garlic breath, but it’s definitely a unique experience. The view on the 30-minute ride isn’t always postcard-perfect, taking in a few factories and random suburbs, but, as you draw closer to the Summer Palace, the view improves massively. You also go under some historic bridges as you follow the path Empress Dowager Cixi would have taken to her warm-weather pad.

The Summer Palace can get rammed in the summer (obvs), especially around the famous Longevity Hill. If you’ve been to the palace before, skip the big-name tourist draws and head to the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures (xiequ yuan), in the Summer Palace’s northeast corner. A mini-lake with ornate footbridges decorate this quiet spot, which is aptly described as ‘a park within a park’.

Getting there Take Line 4 to National Library subway station and walk to the park.

Travel time 30 minutes from Dongzhimen.

Cost Summer Palace entrance fee is 30RMB or 15RMB for students.

Longqing Gorge

Longqing Gorge

Jaw-dropping natural rock formations

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.

Things you can do at Longqing Gorge include the Flying Dragon Escalator – a bizarre 258-metre-long yellow dragon with six escalators in its fibreglass belly – and an open-top boat cruise along the river (100RMB for 15 minutes). 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. 

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.

Getting there Take express bus 919 (5.45am-7pm) from Deshengmen Bus Station (德胜门). Disembark at Yanqing Dongguan (延庆东关) after nine stops. Then take a cab to Longqingxia. 

Travel time One hour and 40 minutes.

Hanshiqiao

Hanshiqiao

Beijing's premier bird watching spot

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. 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. 

Getting there Take bus 918 (5.40am-7.30pm) from Dongzhimen Bus Station to Yangzhen ( 杨镇). Hanshiqiao Wetland Reserve (汉石桥湿地公园) is then a ten-minute taxi ride.

Travel time Two hours and 40 minutes.

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