Audrey Hepburn meanders down 5th Avenue, gazing into Tiffany’s display windows while casually nibbling a pastry. The most iconic flaneur of her – and perhaps any – generation, Hepburn may have made the little black dress famous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s opening scene, but what I remember most is her triumph of aimlessness. “Happiness is reading books and going on walks,” a Due West student told me last year. Or as I’ve already quoted J.G. Hamann elsewhere in The Wander Years, “When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.”
I don’t go on that many walks in Beijing. It’s a city built for bikes and taken over by cars, and though some of the canals offer decent promenades, I don’t know anyone who would call the pedestrian experience here particularly joyful. Biking, however, is a thrill a minute. I commute to work 15 minutes each way by bike, and the physical exertion is not the only thing responsible for my elevated heart rate – far from it. Which is to say, biking’s lot of fun.
So maybe it’s not surprising then that I found myself in 江水何村 (Jiang Shui He Cun – literally He River Village) this past weekend, simultaneously realizing I’d lost my joy of walking in its very rediscovery. I’d caravanned there on Saturday – nearly 150km from the city’s center but still within its limits – to hike 灵山, Spirit Mountain, the tallest in Beijing, on Sunday. After a dinner of fresh rabbit and goat (our B&B chef was a skilled butcher) with just enough baijiu to wash it down, and before s’mores, I stole away from our mid-2000s revival dance party to escape the neon and sodium glow of the village in search of the last remnants of Perseid’s annual light show.
I crossed a malnourished creek and headed uphill, past horses tied to their posts for the evening. For some reason, I always feel happier going uphill. Besides, up was where the street lights ended. And as the thump of the Bluetooth speaker faded away, I felt return, in a rush, the sensation of a traveler exploring an unknown town. Everything was novel, everything was ordinary, everything was important and nothing was. Through unshuttered windows I saw the soft blue glow of CCTV 5’s Olympics coverage, or the conclusion of a late dinner, cigarettes burning themselves out next to empty vessels. Four streetlights to go, then three, then none. The road turned to gravel, and the stars exerted themselves finally. After traversing all those light years, it’s a shame it’s the thinnest sheet of atmosphere that puts up the hardest fight. In front of me, just above the horizon, the Big Dipper drew an involuntary chuckle of recognition: it was the Big Dipper that greeted me every evening as I emerged from my tent, that summer I spent living in one in Vermont, now many summers ago. Their transportive quality may be the stars’ greatest gift to us.
The lights of He River Village well behind me, I found a low cement wall on the left side of the road, just wide enough to lie on. I focused on a point directly above me. A breeze I couldn’t feel rustled the leaves of a stunted tree to my left, and the music-box ringing of bells hung from restless necks drifted up from the field below. I had a million thoughts and none, was a part of the universal consciousness and utterly apart from it. And there, in the periphery of my vision, where the stars were brightest but unfocused, a flash. Then another. Faint like they weren’t real, but they couldn’t have been anything else: visitors from another world, tracing their lines of fire across our atmosphere.
It was enough. I rose, brushed the dust off my back, and walked back down through the town. The hot coals and marshmallows were waiting where I’d left them.