You’ve probably never seen these three words together: “Beijing”; “driving” and “relaxing”. But I’m here to spread the good word that sometimes, if you choose carefully, driving around Beijing can indeed be pleasant. So I’ve created a list below of my favorite drives around Beijing, where the journey is just as relaxing and pleasant as the destination. I stress this now because these next few weeks of autumn are usually the loveliest time all year, so readers should take advantage of every weekend. Every trip listed below is under 2 hours drive; cars or taxis are best, but these should all also be on bus routes. Note that almost all these places have very little English signs or speakers, so be prepared. I’ve also listed other local daytrips on my weekends page.
Drive One: Jingcheng Highway Northeast to Mutianyu
It’s always a joy to head to Beijing’s mountains, whether west or north, and my favorite road is Jingcheng Highway (京承高速）. It cuts northeast through the Miyun area and now goes directly to Chengdu. As with most new China inter-city highways, this one is wide, and clean, and mostly empty. You slide past fifth ring and literally start to relax as the countryside whizzes by. If you take exit 13 and go north, you’ll soon get to the Mutianyu section of the great wall. It’s far less stressful on every level than the nightmare of Badaling. The journey itself is lovely, as the decent road winds up and up, past renovating villages, past the Goose and Duck Ranch, and past lovely u-pick farms.
The best part of Mutianyu is what expat Jim Spear and his wife Liang have done with the town; they’ve created a mini-industry there with the excellent Schoolhouse restaurant as well as the new boutique hotel, the Brickyard. They’ve done a wonderful thing by providing decent jobs to dozens of the townfolk, and their business model has been admired and studied by many in China.
This is a perfect trip to drive up on Saturday and come back refreshed on Sunday.
Drive Two: Highway 108 West to Jietaise, Tanzhesi and silver fox cave
Getting to the western mountains is very quick, especially Fragrant Mountain and the Botanical Garden, just off 5th Ring’s northwest corner. But we like to get away from the crowds and go deeper, and Highway 108 is the most developed and easiest route to some nice attractions. A quick climb into the mountains will first take you to Jietaisi, which is a lovely temple complex with a gorgeous collection of 1,000 year old trees. Further up the road is the larger and even more impressive Tanzhesi temple complex. Our favorite part of Tanzhesi is the lovely tea house, which is way, way in back on the left side up a hill and across a dry riverbed. It’s hard to find, but it was incredibly relaxing to sip our tea under the bamboo awning and listen to the light rain filtering through the leaves.
If you still have some time, further up the road (within 30 minutes-1 hour, I believe) is the Silver Fox Cave. I haven’t yet been there but it’s supposed to be quite fun, with a long underground boat-ride through the formations.
Key driving point: to get to 108, or any western mountain area that isn’t Fragrant Mountain, the best east-west road by far is lianshilu (莲石路）. It runs all the way with no stoplights from southwest second ring at tianningsi bridge (天宁寺桥）all the way past fifth ring, directly to a rotary that takes you either to 108 or 109. Don’t think of any other western road on the map, they aren’t yet redeveloped with no lights – yet. Lianshilu marks a huge improvement in time and relaxation.
Drive #3: East along the Jingping Highway to marshlands, peach fields and mountains
Everyone knows the airport expressway that goes to the new terminal 3; if you keep going straight on that road instead of taking the terminal exit, you are now on the lovely, quiet Jingping highway (京平高速）. This lovely road breezes past field and then enters hills as it wraps east and then south towards Tianjin. Just past 6th ring is an exit for muyanlu (木燕路); take this northward about 10km to a huge sign on the left for the wetlands of Hanshiqiao（汉石桥水库）. This place has a very nice, large wetlands area which you can explore with a rented boat. You can also rent bikes along the paths and go quite far in back along lovely tree-lined streets along the canal. Plus, their on-site restaurant is surprisingly excellent as well as clean. Or, you can shell out 80RMB and barbeque in back, as I’ve done a few times with my in-laws each summer. It’s a very nice daytrip.
If you kept going east along Jingping, you could take an exit into Pinggu city; the entire area around the city is filled with orchards, mostly peaches, and it can be a lovely drive during spring’s blossoms. If you continue along Jingping through the hills and a couple tunnels, you’d pass the lovely Panshan mountain on your left side, one of my favorite mountains. Take the gondola all the way to the top and slowly make your way down.
Also further up the road is the Hyatt Regency Jing Jin City Resort, a bizarrely huge and ornate hotel in the middle of fields. It’s also a very relaxing, quiet place to spend a weekend, and it’s only 80km from the city.
Drive #4: Jingcheng Highway to lavender fields and Chengde
As I mentioned in #1 above, Jingcheng highway is a very relaxing and efficient escape from the city. They just finished building the mountain sections, so it now takes only 1 1/2 hours to get the the Simatai exit. Now the driving experience is completely better as the travel time is suddenly at least an hour shorter, and the road is very lovely as it winds through the mountains.
Simatai’s great wall section, unfortunately, is currently closed for a couple years for a redesign, but a couple kilometers past their town is one of those new lavender farms that have been cropping up around Beijing. For 40 kuai until November, you can traipse through the Purple Paradise‘s couple acres of flowers, eat some lunch, and take the requisite photos. Our favorite part was this “secret” campground just behind the Greek-looking restaurant, where we rented a hammock for 10RMB and slept in the sun, far from the crowds. FYI — their lavender is a hardier crop than the French version, but it doesn’t smell at all. As with most tourist spots in China, if you lower your expectations a bit, you should really enjoy yourself.
Further up the highway is Chengde, which is a good weekend/daytrip. They have a really nice collection of palaces, including one that looks very similar to Tibet’s Potola Palace.
Drive #5: Highway 109 West to Lingshan
There are a lot of touristy stops along highway 109, which cuts into the Mentougou district (门头沟区). It’s quite easy to get to, as long as you only take lianshilu westward to 109 (see Drive #2 above). If you already live a bit north, you could take 5th or 6th ring around to 109.
The road itself is quite lovely at times, with multiple stops along the way as it follows the smallish riverbed. This entire area continues to quickly develop, with many cute turnouts and places to picnic (I recommend bringing your own picnic or barbecue).
There are many tourist stops along the way (the brown signs always are for tourist spots), but my favorite spot was Lingshan (灵山), about 90km up 109. It’s a bit far (total 2-3 hours), but it’s a lovely ride, and the mountain itself is a rolling hillside smothered in flowers. You can take the cable car to the very chilly top (take a jacket!), enjoy the view, and walk down. It’s a bit touristy but still makes for a nice daytrip to the mountains, especially on hot summer days (the summit is much cooler!)
Drive #6: Jingcheng Highway to Rafting
If you take Jingcheng highway again, to exit 14, you can go north through Huairou city（怀柔市）, and keep following the signs for highway G111. You will pass the very tacky Yanqi Lake（雁栖湖）and soon be in the mountains. Go another 43km along a nicely refinished bridge-and-tunnel highway through lovely landscape of mountains and villages. Take a right at the sign for baihewan piaoliu (白河湾漂流, tel 61618986, www.bjpiaoliu.com.cn) and wind about 10km past a lovely marshland, then a very cute “folk village” called babaotang (八宝堂). Here’s a Google map (click on C on the map). You should walk around both areas, then keep going down the road a couple kilometers to the rafting. Initially there’s a huge group of boat vendors on the left, which you are free to try, but we preferred another spot a bit less hectic, only 1 kilometer further on the left. Just look on the left for two small rusted train cabins, and park there; you can rent inflatable rafts (50-150RMB per boat) and float down 3-4 sets of very easy “rapids” for a short 5 kilometers, and then take the truck back for a lovely afternoon. The river is filled with college kids splashing each other and having a great time; we preferred to anchor in the shade and take a long nap as the clouds rolled by. The river is lovely as it cuts through smallish mountains, but don’t expect too much here in terms of service and amenities.
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