Yoga retreats are the best way to get your zen on. That is what I thought before I went on a yoga retreat. Before I went on a yoga retreat, I knew that yoga retreats were like Eat Pray Love: glowing women sat cross-legged on colourful mats in their printed yoga pants under the lush Bali palms; rustic retreats on tropical Cambodian islands where guests sleep on camping mats under a canopy of stars; a silent retreat in Thailand where back-to-basics means shabby-chic open-air huts with king-size four-poster beds and outdoor showers (but indoor western toilets, of course) bringing you ‘back to nature’. Yoga retreats are relaxing and restorative and great for the ‘gram and a good way to treat yo’self in a society-approved manner. I won’t lie to you, these are all the reasons I booked a two-night stay at the Mountain Yoga Retreat.
Located beside the Fragrant Hills Park in Greater Beijing, the retreat was reportedly ‘the only yoga retreat in Beijing’, and seeing as I was about to start a two-week frenetic trip traversing 1,200 kilometres between China’s modern and ancient capitals, it seemed a good idea to chill out before embarking on my intensive tourist itinerary.
I got lost on my way to the retreat, which is just about standard in my experiences of locating things in China. Leaving the built-up centre of Beijing, I’d been dropped in a rural suburb by my taxi driver, relying on my failing maps and the non-existent signage to navigate a maze of back alleys and zig-zagging paths. I asked strangers for help and was sent down multiple dead-ends and rubble-strewn streets. I walked past a convenience store in a shed on a building site. Eventually, I found it: a quaint bungalow next to a row of houses under construction. I swear it was glowing with the kind of incandescent light only a yoga retreat could have.
“I’m here to check in,” I told a woman in white yoga robes. I tried to explain I had a booking, but she didn’t seem to be expecting me. Her eyebrows raised. I dropped my phone while scrambling through my emails for a confirmation letter.
“It’s ok, relax,” is the first thing she says to me. If I wasn’t sure before then now I knew: this was definitely a yoga retreat. She told me that they had space for me anyway and showed me to my room. Maybe it would be in one of the little circular-windowed rooms I’d seen in the courtyard, opening onto the yoga shala, bare-wood floors and a simple—
I followed her out of the bungalow and into the construction site next door. We walk across planks of wood on the bare-earth floor, past builders laying bricks. A man with a wheelbarrow full of cement stands to the side to let us pass. Up a temporary metal fire escape staircase, into an enclosed corridor, she opened the door to a four-bed dorm of wooden-framed bunks. The bathroom was, as I’d anticipated, a squat, but there’s no shower—there’s one central bathroom in the neighbouring bungalow for that. There are no lockers for valuables, and the bed feels like a slab of rock. The wifi, I discovered, was hit or miss, but mostly miss. The woman told me, in broken English, that I would share the dorm room with a ‘little girl’.
Now, I may be a grown-ass adult, but that doesn’t mean I’m above having a tantrum. I was one whole hour into my ‘zen’ retreat and so far getting here had been enough stress to induce a heart attack, I was sitting on a mattress so hard Fred Flintstone would have turned it down, and sharing a room with a child next to an active building site. I decided this had been an epic, miscalculated mistake. I sulked. I pouted. I wrote furiously about my errors in my travel journal.
The ‘little girl’ in question returned to the room. Each of us tested out our broken Mandarin (me) and English (her), before resorting to typing our questions into translate apps: Google (me) and Bing (her). Our questions were garbled, but we got the gist of what the other was saying. Her name was Momo. She was not actually ‘little’ but 15 years old, and the retreat-hosts daughter. I was crashing in her room. “You should make your bed,” she tells me, and when I start struggling with the duvet of the top bunk, she helps me.
Momo showed me to the shared dining room, where there were 10 women all wearing the same white yoga robes already tucking into dinner: a vegetarian buffet of shredded chilli garlic potatoes, glass noodles, stir-fried muer black fungus, tofu with garlic and onion, and sweet white fungus soup. Momo sat with me while I practised bits of Mandarin; she filled in the blanks with Bing. Her father was the cook: I practised how to say, “Your cooking is delicious,” with Momo, and when I washed my dishes in the kitchenette, I told him. He laughed at me, in a nice way. I went to bed at nine o’clock.
Birdsong at dawn would have been my preferred alarm clock, but instead, I woke at 6am to the sound of drilling. I was aching all over from the bed. I wanted to shower but I also didn’t want to walk through the building site; I opted instead for the ever-reliable ‘Glasgow shower’.
Heading to the dining room for breakfast, I checked the board to find out what the day had in store for me. I spoke with the other women over breakfast: a school teacher training to be a yoga teacher, whose sister lived in LA; another who had hitchhiked across China and told me of the yellow flower fields in Jiangxi, the rugged mountains in Guizhou, and the grasslands of Hulunbuir.
We ate a large breakfast of garlic sesame green beans, soy vinegar choi, glass noodles, boiled eggs, soy milk, and fresh steamed fluffy white bao. I did two yoga sessions in Mandarin, perfecting my rather hairy concept of left and right. I tried and failed to connect to the wifi. I slept, a lot, head buried under my single pillow to muffle the sound of the building work. I walked around the hills with my new friends. I meditated and/or slept in between.
It would be a great story if this is when I suddenly discovered my love for yoga and found my inner zen in the foothills of rural Beijing. This is not that story, which comes much later with far more sand, sea and sun, and much less building work.
No, this is the story of how I discovered my ‘inner princess’ and learnt how to satiate her temper tantrums over wifi, bad mattresses and constant drilling. Good food and nice people, it turns out, will make up for a lot.
Based on photos on Booking.com, I believe the building work may have been finished, but no guarantees. If you are interested in visiting Mountain Yoga Retreat, contact them directly here: mountain-yoga.org.