What is a walk worth to you? For some people, rushing to or from work down crowded pavements, a walk is just a means of getting from point A to B. But for Jin Qiao, the 54-year-old founder of the Beijing Today Walk Centre, this is perhaps the most ideal outdoor activity for residents of large urban areas such as Beijing or Hong Kong. The simple act of repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other is not only a good way to stay fit, he says, it can also have a profound impact on a person's mental well-being - giving weary souls a brief respite from the pressures of everyday life.
Over the past decade, Jin's company has arranged for tens of thousands of people to trek across the ancient Silk Road trade route, climb the Tibetan Plateau and venture into the Swiss Alps. Walking has given him a fresh take on life, and he believes that is something modern Chinese people sorely need.
How did you start using walks as a form of regular physical exercise?
I was a student majoring in education at Harbin Normal University [in the northeast] in the 1980s. In 1987, I went to Japan to continue my studies and was drawn to a camping course, in which we went on field trips of two to three days in the countryside. We roamed in the mountains, sang songs and played games. It was a completely new experience for me, having been brought up during the Cultural Revolution. Before that, most of the education I received was about chanting political slogans and reciting Chairman Mao Zedong quotes. But through the camping course, I learned for the first time that nature was very beautiful and could purify one's heart. From then on, I went for nature walks almost every weekend.
How much time do you spend walking every year? What do you think are the best destinations for people who also love travelling on foot?
I walk in various places for about a quarter of the year. I've been to all 23 provinces in China, and to more than 40 countries. In my opinion, the Swiss Alps and the Himalayas on the Nepal side are the places with the best scenery, and they are also suitable for people to traverse on foot.
Why did you decide to open the Beijing Today Walk Centre?
I returned to Beijing after finishing my studies in Japan. A government department offered me a position to work as a civil servant. I visited its office and saw everyone in their seats, spending the whole day with copies of newspapers and a cup of tea. I knew it just wasn't the life I wanted. I decided instead to pursue my hobby and set up the walk centre to encourage more people to share with me the joy of walking.
How many members does your centre have? What kind of activities do you organise?
We have had about 40,000 members register since our centre was founded in 2002. They are mostly ordinary citizens in Beijing. We organise short and long-distance walking trips to places off the beaten track. Participants must pay for basic transport expenses, but what they see and feel will be quite different from trips organised by travel agencies.
Where is the latest place you've been to?
I just got back from Xinjiang. We are also doing a 10-year walking trip of the Silk Road, which spans from Xian in Shaanxi province to Rome in Italy. Every year we walk part of the route, in the hope of finishing the entire trip within 10 years. This is the seventh year: we travelled from Dunhuang in Gansu province to Urumqi , the capital city of Xinjiang.
As it is an extremely long-distance trip, we take trains or buses to the most interesting or beautiful parts of the route and then start to walk. Next year, we will leave China for the rest of the Silk Road.
We also organise a number of themed trips every year, such as to the Yangtze River, the Great Wall, the Inner Mongolian prairies and the Tibetan Plateau.
Why is walking in a natural environment important to Chinese people today?
I have been a fan of walking for nearly 30 years, and I think understanding of the activity has evolved over the last decade. In the past, people considered it to be just for fun and staying fit. But many have come to realise that walking in nature can also bring inner peace and help them forget about their worries.
Most Chinese people don't have any religious beliefs. They don't have the chance to make confessions to a priest in church. But they are able to release their burden by walking in nature and allowing the fresh air and beautiful scenery to clean their lungs and souls.
Have you faced any dangerous or difficult moments on your journeys before?
The last time I led a group on a trip to the Himalayas, several of our tour members suffered from altitude sickness. For some reason, they could not control their emotions and blamed me for their suffering. A few even beat me up. I felt very wronged. But at the end of the trip, they all apologised to me sincerely, saying the trip had given them the opportunity to see the primitiveness and magnificence of nature, which they would never forget.
What has walking brought to your life?
It has changed the way I value life. Living is not about making money, but about pursuing happiness and good health. I am now in my 50s. But my mentality feels like that of young people in their 20s or 30s.
Is there any difference between the walking in our daily lives and doing it for physical exercise?
There is no need to draw a clear line between the two. Just swing your arms and take a step. The most important thing is to keep a happy heart when you do it.
Jin Qiao spoke to Celine Sun