From Hong Kong we flew to Beijing. We had spent four months in tropical heat in Southeast Asia, then a bit of time in Hong Kong, which was cool and refreshing. Then it was straight into mid-winter in Beijing.
Cold Beijing. Beijing was cold. We were prepared, as you can see from the pictures, but it was cold. Most days were sunny, with highs around freezing and lows around 15.
We did have a record snowfall while we were there - 12 to 13 inches, the most they’ve had in 40 years. It didn’t really shut down the city at all. Everyone pitched in to help clear the streets and sidewalks, and they salted the streets and sidewalks pretty well. Buses and taxis generally kept running. Apparently the airport closed down, but it didn’t paralyze the interior of the city at all.
We also had a record low, at least that’s what I understood. It was 0 degrees F, with a wind-chill of -11. That’s cold, but I think they said that that was a 60 year low. That’s hard for me to believe. We figured it was like that all winter.
- highs of 15, lows of 0. Nobody seemed bothered by it; we figured that was just the way it was. Turns out that was really cold for them.
Winter in Beijing. We were afraid it would be miserably cold in Beijing in winter. It wasn’t. In fact, winter is a great time to visit Beijing.
First, on clear days the light was gorgeous. It was clear, and sharp, and fresh, and crisp. When I’ve been there before it was smoggy and gray and drab. The winter light and air was much better.
Second, the crowds everywhere were light. The tourist sights, which are superb, were relatively free of crowds. When I have been before, the sights were packed (mostly with Chinese tourists - domestic tourism here is monstrous). This was a very different experience, much better. It was worth bundling up and being chilly.
Finally, there were lots of fun winter things to do.
Ice scoobering, and other fun winter activities. Since it was winter-time, there was lots of fun winter stuff to do. The most fun was ice scoobering (a name we made up, of course). There’s a picture of ice scoobering; we
Anyway, all of the lakes had frozen over, and there were activities on the lakes, including ice scoobering. As you can see in the picture, you sit on a chair with ice skate runners and push yourself along. The poles are long screwdrivers with a longer piece of pointy metal welded onto them. One afternoon Ella ice scoobered for a solid two hours.
While we were ice scoobering, there were all sorts of other fun activities going on around us on the lakes. People ice skated. There were these bikes where the back wheel was a treaded bike tire and the front of it had ice skate runners. Some people rode bumper cars with one central tire and the rest ice skates. A big sheep pulled kids around in a padded ice sledge. There were these really weird little things for kids where a little automated figure pulled the kid around in a little cart. Some people played ring toss games, where there were various prizes out on the ice and you tried to toss a ring around them. Others munched on cotton candy
Gorgeous late afternoon winter light.
or small candy apples. Tons of people were out on the lakes, hooting and hollering and slipping and sliding and laughing and having a good time. It was quite fun.
We also went to the Summer Palace one day, which wasn’t summery. The Summer Palace, a major Beijing sight, is where the emperors used to go in the summer to get away from the heat of Beijing. It’s a bunch of stately imperial Chinese buildings around a huuuuge lake. The lake was frozen over, and most of the people who were out there were just sort of strolling around on the frozen lake, chatting and strolling and taking in the beautiful winter scenery. It was also quite fun.
Collective disco dancing, and other fun park activities. All of the winter activities remind me of the various and wonderful park activities that we saw in Beijing. These are one of China’s true glories.
In the parks, even when it’s 20 degrees, there are tons of people (most of them over 50) doing all sorts of wonderfully fun collective park activities. The videos provide a few examples. We have a lot of other good little videos, but they take
Anyway, they do lots of collective dancing, sometimes synchronized, other times with people just doing their own magical thing. You can see some of the magic in the videos. It gets wild and wooly, as you can see. Get down, get funky - Chinese style.
There are also lots of park performances: Chinese opera, collective Chinese folk songs, and lots of dramatic and emotionally-riveting karaoke performances.
People will just be sitting and standing in large groups, chatting, playing cards, sometimes playing “go,” or Chinese chess.
Five to ten people stand in circles and play “featherball,” which is like a cross between a hacky-sack and a badminton birdie. It floats like a badminton birdie, sort of, so it’s much easier to keep up than a hacky-sack - although we saw some folks who were very good at it (and looked too old be so agile and quick and athletic).
Tonight we were walking by a park and saw 150 or so women in 5 long lines all dancing in a stylized disco-aerobics way to Chinese pop music. They were all totally synchronized, totally - it was like a massive, weirdly
Most younger women in Beijing are cosmopolitan, contemporary, and stylish. We were admiring the older women doing their synchronized, collective disco-aerobics dancing, and we worried that this sort of thing may not pass to the ultra-hip younger generation. If it doesn’t, it’ll be a major cultural loss. It’s all so charming, collective, and healthy.
Churros with Kyrgyzstan fruit things, and other cross-cultural eating activities. Beijing is a very cosmopolitan place. On the narrow alley where our youth hostel was, for instance, we ate dessert regularly at a stall that sold churros.
We know churros from Mexico, but apparently they originate in Spain and are popular all over the Spanish-speaking world. They’re like delicious long donuts, sort of, but better.
In Beijing they serve churros with Kyrgyzstan fruit things.
We ate churros several nights, but we always passed on the Kyrgyzstan fruit things. The churros were as good as the ones we’ve eaten in Mexico, and we ate a lot of them in Mexico, so we feel like pretty good churro judges.
Beijing is all new. I don’t mean to make fun of
Beijing. It has it’s quirks and oddities, but it is, on the whole, extremely modern, wealthy, and hip - much more so than anywhere I’ve seen in the US.
And it’s changing so fast.
Here’s an example. Retro things are big in Beijing. There was a really cool T-shirt / graphics store near our hostel called “Plastered.” You can see crowds of young people in front of the store in one of the pictures. The T-shirts there featured retro Beijing icons from long ago - the tea thermoses and tea mugs that May and I used when we were first in China in 1987, old school flashcards, things like that.
Me and Jordan were in Beijing four years ago. One of the T-shirts at Plastered featured the paper metro tickets that we used then; another featured the metro map from four years ago. Indeed, the metro system is now automated and there are now five times as many lines and stops as there were four years ago. Beijing is changing so fast that four years ago is retro cool.
Another example: I took May and Ella to the area that Jordan and I had stayed at
Snowy and Forbidden
Forbidden City four years ago. It had been completely razed and rebuilt. The main shopping street had been torn down, pedestrianized, and rebuilt like it used to look in the 1930s. Four years ago it was a chaotic but fascinating street of massively scary traffic, pirate DVD stores, cheap Chinese clothing stores, and very Chinese restaurants. Now it was a pedestrianized, Disney-like version of 1930s Beijing, with statedly upscale Western and Chinese stores. The change wasn’t necessarily bad, but I literally didn’t recognize anything.
Beijing is wealthy and hip. Beijing also seems quite wealthy, almost like Hong Kong and Singapore. On the whole, it appears wealthier than (or as wealthy as) US cities. That may be misleading; we may only be seeing surfaces, and I’m sure rural China is very different. But in Beijing, it appears that there is a small group of people who are extremely wealthy, and a larger group of middle class folks who live in nice (if somewhat drab) apartments (see some of the pictures) and have enough money to live well, eat out, have princessy pet dogs, and dress stylishly.
Beijing also seemed extremely cosmopolitan and hip, much more so than anywhere we’ve been so
far on this trip, and more so than anywhere I’ve ever been in the US (say, New York or Chicago or Seattle or San Francisco). I’m not sure what I mean by “hip,” because I’m not exactly a connoisseur. But the street that our hostel was on was full of intriguing and way-cool stores being browsed through by hordes of attractive and stylishly-dressed young people.
All in all, it’s a new China. The future is right here, right now. (That sounds cheesy, and it is cheesy. But it also feels true.)
Beijing is very old. Of course, Beijing is very old too. Many of the imperial Chinese buildings we saw were built during the 1400s. I visited a mosque that had been functioning as a mosque on that location since around 900. We were pretty blown away by the history.
The sights of Beijing are superb. We were also blown away by the sights in Beijing. The places we’ve been so far on this trip have been great, but not because of their sights. Beijing had aspects of greatness other than its sights; I’ve described some of them above. But Beijing’s collection of sights may be the
In Beijing we saw four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, and the Summer Palace. There is a fifth one, some imperial tombs, but we didn’t go see them.
All of these heavy-hitter sights deserved their fame. There are pictures here, and you’ve probably seen pictures of them all before.
We also went to a slew of lesser-known, but almost-as-spectacular sights. Sometimes we were the only people at these other places, and each of them was more fascinating than almost all of the other sights we’ve seen so far on our trip.
The lesser-known sights included a Confucius Temple (empty and serene grounds, newly redone temple buildings); the Niuje Mosque (which had a Chinese minaret, was active when I was there, and had been active on that spot since around 900); a Lama Temple (a pseudo-Tibetan temple, mildly interesting); Prince Gong’s Mansion (a mansion of a prince during the time just before the Chinese empire ended, and a fascinating glimpse into how they lived); and the Capital Museum (a world-class and brand-new
museum on Chinese art and culture and Beijing history).
I don't know quite how this picture happened, but I like it. It's the roofline of a part of the Forbidden City.
I don't know quite how this picture happened, but I like it. It's the roofline of a part of the Forbidden City.
Whew. We spent 10 days running hard. We could easily have spent a month. There was still tons that we didn’t see. Everything that we did see was fabulous.
All in all, I loved Beijing. I loved it’s quirks and oddities, the crazy dancing in the park and the churros with Kyrgyzstan fruit things. I loved its history and its sights. I loved its energy and hip-ness and future-forwardness.
May loves Beijing, too
I don’t have much to add to Paul’s description. He does a good job capturing Beijing’s oldness, newness, hipness and quirkiness. I really am enjoying our time in China and have thought about why I like it so much. (I find I like it better than places we went in Southeast Asia.)
Here are some reasons why I like China.
1. It is not on the banana pancake trail. There is a tourist trail firmly established that currently wanders through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This tourist trail is for backpackers on a budget who like to be with other backpackers and possibly drink large quantities of beer. In Thailand there were many
This small temple was empty and lovely.
dreadlocked, pierced young people, all seeming to sit around at certain hangouts eating banana pancakes and talking about Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I used to be a young backpacker, but now I find that the sheer number and sameness of them got on my nerves.
2. It is not on the yoga, meditation retreat trail. In Bali, there was another kind of tourist trail. Mostly women my age, many from America, following maybe the Eat, Pray, Love idea of coming to Bali to meditate, do some yoga and eat organic salads. I am a middle age woman now, and I like yoga and salads, but the concentration of yoga pant wearing people there got on my nerves too.
3.The tourist infrastructure in China is for Chinese tourists. In SE Asia, there were restaurants for locals and other restaurants for tourists and there wasn’t a lot of mixing. Here in China, even the McDonald’s and Starbucks are firmly for Chinese. The Chinese restaurants have picture menus, which we appreciate, but the wait staff doesn’t speak English. Everyone has been friendly but there’s not a lot of English spoken, so we do a lot of pointing, smiling and understanding when
our sandwich at KFC turns out to be fish not chicken.
Bike in the Snow
Bike in the Snow
4. I’m happy for the Chinese to have the money and leisure time to nap in Starbucks over a latte. Chinese people who are my age, have lived through incredibly hard times. They were born under Mao’s rule, and spent their childhoods during the Cultural Revolution. In the 80’s when we here before, the young people we met had no choice on where they lived or what jobs they did. There were no privately owned cars. Everyone practically dressed the same in drab coats and pants. The only Cokes were dusty, room temperature ones behind a counter in a Friendship Store that only accepted the kind of Chinese currency printed for foreigners (the people had another currency all together). It was completely different.
Now, I see my Chinese contemporaries able to buy Mercedes, eat wherever they want, buy more stylish clothes than I’ll ever have and take a nap in a comfy arm chair overlooking some beautiful Chinese sight after they’ve finished their green tea latte. All this makes me happy. Chinese people don’t get on my nerves at all.