Thursday, March 29, 2007

Parks Parks Parks - Volume 3

This week I have been laid low by a cold that has swept through the college, infecting all in its wake with snuffles and irritability (I'm extrapolating my symptoms to the general population). The weather is collaborating by providing a constant drizzle that teeters on the edge of raining but refuses to just get on with already. Though it did manage to sneak a shower in while I was at the Supermarket, so I had to ride my bike home in the rain without a coat. My cold enjoyed that. Fortunately I am flush with green tea, snacks, and DVDs so will not need to leave the warm cocoon of my apartment for the next few days.

Moving on to the final installment in my extremely limited tour of Beijing's green bits, I give you my favourite (non-licensed) place in all of Beijing:

Volume 3: Jingshan Park

This little park lies directly north of the Forbidden City, and like the Summer Palace features a large artificial hill, this time made from the excavations of the Palace moat. As pretty much the only break in central Beijing's uniform flatness, its kind of hard to miss. The thing that makes it easy to miss, is that if you're there you've probably just spent a day walking around the Forbidden city and are about ready to put your feet up and grab a lukewarm Qingdao (my first entry into the world of Wiki-ing.*) .

It is however, well worth the 2RMB admission, and a sliver of your time. For starters, you can see the tree (or at least a tree in the same place) where Chongzhen, last of the Ming Emperors, hung himself in 1644. After that, a quick climb up Jingshan hill (named, with typical aesthetic judgment, 'Coal Hill' by occupying British forces in the late 19th century) and you have some pretty sweet (if smog obscured) views over the Forbidden City and the rest of Beijing.



There's a few Buddhist pagoda's at the summit, but the Buddhas themselves were carted off to parts unknown by those pesky allied occupiers. Perhaps they thought that Buddhas were a little too sublime for Coal Hill.

Anyway, panoramic views aside, the real beauty of JinShan park, for me, was in the small wooded area behind the hill, to the North. Now perhaps it was due to the time of year (many people leave the city during Spring Festival, and there are few tourists) or maybe I was in a particularly contemplative mood that day, but coming down the side of the hill, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by birdsong (still a rarity in urban China, but that's a story for another time) and the strains of traditional opera singing accompanied by an accordion. One of my favourite things about China is the retiree culture. While our elders are watching television or playing bingo or slowly stewing in care facilities, Chinese people, sprightly well into their 70s and beyond, pass their days playing chess on street corners, gathering together in parks to sing, play instruments, or practice Tai Ji, or just squat on a doorstep and watch the world go by. It often strikes me that those eyes, peeking out from underneath the standard issue blue cap, have seen some very 'interesting times'. I don't know what they make of the cellphones and cars and fake Nike stores, but I guess they're happy to make it to an age that many of their contemporaries did not.

So I found a stone bench and sat for an hour or so in the weak, late afternoon sun, listening to an old man playing haunting melodies on an erhu. He was interrupted by the occasional inquisitive stranger, or by an elderly couple walking by, arm in arm, singing at the top of their lungs for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of it. It was an unexpected oasis of calm and serenity in the middle of an overcrowded, dirty city of 14 million souls. It was fantastic.

On my way out, I passed what has to be my favourite of the thousand or so stone lions I've seen since arriving in China. He's clearly chuffed with carrying out his solemn duty of guarding over the coats and bags of the people playing nearby (another great facet of Chinese culture, they never lose the ability/affection for play. I don't recall the name, but the people here are playing a Chinese variation of hacky sack popular with everyone from 7 year old kids to 70 year old women. Beats the hell out of Bingo or Scrabble if you ask me).


It was nice too to note that the 10m high wall, originally built to keep common folk such as these well out of the way of the idle nobility, was now serving to shield these people from the view and noise of the bustling city, and allowing them to indulge in these simple pleasures.

Woah. Contemplative might've been understating it.

* Okay, so I wrote this one too. Feel free to improve.

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