One of the things I miss most about living in a small town is the space: the ability to stretch out my arms without hitting another person or walk for miles without seeing anyone.
It’s a luxury you lose in a city like Beijing, where even the widest streets sometimes feel every bit as cramped as the smallest alleys. The crowds are difficult to avoid, whether you’re riding the subway in the middle of the day or going to the bank on a Saturday. The feeling of constantly cramming into lines and bumping elbows with strangers can become overwhelming.
When I need a break from the crowds, I often head into one of Beijing’s 300 parks. For a city hell-bent on growth and economic development, Beijing has a surprising amount of space committed to leisure and recreation.
The largest is Chaoyang Park. At 713 acres, it is is comparable in size to New York’s Central Park. It’s home to a very unsafe-looking roller coaster (the only thing holding the safety harness down was a seat belt that looked like it had been pulled from a junked car), volleyball courts that were used during the 2008 Olympic games and restrooms that resemble a giant ladybug.
It’s easy to get lost, as I managed to do last summer when I rented a tandem bike with my girlfriend and made the fatal error of letting her lead the way. When we came to the conclusion that neither of us had any idea where we were going, I picked a direction and peddled like a madman to get us back to the rental office before it closed. Despite giving it my all we arrived a few minutes late and had to forfeit the deposit for the bike.
While Chaoyang Park has a carnival atmosphere and large area dedicated to sports, many of Beijing’s parks have historical significance. Two of the more well-known ones are the Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace. They were built for emperors as their personal recreation areas. Both are impressive for their size and large lakes.
The Summer Palace was heavily damaged in 1860 during the Anglo-French invasion but was later restored. Many of its most prominent structures are still intact. The Old Summer Palace was also attacked in 1860, by British and French troops, but all that remains today are ruins.
While the palaces were once only accessible to the emperor and his court, they now are a part of Beijing’s park system. The Summer Palace is one of the city’s top tourism sites and draws visitors year-round.
A much quieter park – The Yuan Dynasty Capital City Wall Site Park – lies within a 10-minute walk of my apartment. The park runs along a canal and gets its name from a 10-meter high wall, built between 1267 and 1276, that formed part of the city wall during the Yuan Dynasty. All that remains of it today is a dirt mound.
The canal reeks of sewage in the summer, but people still crowd around the edges to fish. The area above the water is much more pleasant, and on warm spring afternoons men gather on benches to play cards, while women push their babies in strollers under a canopy of weeping willow trees and pink blossoms.
I go there to jog a couple times a week, and along my route I often pass groups practicing tai chi, playing traditional Chinese string instruments and writing characters on the concrete using large brushes dipped in water.
It’s serene, and one of the few places that, if only for an instant, reminds me of the quiet open spaces of home.