Lady in red

Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.


Spring, I hardly knew you

The best time of the year to visit Beijing is Spring. The temperatures are comfortable, gusty winds generally keep the skies blue and trees begin to bloom.

Dormant streets come to life, as old men hunker over small tables to watch card games. Vendors pack up their tents and grill barbecue in the open. Children who have been cooped up all winter shed a few layers of clothes and run freely in the warm air.

It sounds romantic, but the truth is Beijing’s Spring is more of an intense fling. That’s because it passes in the blink of an eye. After five months of extreme cold (this winter, which saw the coldest temperatures in Beijing in more than 30 years and long stretches of dangerous air pollution, was especially trying), we get about one month of good weather in May, followed by four months of blazing-hot summer. Continue reading

A capital idea? Hardly!

For most of my life, China has been a bit of a mystery.

In primary school, I learned about European royalty, the plight of the Native Americans and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. In high school, I had an animated history teacher who worked himself into such a frenzy during lectures that his stories became more like theater. I could close my eyes and, with his vivid descriptions, picture a stumpy Napoleon riding horseback into the teeth of a thousand bullets.

Sadly, Asian history was boiled down to just a few major events: a country that bombed us (Japan, at Pearl Harbor) and a country we bombed the hell out of a couple of decades later to stop the spread of communism (Vietnam). In college, I bought a book about a World War II mission to rescue US and British POWs, including some survivors of the Bataan Death March, from a Japanese camp in the Philippines.

So it wasn’t until I moved to China in 2010 that I began to understand the country’s history. I didn’t even know that Beijing was not always the national capital. In April, I traveled to Nanjing, the seat of power from 1368 to 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and again in the early 20th century, before the Communists “liberated” China in 1949.

The Jinghai Temple.

A ceiling inside the Jinghai Temple.

The Linggu Pagoda was built in 1929 to honor soldiers who died in a war between the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) and local warlords.

To third Ming emperor Yongle, who moved the capital to Beijing in 1420, I’ve got to ask: Dude, what were you thinking? Beijing doesn’t get much precipitation, so it can be brutally dry. It’s prone to sandstorms in spring, which leave a red film over everything unfortunate enough to be left outdoors. The winters are long and, when the winds whip down from Siberia, bone-chillingly cold. And unlike many major cities in the world, it isn’t located near any large body of water. Continue reading

Fortress opens window to ancient China

I imagine it got lonely up here at night in the darkness, 12 meters off the ground. It was probably quiet too with the entire city sleeping, and with no cell phones, no radio, no TV. Just a bow and arrow and maybe some food and water to tide you over till the morning.

The sunrise must have been brilliant, with a view extending several kilometers into the countryside. Even the most indecisive minds likely had ample time to make judgments about the intentions of men approaching the gate. Business or battle. Friend or foe.

The towers where the first protectors of Xi’an patrolled in the 14th century are today home to merchants peddling cheap souvenirs and renting bikes to tourists. There is no view of the horizon anymore, thanks to scores of high-rise apartment buildings and air pollution from factories. The silence is gone too, as cars and buses lined bumper-to-bumper rumble through the wall’s gates all hours of the day, entering the heart of a growing city with a population of already 8 million.

A street in the city center that leads to one of the wall's gates.

The wall is now a tourist attraction, one of many sites that draw visitors from around the world to Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. The wall, shaped like a rectangle,¬†surrounds the city center. It was built in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and is one of the best preserved ancient walls in China. Continue reading