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

The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

A jade burial suit? Are you crazy?

The day after my paternal grandmother died, I went to a funeral home with my uncles Jim and Paul to pick out a casket.

The director of the funeral home met us at the entrance and said he was sorry for our loss. We followed him to a brightly lit room, where around a half-dozen caskets were on display.

“This is one of our basic models,” the funeral director said, pointing to a casket with an oak finish. If we wanted to go with something “a little more expensive,” he suggested a coffin with a shiny white exterior that resembled marble.

Not even the most basic casket seemed appropriate for my grandmother. Aesthetically speaking, she was a woman of simple tastes.

“$2,000 for a casket? Are you crazy?” I could imagine her saying. “Bury me in a cardboard box, and use the money to buy Jimmy a new coat for winter!” Continue reading