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

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

There’s no space like home

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. Continue reading