Traveling to Beijing for the first time? Don't get caught in, out, or up by cultural shocks. Know how things should and shouldn’t be done to ensure your trip is a memorable one for all the right reasons.
With all of their magnificent histories and cultural relics, the Chinese capital's larger parks like Beihai and the Summer Palace feature highly on the tourist's must-do list. But as a landlocked city of more than 15 million people, Beijing has plenty of other parks that offer its citizens a respite from the commotions and chaos of everyday life.
Local people both young and old throng these parks at all times of the day, and during all seasons of the year. Surprisingly, it is often the latter that engage in the more strenuous activities. Young lovers are content to sniff the fragrant flowers while lounging around in each other's arms. Senior citizen, meanwhile, perform gymnastics that would stretch the averagely fit adult’s tendons to snapping point.
A common sight in a Beijing park is a chess match -- Chinese chess (xiangqi) that is. So popular is this game in Beijing that practically every male citizen from statesman to dustman is well up on its complex strategies. That means crowds of middle-aged and elderly gentlemen assemble around opponents and their battered sets, offering punditry and advice. This they do whether it is wanted or otherwise. Other board games are played in parks, like the far more gender-balanced mahjong. During Beijing's golden season (late August,
September, and much of October), no park is free from the clacking sounds that the tiles produce. In the winter though, such enthusiasts usually retreat to the warmth of Beijing's many mahjong clubs.
There's music played in parks, too. Groups of amateur musicians pick their spots and, using traditional Chinese musical instruments like the two-stringed Erhu, entertain passersby with a repertoire of tunes from the Peking Opera, or others. And these days, local buskers are bringing Western sounds to the parks with guitars and tambourines.
Many of Beijing's parks contain artificial lakes, and these are usually busy spots, no matter what the season. In the summertime, you can rent a rowboat or a paddleboat and cruise around the lake for a very reasonable hourly rate. Lazier park-goers have the option of a battery-powered craft. But whatever vessel you choose, beware the war zones. One minute you might be whispering sweet nothings into your loved one's ear. Turn a corner, and you might find yourself surrounded by young Chinese kids in nuclear submarines and destroyers taking aim at a laser-activated buoy. It will shower you with water if they find their target.
When the lakes freeze over in the wintertime, skates and sleds replace the boats. Some lakes have specially cordoned off areas that allow people to risk shattering their pelvis on the solid surface. The young kids you'll see there are expert skaters that humiliated this writer at his last attempt. But if you do choose to ice skate, you might want to bring two pairs of socks as well as plastic bags. Incinerate them when you are done.
If all this activity makes you peckish, a snack-stand surely lies nearby. Standards vary, of course, as do prices. You can pick up chips, biscuits, and drinks at these places, and
some sell cooked snacks too. Some parks have ornately decorated teahouses, or even restaurants. Others have open-air bars with a better cocktail menu that you'd find in many of their counterparts in the city's more typical boozing areas.
When the day is drawing to a close, you should try to locate a particularly scenic spot that faces west. There you will find photographers both professional and amateur eagerly snapping away at the sun as it disappears to make room for night.