When people ask me to describe Bejing, I sometimes say that every block is Co-Op City (with neon-lit restaurants on the ground floor) and every road is the Cross-Bronx Expressway. New Yorkers, at least, can immediately envision dense clusters of high-rise apartment towers ringed by jammed elevated highways. In Beijing, though, there are no rivers to provide natural borders, so the scene goes on forever. That is a somewhat accurate but uncharitable description of how this immense metropolis of 20 million people can seem to foreigners like me who can’t read the signs or recognize the subtleties.
Because my son and new daughter-in-law (and new extended Chinese family) live there, Beijing is starting to feel a little bit like home. I know my way around the immediate blocks of Alex and Yan’s neighborhood near Sanlitun, where the Dongcheng and Chaoyang Districts meet: the 7-11 type stores, the local Woo-Mart (I kid you not), our favorite restaurant, the vegetable sellers in the market across the street. If I could say, “left turn,” and “go straight” in Mandardin, I might even be able to tell a taxi driver how to get to the historic center and then back to their white-brick apartment complex, which is organized in typical fashion, somewhat like a hutong, a traditional alleyway community, with paths between the buildings where people fix bikes and sell beer and gather in the afternoon to play board and card games.
Actually, Beijing has been looking a lot better since 2007, when trees and shrubs were planted everywhere to gussy up the city for the 2008 Olympic Games. The landscaping was done quite artistically, and some sections along the Ring Roads lined with ever-multiplying reflective glass office towers are starting resemble the San Diego Freeway.
Beijingers work hard, and Sundays are days for relaxing and family and going to parks.
Two Sundays ago my husband Julius and I spent the day in Beihai 北海公园 (North Lake) Park, in the historic center. Much like Washington, D.C., the area around the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen, where the Mao-era government buildings, the new “Egg” performing arts center, and imposing old hotels are clustered, is preserved, restored, and high-rise-free.
Behai Park is an oasis of beauty—though, like all historic places in China, always crowded with visitors. You enter from a busy “dajie,” or boulevard, and find yourself surrounded by a serene landscape of rock grottoes topped with pavilions.
Built in the 10th century, Behai is considered a masterpiece among ancient Chinese gardens. Like other Chinese imperial gardens, it was built to imitate famed scenic spots and architecture in various regions of China; the elaborate pavilions and canals of Hangzhou and Yangzhou and the delicate garden structures of Suzhou.
Step away from the man-made structures to find wilder areas of the garden, with details that reveal nature’s plan, not that of royal architects.
And step back onto the paths to encounter temples and shops selling traditional art works and the tools to make it: rice paper, brushes, and chops or signature seals.
Chinese people are reclaiming their cultural heritage, which had been repressed and nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Giant statues of Buddha repose in one temple along the path, and stools had been set up before them for kneeling (no photography allowed). Five years ago, people would not have knelt and prayed before the Buddha; 40 years ago they would have been sent to a labor camp. Now, although the emphasis still seems to be on making money and learning how to be fashionable, Chinese people are rediscovering and appreciating their architecture, fine arts, music, individuality and spirituality.
Half of Behai Park is taken up by a man-made lake, surrounded by restaurants and boat-rental places. Here the atmosphere is a bit different: noisier, with families, groups of teenagers and lovers, strolling around the lake or frolicking in paddle boats.
^ The structure in the distance is the Bai Ta or White Dagoba, a 130-foot-high Buddhist reliquary made of white stone. I took this photo from a rowboat that Julius and I rented. Sun, moon and flame engravings decorate the surface of the tower, which contains Buddhist scriptures and the bones of monks.
For me, the most interesting part of our day at Behai was walking through the five lakeside pavilions. Inside them, people were singing karaoke (to ancient Chinese songs, not Elton John), and ballroom dancing. The dancing was lovely.
The path continues to the exit and another busy street with waiting buses and taxis. A glance back over the wall — painted the beautiful soft red that marks so much of the architecture in the historic center — to the decorative gray roof tiles reveals a cluster of white birch trees. The birches seem to mark the division between this elegant oasis that represents a step back in time and the busy, noisy capital outside it.