The best of Beijing’s parks and palaces

As the plane drops effortlessly through the air, gliding lower with the steady magnitude of a giant in flight, Beijing is hidden by a soup of impenetrable grey clouds. As we sink through them, the plane is enveloped in the still, heavy smog, blocking out everything but the leaden clouds that surround us. We meet the tarmac with a bounce and a rumble of gravel, and as the plane taxi’s along, the curtain rises slightly, allowing us a glimpse of other planes, waiting obediently in their bays, tucked up under the blanket of fog. Lights make yellow pools in the translucent mist, and flashing specks of colour indicate a moving vehicle here or there, hidden by the swirls. We have arrived in Beijing.

A city full of contradictions, most notably the deep history of the numerous monuments scattered like raindrops over the cityscape, and the sprawling urban cauldron that now contains them. Sky scrapers tower over temples, historic parks now share their idyllic lakeside views with turrets and towers of concrete consumerism. It is old and new, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, clean and filthy, traditional ideals and surface values. In short, it is everything. And any traveller could spend a very busy and happy few days here at the very least.

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Reflections in Kunming lake

The Summer Palace is the ultimate oasis from the fumes and bustle of the city. There Kunming lake slumbers lazily, claiming the most part of the land as it’s own, barely disturbed by the bright-roofed pedaloes that weave haphazardly over it’s surface, guided by the absent minded hands of a hundred Chinese tourists. Lily pads cluster in it’s hidden corners, bringing the lake to life with vibrant green circles, their ropey stems disappearing into the darkness of the water beneath them. The necks of temples struggle up through lush vegetation, their tips visible above the sea of green as they look imposingly out over their own history. From one vantage point at the top of the hill, you can see almost the whole park stretched out in front of you for your personal pleasure. The lake stretches away into the distance, the boats mere dots and the many, many palace buildings hidden from view beneath an evergreen canopy. Lush green, serrated mountains in the distance are cut off, separated from the rurality of the park by an interlocked grid of towering steel, glass and stone – the legacy of this city’s modernisation. There are so many places to explore, from a majestic stone boat at the edge of the lake, to a huge theatre complex and a painted hall accessed by hundreds of steep stone steps. But sometimes it’s the things that aren’t in the guidebooks that give a place its true character. In a quiet corner, 3 old men sit on the stone steps jutting out over the lake, fishing rods cast out, motionless in peaceful contemplation. Tourists come and go noisily, but these three remain undisturbed, watching their lines with a serene focus. The water in front of them is silky, the dusk light reflected warmly beneath them. And then the moon comes into view, high in the sky and kissed with red, it hovers above us all, majestically looking down, illuminating this haven.

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Sunset over the trees and temples

The Temple of Heaven is another sanctuary, this time much smaller and with a focus on green shaded paths and long waving grass rather than silvery water. The three monuments that stand in it’s midst are impressive, and the curved whispering wall – where you and a partner can stand at opposite sides of the courtyard and hear each others voices echo clearly back and forth – is a novelty. But it’s the groups of people, not tourists but local Beijing residents, out for a few hours of escapism, that make it stand out. In one clearing two men, strangers, sit on two different benches playing two different tunes on stringed instruments I don’t recognise. A woman sits beside one of them, singing in the traditional wail that seems discordant to western ears. Another woman, a stranger comes over and joins the other man. Then another joins the first group. Neither of the tunes can be distinguished, each group drowning out the other, intersecting all melodies with a strange interrupted quality. But no one seems to mind. How freeing it must be to walk up to a stranger and start singing with them, without being written off as a lunatic. A group of men playing cards nearby continue their game, un-interrupted by the performance. A middle aged couple sit nearby on a bench, chatting and listening absent mindedly while she rests her head on his shoulder. A dark skinned man with a wise face sits and cools himself with his yellow fan while the divided music drifts through the trees. People brought together by the music.

Community spirit in the park

Community spirit in the park

But it’s not all peace and tranquility. The busy streets, the neon brights of what seems like hundreds of shopping malls, and the people – a population so numerous that the government imposed the infamous one child policy. Wherever you go, you are never alone and you are never far from a crowd, a group of jostling, bustling locals hurrying one way or another. It is loud and bright, an assault on the senses. Restaurants and shops announce themselves in fluorescence, each one competing with its garish neighbour to lure you into its establishment. There are comparatively few westerners, and the locals are vocal, urgent and un-restrained. People shout loudly to each other, calling their friends, laughing freely, chattering in the fast, almost angry sounding language which is so alien to our ears. Markets are examples of this vibrancy all concentrated in a few streets, a selection of stalls selling anything and everything. The Donghuamen night market especially gives a new meaning to the phrase variety: here, you can quite literally eat anything. From the more traditional western favourites such as spring rolls and dumplings, to the more unusual and unsettling, there is something here to surprise everyone. Whole scorpions, stretched out on a barbecue bask next to starfish and sea horses on skewers. Insects the size of a thumb joint frantically kick millions of tiny legs  – still alive till that final bite. Something that looks like chicken wings on a skewer turns out to be a pair of tiny birds, roasted red, their heads and legs still attached, looking every bit as alive as they ever were, but a lot angrier. Red paper lanterns line the narrow street, which is crammed with punters, a never ending carousel of faces either hungrily searching for a cheap meal or merely enjoying the novelty – where else in the world can you have all this extreme diversity in one place.

Words and photographs copyright Bonnie Radcliffe.

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