Category Archives: Chinese Parks

Six Months in Beijing: Sightseeing Highlights and Recommendations

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After living in Beijing for the past six months, we’ve not only had lots of opportunities to see and experience everyday life here in China, but we’ve also hit a lot of the tourist hot-spots. With all there is to see in a city with a population of 20+ million and a wealth of historical sites, I’ve put together a list with photos of our favorite places/must see spots. Since some of these places are obvious, I’d put them in the “usual suspects” category. Others are top recommendations, but may not be included in a several day itinerary of a visit to the capital. I’m also adding a few places that I wouldn’t recommend visiting, unless you have a lot of time, or a really specific interest.

1. Tiananmen Square: with all of the modern history in this massive square in the very heart of the city, it’s a good first stop. At the famous Tiananmen Gate with Chairman Mao’s face looking out across the square, you’ll also get your first sense of where Chinese tourists go (and there are a lot of them!). Traveling to Tiananmen Square is a essential visit for Chinese coming from all over the country, where you can see the Great Hall of the People on one side of the square and the National Museum of China on the other. Mao’s mausoleum is in the center of the square, where you can visit Mao’s preserved body (I tried to check it out one day with Isabel and Sophia, but the crowds and heat were so overwhelming that we changed our plans), something that is emotionally moving for many Chinese. I also considered getting up very early for the daily sunrise flag-raising ceremony (nationalism in China and the U.S. are quite similar!), but could never quite find the motivation to go (with three young kids, sleep is at a premium!).

2.  While in the Tiananmen area, visiting the Forbidden City is another usual suspect must-see. Getting a sense of what life might have been like for the Chinese emperor and his consorts, wives, and eunuchs (no non-castrated men were allowed to sleep in the walled city) in this yellow-roofed massive complex of halls, houses, and gardens really shouldn’t be missed.

3. Visiting at least one Chinese park is at the top of my list. There are so many to choose from (Beihai, Jingshan, the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace [Yuanmingyuan], Ritan, Ditan, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Botanical Gardens, Purple Bamboo, etc.) and walking around amidst the cultivated beauty, while watching any of the many group activities that Chinese people regularly take part in, is an essential component of any visit (see my previous posts: Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese and The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park). If you’re in the Forbidden City area, visiting Jingshan Park and climbing the highest hill in Beijing, on a clear day, will give you a 360 view of the city and a chance to look directly into the Forbidden City from above.

4. The Great Wall: of course you’ve got to see it. If you can skip the highly touristy Badaling area and head to at least Mutianyu, I’d recommend it (you can take a cable car up, walk along the wall for awhile, and then toboggan down on a cement track: surprisingly fun and safe with kids!). I really wanted to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall too, as the photos I’ve seen are spectacular, but we ran out of time.

5. Sanlitun Village and Yashow Market in Sanlitun: we came to love the Sanlitun area, with its combination of very high-end retail shops and more middle class stores and restaurants. It’s a great place to see the “new China” in all its consumerist glory, as well as to walk around in a beautiful outdoor mall space (there’s a mall beneath the area as well) with changing art installations and store/brand promotions. Right next to Sanlitun Village is the six-story Yashow Market with floor after floor of knock-offs. This is the other side of China’s consumer (and production) culture and is the perfect balance to the fancy real name-brand shopping just steps away. While a lot of tourists may prefer the Silk Market (we bought the silk for my wedding dress and all of our bridesmaids’ and groomsmaids’ dresses there back in 2002), with limited time, I’d recommend just hitting Sanlitun. Similarly, a lot of tourists visit the snazzy Wangfujing shopping area, but I’d recommend Sanlitun Village over Wangfujing.

6. Take at least one taxi ride around the Central Business District (CBD) area (and other areas of the city too) to see the architecture of recent dreams. Especially cool is the CCTV building, the various SOHO buildings throughout the city, the Global Trade Center towers, etc.

7. Go to a Chinese acrobat show. We’d been to a couple of shows in the past, but the one we saw last week at the Chaoyang Theatre was absolutely amazing! It ended with a steel ball and eight motorcycle riders driving around inside (and upside down) simultaneously. As a bonus: we were a bit slow getting out of the theater and had a chance to meet the performers!

8. Capital Museum: As Manu’s recent post attests (The Capital Museum in Beijing), the Capital Museum is a gorgeous space with fantastic, focused exhibits. Skip the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square and head over to the Capital Museum. Now that the new design of architect Jean Nouvel has been chosen for what looks to be a fantastic looking new National Art Museum of China in the Olympic Park area, in a few years it might be a different story…

9. Nanluoguxiang, or NLGX, is one of the coolest streets in Beijing. Somewhat similar to Thamel in Kathmandu, but not just catering to foreigners, this lively area near the Drum Tower (worth a visit, but we never made it since we’d already visited the Drum Tower in Xi’an) is part of the traditional remaining hutong (alley) neighborhoods. There are funky boutiques, charming bars and coffee shops, and lots of enticing snack stands on this great street.

If you’ve got specific interests, I’d also recommend:

1. 798 Art District: In this former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans, there are now streets of galleries and cafes. A couple of the galleries are impressive, but don’t expect to be impressed across the board. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, or a day, wandering around, hanging out in cafes and doing a little shopping for unique gifts.

2. Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Temple Complex: If you have any connection to Tibetan Buddhism, Yonghegong is an obvious place to visit. Beginning in the 18th century, the complex maintained a connection between China’s emperors and monks from Tibet and Mongolia.

3.Peking University: Though you have to have a residency permit to enter the campus of China’s top university, if you can visit it, it’s worth walking around the beautiful grounds (there’s a stunning lake).

4. Olympic Sports Complex: Seeing the iconic 2008 Summer Olympics Bird’s Nest and Water Cube in person does give you a sense of the scale of the endeavors to build these structures, but unless you have a specific reason to visit the area, or a lot of time, I’d skip it. We walked around the fairly treeless concrete grounds in the hot sun, but the sense of national pride many Chinese undoubtedly feel did not arise in us.

5. The Beijing Zoo: While the grounds of the zoo are very beautiful, once you leave the chaos of the main animal buildings, including the overrated panda exhibit, the experience itself can be missed. While it’s not the worse zoo I’ve ever been to in terms of the space for the animals, it’s also not very impressive.

There are a few things we didn’t do that will be on our agenda for our next visit:

  1. The Fahaisi Temple in the Western Hills with Ming Dynasty murals that you have to view with a flashlight.
  2. The White Cloud Taoist Temple. Sadly, we didn’t visit even one Taoist temple while we were here.
  3. The Fragrant Hills Park in the Western Hills. This is supposed to be especially beautiful in the fall when all the leaves are red and gold.
  4. A modern dance show at the “Egg” (National Grand Theater).
  5. Visit the Olympic Forest Park. This huge space doesn’t have the cultivated landscaping of most of Beijing’s parks and some day I’d like to see it.

Things we didn’t do that we’ll probably never do:

  1. Watch a Peking Opera. The piecing voices just don’t appeal to us. We saw a bit of a Hong Kong opera and that was enough.
  2. Visit the aquarium. The aquarium is within the zoo complex and you have to buy a separate ticket. Although it’s got a good reputation, having taken the kids to the fantastic Monterey Aquarium and the Vancouver Aquarium, it doesn’t strike me as something we must do in Beijing. Also, I wouldn’t recommend the joint Chinese-New Zealand “Blue Zoo” venture, unless you want to feed goldfish with a bottle and watch mermaids (real live ladies in bikinis and tails!) swimming with the fish.
  3. Visit the Natural History Museum and/or the Planetarium. I could never gear myself up to visit what I’ve heard are very crowded museums.

Overall, our stay in Beijing has been fantastic and I’m really sorry to have to say good-bye, for now, to this lively city. I hope it’s not too long before we return again.

-Pam

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What’s in a Lotus: The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park

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In Tibetan Buddhism, lotuses feature prominently. For example, one of the oldest and most important early masters (8th c.) is Padmasambhava/Pema Jungnye, which means “Born from a Lotus,” as he is said to have been reborn in the heart of a lotus after having been burned to death on a funeral pyre. Buddhas, Bodhisattavas, and great masters are often depicted sitting on lotus seats and young consorts are described as being like a perfect, eight-petaled lotus. Lotuses regularly appear in Tibetan paintings (thangka) and sculpture and decoratively on furniture. You can even buy plug-in lotus lights for your home shrine. Because lotuses grown from the mud in water into beautiful flowers, lotuses also represent the mind of enlightenment coming forth from the confusion of ignorance.

Despite feeling pretty familiar with lotuses in this context, until this last month, I had never really fully appreciated them. Thankfully, our neighborhood park, Purple Bamboo Park, is currently holding a lotus festival. I can’t seem to stay away and have already taken four boat rides through a large section of the lake that is almost completely filled with blooming lotuses (a water field!). The slow moving boats hold around 15 passengers and a single rower navigates through the narrow passage of water left open. The boat meanders past blooming pink and white blooms pushing up from large green leaves. Sometimes you can even see a family of ducks or coupling dragonflies in the cavernous area shaded by leaves and blossoms.

One day as I was entering the park, I noticed a man selling what looked like a type of green fruit (I thought it might be similar to a sweetsop). The next day I decided to buy one, but found that they were being sold in tied-together bundles of three. Still having no clue what they were, I asked Sophia’s Chinese teacher, Qing Qing, and found out that they were lotus stalks with fresh lotus seeds. The seeds require effort to eat, as she showed me how first you have to remove each seed from the pod, peel off two different layers, and remove the bitter green interior before you eat it. While the texture reminds me of a nut, similar to a raw almond, it actually doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

Like many foods in China, the lotus seed has warming or cooling properties, but it depends on which part of the seed you eat.  Qing Qing told me that the bitter green stem inside the seed is the only cooling component of the lotus and it can be dried and made into a tea. When the raw lotus seed is eaten alone, it has warming properties that can help with nervousness and sleep problems. The dried seed (the green interior is removed from the top before it’s dried) can be made into a sweet drink by combining the seeds, crushed dried white wood ear mushrooms, and rock sugar with hot water and leaving overnight. Drinking it helps nourish yin and reinforces body fluid.

After I learned where the seeds came from, I went back to the park and suddenly became aware of the seed pod and began noticing that as the petals of the flower opened more broadly, it became visible in the center. As the leaves fall off, the seed pod is left standing amidst the other blooms.

Now I seem to be seeing the seed pods everywhere. For example, last Friday I took Sophia and Isabel to Beijing’s 798 Art District, a former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans that has been re-purposed into a large area filled with galleries and cafes, and we went to a couple of galleries. The first one we stumbled upon featured copper work. If I hadn’t recently encountered the lotus seed pods, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to a whole room of copper lotus stalks and seed pods in various states of growth and decay.

The one part of the lotus I’ve been familiar with for awhile, but have never cooked with yet myself, is the root. To me, crunchy, sliced lotus root with its white meat and beautiful pattern of holes, is the best food to cook in a hotpot. I love how it soaks up the flavor of the broth and tastes better and stays crunchier than a potato.  I’ve also had it in stir fries and in a soup with pork ribs, where it’s a great addition.

lotus root

Lotus Root photo borrowed from: http://www.joyharari.com/tag/lotus-root-remedy/

Thanks to our proximity to Purple Bamboo Park, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the China’s relationship with the plant.  Not only is there a great appreciation of the beauty of the flowers (as there is for Tibetans), but little of the plant is actually “wasted,” as medicinal (and food) uses have been found for the lotus’s roots and seeds in both fresh and dried forms (the petals, leaves, and stems are also used in other Asian contexts).  To me this epitomizes the rich depth of Chinese cuisine and medicine and its millennia-old relationship with plants (and animals) to uncover a myriad of uses and tastes.

-Pam

Dalian: A Trip to One of China’s Most “Livable Cities”

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Last weekend we took an overnight train to Dalian to visit our former boss at SIT Study Abroad, Linda, and her husband, Stephen. With a population of over 3.5 million, the city is located in northeastern Liaoning Province (one of the three provinces that formerly comprised Manchuria), at the convergence of the Bohai and Yellow Seas, and is merely the 27th largest mainland city in China.

In a country steeped in many thousands year old history, the crazy thing about Dalian is that it’s only a bit over a hundred years old. A former fishing village, the Russians gained control of the area in 1899 and held it for a few years until the Japanese wielded control of it for the next forty years, during which time it developed into an important port city (now it’s the northernmost port in China that never freezes).  Since its return to China, it’s continued to grow and, with its wide avenues and low pollution, in recent years has been named among China’s most “livable cities” (for the record, Beijing has never made that list!). If it weren’t for the protests (in China!) against a petrochemical plant that put it on the map two years ago, it’s probable that a lot of people outside of China wouldn’t even be familiar with the city of Dalian at all.

As a new city in China, sightseeing options are more limited than places with a great depth of history, but we managed to do some pretty cool things while catching up with Linda and Stephen and attempting to keep the kids entertained. We visited four parks, tried Dongbei cuisine (the “East-North” food of the Manchus), rode amusement rides on the Coney Island-style boardwalk, took a taxi ride along the coast, visited an active Chinese Buddhist temple-cum-flea market, checked out the fantastic market where Linda and Stephen get their extremely fresh seafood and veggies, saw architectural fantasies manifested in many different forms, etc.

One of my favorite aspects of our visit was hearing about Linda’s six recent trips to North Korea. It was fascinating to hear about life inside this country shrouded in secrecy. Her work for the American Friends Service Committee has helped to improve farm techniques within North Korea, giving the population expanded opportunities to produce its own food.

Dalian is actually very close to North Korea (you can see it, Sarah Palin style, across the Yalu River from nearby Dandong) and both Russia and Korea (more likely the southern variety) influence the city. Seeing Russian tourists (often looking a bit on the rough and ready side) with many restaurants and tourist attractions catering to them reminded us that we weren’t in Beijing. A mecca for the prized sea cucumber (there are about ten high-end shops in Linda and Stephen’s neighborhood selling the expensive delicacy), we were often similarly reminded that we were close to the sea. Thanks to our great hosts, we had an insider’s perspective on the city, definitely the best way to visit a new place, I think!

-Pam

Split Pants Fails: Some of the Perils of Elimination Communication

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Now that Elimination Communication, or understanding your baby’s peeing/pooping patterns to obviate the need for diapers, has become the rage among certain American parenting sets (see this recent NY Times article: Baby’s Latest: Going Diaperless), I thought it’d be interesting to post some photos of the split pants tradition in China. While in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, parents may struggle to pull down their baby’s pants to pee between parked cars, in China babies, toddlers, and even the occasional older child will pee in the street without a sideways glance from passersby.

I think it must be much easier to work with your child through Elimination Communication (or, if no communication, just elimination) in China, where virtually all babies and toddlers wear split pants. In the winter when multiple layers are worn, it’s not easy to see that each layer actually has a slit up the butt. However, once summer hits, more than once I’ve seen a kid, usually a boy, who let it all hang out.

One of the drawbacks of kids wearing split pants, I’ve found, is that sometimes you might encounter a toddler taking a dump on a shiny mall floor. When I noticed this the other day, I was relieved to see that the grandfather was ready on hand with a wipe as the child excreted onto the white flooring. Still, I wondered why the grandpa couldn’t have just quickly relocated the child to the nearby bathroom instead of giving me, and others, the opportunity to view his grandson’s pushing.

Another unfortunate aspect of split pants is that kids can’t be counted on not to dribble. One day a couple of months ago, my friend, Betty, and I took a shopping/lunch excursion to IKEA with our toddlers. We thought that they could play in the kids’ gazebo in the dining area, while we ate our lunch and chatted. Unfortunately, once we noticed a couple of wet spots on the gazebo’s floor, we decided to (try!) to keep our kids in highchairs. So much for the hope of a somewhat relaxing lunch!

After we observed the dribbles, I’ve been sketched out by some of the toddler areas in indoor play spaces (in Spain they’re called “Chiquiparks”). A couple of weeks ago my concerns were confirmed at Beijing’s Fundazzle when I smelled what I thought was Isabel’s dirty diaper. After following her around a bit to try to investigate, I stumbled across a few small turds on the carpet near a ball pit. As there was no one around, I could find no one to blame, but I called over one of the monitors, who quickly cleaned it up. If toddlers are going to wear split pants in such public places, the least they could do is communicate with their parents!

It seems that kids who’ve grown up wearing split pants (a Tibetan friend once told me that a common expression for having known a friend since childhood translates to “we’ve known each other since we wore split pants”) feel more comfortable peeing in urban areas than I’ve seen elsewhere. Every day when Sophia and Dylan are let out of kindergarten, several kids will run out of the gate and start peeing. Dogs peeing in bushes are one thing, but, really, couldn’t the kids have gone to the bathroom inside just a few minutes before?

While I applaud Elimination Communication, and similar diaper-free practices used throughout the world, for its environment-saving aspect (can you imagine the piles of disposable diapers in highly populated China that are kept out of landfills because of split pants?!), be warned there can be hitches, especially for your neighbors, if your child wears split pants!

-Pam

Parks in China: Breathing Life Into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese

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City living in China can be hard. Most people live in high rise apartment buildings (we live in an 18th floor apartment ourselves: see previous posts Finding and Cleaning our New ApartmentSweet (and Sour) Home) and street walking in many areas is not always pleasant. Pollution can be debilitating and traffic miserable. However, in contrast, Chinese parks provide a sense of space and beauty even on the most crowded of weekends and holidays. There is a pride-of-place in parks in China (I recently noticed a park worker scrubbing the outside of a trash can) and a notion that parks are a place to respect (while I often skirt around gobs of spit on the dusty sidewalks outside our apartment [it’s even grosser than it sounds!], people seem to spit less in parks than they do on the street).

In contrast to parks I’ve visited in some other parts of the world, there are some unique features to Chinese parks:

  1. At any given point, there are A LOT of group activities occurring (I’ve hardly ever seen anyone alone running, biking, etc.);
  2. Pleasant music is often played throughout the park through speakers mounted on streetlights (many of the dancing groups bring their own music and instruments are often being played by different groups, so sometimes there’s a bit of a cacophony!);
  3. Most parks don’t have playgrounds, but, if they do, there’s usually an entrance fee;
  4. Most parks have free exercise equipment for adults;
  5. Toy guns are very popular on both boats and kids’ amusement park rides;
  6. There is absolutely no graffiti;
  7. There is a lot of “rockery, which is a combination of limestone rocks from Lake Taihu, near Shanghai, or similar (sometimes the rocks are even artificial), and cement to create anything from small structures to huge monoliths;
  8. People don’t lie around as much, hanging out on the grass and picnicking (in fact, oftentimes you’re not allowed to walk on the grass); 
  9. Sun is carefully avoided and/or certainly not sought (after all, people use face whitening creams here!).

Since we came to Beijing at the end of January, we’ve visited a lot of parks. During Chinese New Year, when it was still very cold and you could chair skate in parks, we went to three temple fairs (see previous post about temple fairs). We pushed through the dreary, grey-brown winter, finding that even in the cold, people would come out to parks to sing, dance, and play instruments together. Then, as the weather improved and trees began flowering, parks became stunning places (in a recent visit to the Beijing Botanical Garden, for example, Isabel and I saw gorgeous blooming peach trees and tulips rivaling The Netherlands’). In fact, the extent of careful, beautiful landscaping has become apparent this spring, both in parks and elsewhere throughout the city.

One of my favorite things to do with Isabel when the weather is nice and the pollution is low is to walk about ten minutes from our apartment to the lovely Purple Bamboo Park (Ch. 紫竹院公園). Although sometimes I have to gear myself up to go out with her, knowing that I’ll have at least one battle trying to keep her in her stroller or Ergo until we get there and that she will get lots of attention and photos taken of her, which can be extremely exhausting, if I’m not in the right frame of mind, it is worth the effort to actually be in the park. No matter when we go (or, as she says, “doe”), there are always a lot of activities occurring:  ballroom dancing; dancing with long silk ribbons; fan dancing; tai chi; slow dance-like movements with racket and ball; groups kicking around a hacky-sack-esque object with feathers; boat riding in summer (chair skating in winter); Peking opera singing; instrument playing; etc. Sometimes the groups are small and sometimes I’ve seen as many as a hundred people dancing together. As we meander through the park, Isabel enjoys being entertained by the many different activities, even as she sometimes gets irritated with all the attention (she always looks happiest when she yells out, “Bye!” at the end of an interaction).

Because people in China retire early (currently, the retirement age is 60 for men, 55 for female civil servants and 50 for other female workers, although there are efforts to change this), getting together in parks during weekdays is the perfect place for retirees to exercise, meet friends, pursue hobbies, and take care of grandchildren while the parents work.  In addition to the activities mentioned above, I’ve also seen people in parks playing cards, Chinese chess, and mahjong; taking their birds for a walk (well, technically, the owner walks and the bird stays in the cage, or, sometimes, it’s tied with a string and sitting on its owner’s shoulder); fishing; shopping (snacks, books, plants, etc.); singing patriotic songs in a large group; working out on exercise equipment; and reading the newspapers hung behind glass windows on walls. Many parks have restaurants, tea houses, and snack stands, so there are places to get food and beverages, if you didn’t bring your own.

China may have hugely populated cities, but many of them, including Beijing, have a significant number of parks to give their citizens a chance to relax, socialize, exercise, and play in a beautiful setting, often containing artificial lakes. China has historically had stunningly landscaped gardens (the Summer Palace comes to mind), but not always for the common people. Today in Beijing there are over 300 parks, many of them quite vast. As we’ve moved through winter into spring and now into summer, it’s clear that people use the parks year-round.  I feel really fortunate to live so close to Purple Bamboo Park and am looking forward to doing more activities there with the kids. In fact, one of these weekends we’re planning on taking a boat from it through a canal system up to the Summer Palace. In the meantime, when I’m out with Isabel during the weekdays, I’m still trying to figure out what group activity would be my top choice when I retire.

-Pam