It’s Sunday morning in Beijing’s Jingshan Park, just minutes away from the Forbidden City where the stern face of Chairman Mao looks down on passersby. But here it’s all smiles. Why? Because this is where the Chinese go to have fun.
Looking round, we seem to be the only Western tourists. But no one seems to mind or even notice our presence. Youngsters are playing a game we’ve never seen before – like badminton but using their feet. With well-placed kicks, they keep the flower-like shuttlecock off the ground, passing it back and forth. Others are skipping rope but with a big difference: the rope is at least 8 metres long with half a dozen youths jumping simultaneously. One misstep results in a tangle of legs as the entire formation collapses. This happens several times as we watch, causing the young skippers to double over in laughter. Nearby, several women are twirling long streamers of multi-coloured ribbon. Like perpetual motion machines, they carve out figures of eight in the air. The colours flow and blend as in an optical illusion. Minutes pass. We stand still, mesmerised.
If tourist guides tell you this is only a 30-minute stop, ignore them. We are glad we have a totally unrestricted timetable for this Sunday in the park.
The Beijingers are enjoying themselves and don’t mind showing it. This discovery puts paid to the ‘myth’ of Chinese inscrutability. Here in Jingshan families are picnicking, others are concentrating on their tai chi moves and further on, couples, dressed in silks and brocades, are executing the well-practised steps of traditional Chinese folk dances. We skirt round a woman singing Chinese opera. Her small ‘fan club’ is obviously captivated by both her voice and the music but these sounds are strange to our Western sensibilities so we move on – just in time to join a group gathered round an elegant elderly couple, he in white gloves and tails, she in a floaty pink ball gown. We watch them go through their repertoire — stately waltz, seductive tango, sprightly foxtrot – to musical selections playing from their tape recorder. We are so charmed that we just have to applaud. Responding with a smile, he bows deeply then takes her hand as she curtsies.
In Jingshan Park no hats are passed round for contributions, no guitar cases are flung open for your loose change – everyone is performing for the sheer joy of it. What a treat!
Jingshan – meaning mountain (shan) of the Jin Dynasty – dates back to 1179. This 57-acre park is famous for its peony garden – the largest in Beijing. There’s always something blooming in Jingshan but May is the best time to admire the 200 different species – 20,000 flowers – planted throughout the park. A plaque marks the spot where the last Ming emperor died in 1644. According to legend, the 16 year old emperor fled the Forbidden City as rebel forces approached, hanging himself from a nearby tree. Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the tree standing tall before us wasn’t the famous ‘hanging tree’ but a replacement, planted in 1981.
HILL OF SCENIC BEAUTY
In the middle of the park, rising 46 metres into the Beijing mist, is the Hill of Scenic Beauty, the highest point in Beijing. It was constructed in 1421 from the earth and rocks that were dug up to build the moat and canals that surround and protect the Forbidden City. In our technologically-obsessed age, it’s incredible to think that this was achieved without the aid of modern machinery. At the top of the middle peak is the Wanchun Pavilion, also known by the more romantic name of the Pavilion of the Everlasting Spring. Built in 1750, its exterior is decorated with colourful glazed tiles. Inside is a statue of Buddha where the faithful lay flowers and fruit. The burning incense makes us light-headed. We go outside to make the 360 degree circuit around the Pavilion, and are wowed by the most spectacular views of Beijing’s landmarks: Drum and Bell Tower, Imperial Palace, Shichahai and Beihai lakes.
But Jinshang is not done entertaining us. Back on level ground, we are lured once again by the sound of music. Just a few metres away, a handful of amateur musicians is starting to tune up. As we wait, more and more arrive, and an animated ad hoc jam session begins. I count twelve saxophones, three clarinets, four trumpets, a drum kit, even a keyboard plugged into a generator. They improvise New Orleans jazz and bossa nova standards. What they lack in skill, they compensate for with enthusiasm. Once again, we are the only Westerners, and we listen, rapt. This impromptu concert is an absolute delight. As the musicians pause between songs, a saxophone player turns to us. ‘English?’ he asks tentatively. We nod. He grins broadly, extending his hand. ‘Welcome to Beijing.’