LIFE IN THE BIG CITY
Beijing is the most overwhelming place I’ve ever lived.
Even in my apartment I cannot escape the sounds of car horns and construction that are omnipresent. As soon as I leave my apartment, I see swarms of people and an endless row of dull-looking buildings.
I’m not used to living in a city like Beijing. I grew up in the forest, in a house surrounded by massive trees that seemed to stretch into infinity. This forest was inhabited by every animal imaginable—foxes, deer, rabbits, squirrels, snakes and raccoons.
For fun, I would go fishing for trout in the nearby river. When it was deer season, I would eat meals consisting entirely of venison that my relatives and I had hunted.
Needless to say, Beijing is a completely different place from where I grew up. I had never lived in such a place until I arrived a few months ago and it had proved to be even more of a challenge than I had expected.
For one, I missed seeing green. I don’t mean green as in a few trees artificially planted along Dongzhimen Outer Street, but a real forest, where the only sounds are bird calls and the rustling of leaves.
STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS
It was by chance that I came across the Temple of the Earth one afternoon. Feeling spontaneous, I wandered down a street near Andingmen subway and arrived at a pair of tall, colorful gates. After buying a two yuan ticket, I walked through the colorful gates and into a seemingly different reality.
I had never heard of the Temple of the Earth before. I was only aware of its more famous cousin, the Temple of Heaven, which ranks as one of the top tourist destinations not only in Beijing, but also all of China.
I walked down a flat stone path surrounded by nothing but towering, ancient trees wrapped in thick, dark-green leaves until I reached the entrance that allowed visitors to pass into another area protected by a short red wall. The actual altar was inside. I paid a sheepish ticket vendor another five kuai and passed through the portal.
Surrounding the altar on all sides were beautiful weeds that grew unimpeded between the cracks between the stone slabs on the ground. This overgrown foliage made the place look like an ancient ruin, and made me feel like Indiana Jones, adventuring in some unexplored jungle.
I admired this neglected courtyard for some time and then proceeded to climb the stairs to the top of the altar. With nothing visible around me but tall trees and ancient stone architecture, I felt completely alone for the first time since I’d arrived in China. It was nice.
“I felt like Indiana Jones, adventuring in some unexplored jungle.”
I took the first deep breath in what felt like months and sat down on the steps. This was exactly what I’d needed: complete isolation. Not a single person in sight, no sounds of car horns, no signs of civilization. The lively chirps of birds nestled in the nearby trees floated towards me and I began to forget that I was still in Beijing.
I would have stayed there all day if another curious visitor hadn’t intruded upon my solitude. This young man looked about my age and carried neither a camera nor a backpack. Maybe he too just wanted to be alone for a little while. I decided that it was his turn to have this sacred courtyard to himself and exited the way I came, giving him a curt nod as I passed.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
My trip down the rabbit hole continued as left the courtyard and followed the red wall north. As the altar retreated, the sound of a saxophone, trumpet, and other brass instruments broke through my trance.
I followed the notes until I arrived at a wooded clearing. To the left was a lazy creek that slithered under a bridge. To the right was a gazebo, where I saw an entire band made up of elderly folks who had nothing more important to do on a Sunday than hang out with their friends and jam.
I took a seat and watched these old Chinese people playing instruments. I felt a stab of admiration for them and longed to share something that simple and special with my friends and family back home.
How often do you see elderly Americans carelessly spending time with each other outside the guarded walls of a nursing home? How often do Americans of any age go to parks anymore?
After a couple jazzy songs, the players took a cigarette break, which I took as my cue to continue exploring.
I followed the creek upstream and found that it led to a shallow pond below a rocky cliff. Lily pads surrounding a tall bouquet of lavender sprouted from the water’s surface. Man-made or not, it reminded me of something out of Monet’s gardens. It would be a good place for a picnic if I ever wanted to escape the noisy restaurants near where I live.
The farther along I walked, the more people I encountered until finally I entered a park bustling with activity. Before me lay a scene that you would never see in the United States. Elderly Chinese people were (very capably) doing all sorts of exercises, playing sports, and dancing. Some of the exercises made no sense to me, like the one where a man repeatedly threw himself into the trunk of a tree backwards. It honestly freaked me out a little bit.
FRIENDS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
I eventually happened upon a group of septuagenarians playing Chinese hackeysack. A Chinese hackeysack basically looks like a giant shuttlecock. These people were kicking this thing around with an athleticism that I don’t think I could have conjured up if I had wanted to. This scene of laughing seventy-somethings teasing each other like teenagers gave me a sense of longing and admiration similar to what I had felt back at the gazebo. I stalk them with my camera, but they don’t seem to mind; they’re too busy having fun.
I started down the long road to the exit in a much better mood than when I’d arrived. Then, I heard a familiar sounding language.
I looked to my right and saw a police officer waving to me. I responded by saying “hello” to him in Chinese, which he clearly found astonishing, as he immediately beckoned me over.
“These experiences were why I came to China in the first place.”
The officer was “on duty,” meaning that he spent his entire shift hanging out and doing pretty much whatever he wanted. Today, he was drawing characters on the pavement with a long brush that he periodically dipped in water.
He asked me if I could draw characters. I said I could write some, hoping that I still remembered all of the 2,000 characters that I supposedly learned over the course of last year.
Chinese characters are incredibly difficult for me to draw and even more difficult for me to memorize, so I attempted to converse with him by speaking rather than writing. However, he quickly shushed me and wrote on the ground, “Are you an English person?”
After a few moments, the water evaporated and his message was gone.
He eagerly handed me the brush and I wrote that I was an American. The officer smiled. I gave him back his brush and as my message disappeared, he wrote, “Welcome, American.”
I quickly snapped a picture of this heart-warming message before it evaporated.
Another gentleman shuffled over, having noticed a white person trying to write characters with a Chinese person. I ended up spending almost thirty minutes with these guys, conversing entirely through characters that we wrote on the ground.
These experiences were why I took Chinese and came to China in the first place.
As I exited the Temple of Earth and reentered the real world, I concluded that my visit was as much of a lesson about Beijing as it was a personal escape.
The park serves as a meeting place for old friends, a place of solitude for those who need to be alone and a sanctuary for fresh air, clear water and tall trees, in an otherwise hectic city.
If you’re in Beijing and ever need to get away for a while, you don’t need to buy a plane ticket, just walk north from Andingmen, and take a right at those colorful gates.
Featured image from Google Images. All other photos by Connor Fairman.