Don’t you find it amazing that you can live in, or visit, a place for ages and ages and not get to know something that is within spitting distance of your front door, so anxious are you to go explore further afield.
I’ve been living in Beijing for some 14 months; just 5 minutes walk away is the entrance to (yet another) park which I have noticed often enough and walked on past, always knowing that one day when I have nothing better to do I can drop in and take a look.
Well this past week, events conspired to take me in there without my even being aware of it. I had decided in my quest to visit another of Beijing’s many museums to go see the Science and Technology Museum, just off the 3rd ring road. I worked out the route, jumped on a bus, walked to the entrance … and found it was little more than a building site, with the old buildings hardly distinguishable through the thick layers of dust and grime that had built up over the last few months.
Somewhat deflated I decided that as it was such a nice day I would take a walk northbound. I had hardly gone a short way before coming across another entrance to this self same park - Yuan Dadu Chengyuan, 元大都城垣遗址公园 - that I never really knew existed.
Taking note that I mustn’t “spit, piss and litter everywhere” (awww, what killjoys!), that I mustn’t “step into the pond” (that’s OK I guess), and that I shouldn’t “fight, make a disturbance or do anything that is illegal like superstition and gamble” (OK, I bet I won’t even need to keep my fingers crossed on that one) I entered the park. And found it to be an absolute delight!
With a history of over 700 years, Beijing’s city wall was originally built in 1267 by the famous Yuan emperor Kublai Khan. But in the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the north part – what has now been turned into this delightful park - was left out of the city when the north wall was moved southwards.
The city wall was made mainly of soil and is about 12.5 metres high and 31 metres broad. The overall park is actually divided into two sections, a total length of 9 km, one in Haidian and the other in Chaoyang. The section I am now in is the Chaoyang side, spanning some 4.8kms.
The park has been set out to celebrate the culture and achievements of the Yuan dynasty. As you walk through it, you can read poems praising the beauty of nature (well, you can if you speak Chinese!); and on the grass, you come across sculptures of horses every now and again, representing “the invulnerability of the Yuan Dynasty”.
The city of Dadu, the forerunner of Beijing, was built in 1264. Its design followed several rules from the book Rites of Zhou: "nine vertical axes, nine horizontal axes"; "palaces in the front, markets in the rear"; "left ancestral worship, right god worship". It was broad in scale, and strict in its planning and execution.
But in August 1368 General Xu Da captured the city. The Khan of Yuan, Yuan Shundi, escaped without defending the city, and so it sustained no damage. Xu Da decided that Dadu's fortification system was too large to defend during a siege, so he ordered the city's northern walls rebuilt 2.8 kilometres to the south of their original location. The original walls were abandoned after 1372, but were still used as a secondary defence during the Ming dynasty.
And so with that history lesson out the way, you won’t be surprised as you walk a little bit further in to the park to come across a huge group of statues of 19 historical figures such as Kublai Khan - the founder of the Yuan Dynasty – together with his Imperial Concubines.
These sculptures (Da Du Ding Sheng) are actually the biggest open-air sculptures to be found in Beijing. Old Kublai (also known as Hu Bilie) is accompanied by other notables such as the famous Italian traveller Marco Polo and Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing, and there’s a couple of groups of musicians and dancers, as well as family pets, to make sure they don’t get bored.
From a little distance away you can take in the whole tableau, including an 80-metre fresco’d wall depicting life in days gone by including the wedding of a princess.
And just to the right of this tableau is another tiled wall which makes for some interesting patterns if you enjoy tinkering with Photoshop’s myriad filters…
It’s here, too, that you can find that absolutely-must-see-attraction … Chaoyang’s Public Security and Protection Museum, which has a large sign near the road…
…with loads of absolutely spiffing signs surrounding this open space allowing visitors to revel in health and safety topics…
But for some inexplicable reason the museum itself is not heaving with people all trying to cram in to learn about H&S; in fact I can’t see a single person queuing up to be allowed inside, while the guard appears to be fast asleep. Very strange; though if the truth be known I too find myself bypassing this golden opportunity to increase my knowledge of this fascinating subject… and decide instead to move on to discover more of the park.
A moat dug during the Yuan Dynasty flows through the park - it’s now known as the Xiaoyue River - and this divides it into two parts connected by six bridges. In some places the water is more like a dirty puddle, with mud lining each bank of the river course; in other parts the water flows smoothly. And in winter the entire river freezes solid along its entire length. All along it you see acacias, pines and weeping willows – quite stunning.
There’s always something new to see as well. You come across little sculptures almost everywhere – such as these coins representing the commercial merchants who used to set up their wares on the original Dadu City Walls.
The park is definitely a Happy place to be – and if you look carefully you’ll see loudspeakers designed to look like rocks from which there is a non-stop cacophony of uplifting music and uplifting commentary – well, I have no idea what the Voice says – it could be an exhortation for everyone to be happy, or praising the park authorities, or something else for all I know, but strangely enough I don’t find it annoying in the slightest…
Maybe the reason it’s not annoying is because for most of the length of the park, the music/exhortations are drowned out by real people enjoying life to the fullest…
Most days you will find all kinds of activities going on all around you. Here are some 200-300 people gathering in the shade of the trees at the back of a bandstand singing their hearts out to the sound of a keyboard player, saxophonist and drummer…
A few metres further along you come across a score of couples dancing to the sound of a DVD player….
… while if it’s early morning Tai Chi or keep fit classes you’re after, you’ve definitely come to the right place.
Some of these keep-fitters practise with what look like red fly swatters – very graceful it is, and certainly I saw not a single fly even contemplating what a great idea it would be to buzz in on their exercise drills…
Badminton, too, is immensely popular – both the traditional bash-the-shuttlecock-over-the-net type as well as the keep-kicking-the-oversized-shuttlecock-in-the-air version…
Beijing’s parks are also useful if you are the type of person whose hobby is likely to be too noisy for your neighbours. Here are a whole load of people all practising their instruments, totally oblivious to other “musicians” standing just a couple of feet away from them. The mishmash of sounds is not at all unpleasant – a little like the conglomeration of competing church bells in Europe calling out on a Sunday morning.
Not that you need to practise with others if you don’t want to. This aspiring clarinettist, for instance, is serenading the birds from a hideaway close to the road.
There’s no hobby, it appears, that is unsuitable for getting up to in the park. Want to practise your calligraphy? No problem… Just get yourself a bucket of water and a very long brush…
Maybe you’re a natural tree hugger at heart? People here love pushing against the trees – doing vertical push-ups – or even hanging from branches to strengthen their muscles.
This woman regularly stretches her leg muscles here and can often be seen striking a pose for up to half an hour at a time…
And if you feel somehow that there is a dearth of birds in Beijing, then again this is the place to come to, especially in the evenings when many of the old timers bring their bird cages out to listen to the warbling of their occupants.
This is very much a people’s park. Throughout its length you see signs for camping, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Especially at weekends, you see young couples erecting their tents, possibly looking forward to a romantic night out.
Everything is laid on for the park’s visitors. Practically every few hundred metres there is a loo, well designated by anatomically-suspect signs
Not everything in the place is OK though. It has to be said that some of the rocks simply don’t make the grade, though in what subjects they are deficient we are not told.
For budding arborealists, there are even notices telling you the type of tree you are standing under…
In fact the authorities have gone to great lengths to sign practically everything that moves… though what constitutes an Emer gency water supply or an Emer gency toilet as opposed to an ordinary one, I am not quite sure.
And I never do get to find out where the Emergencg monitoc QNLCOtrol is located, or even for that matter what its purpose is…
But I feel well pleased with myself for being able to decipher another notice which read “Pl..s. keep o.f the gr.s.” – though I do have to walk across the grass to be able to read it in the first place!