Enjoy Beijing’s Park Life in the morning

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Traveling to Beijing for the first time? Do not get caught in, out, or up by cultural shocks. Know how things should-and should-not-be-done to ensure your trip is a memorable one for all the right reasons.

With all of their magnificent histories and cultural relics, the Chinese capital larger parks like Beihai and the Summer Palace feature highly on the tourist must-do list. But as a landlocked city of more than 18 million people, Beijing has plenty of other parks (gongyuan) that offer its citizens a respite from the commotions and chaos of everyday life. Those that wander off the beaten track, and into commons that are lesser known at least outside the city, will find their adventure worthwhile. Instead of hoards of tourists and irritating peddlers (xiaoshangfan), they will get a more realistic impression of park life among the locals.

Patrons both young and old throng these parks at all times of the day, and during all seasons of the year. Surprisingly, it is often the latter that engage in the more strenuous activities. Young lovers are content to sniff the fragrant flowers while lounging around in each other arms. Octogenarians, meanwhile, perform gymnastics that would stretch the averagely fit adult tendons to snapping point. They use the brightly painted, in-demand public exercise machines (gonggong jianshenqi) when the are available, or benches, walls and railings when they are not.

A common sight in a Beijing park is a chess match — Chinese chess (xiangqi) that is. So popular is this game in Beijing that practically every male citizen from statesman to dustman is well up on its complex strategies. That means crowds of middle-aged and elderly gentlemen assemble around opponents and their battered sets, offering punditry and advice. This they do whether it is wanted or otherwise. Other board games are played in parks, like the far more gender-balanced mahjong. During Beijing tour season (late August, September, and much of October), no park is free from the clacking sounds that the tiles produce. In the winter though, such enthusiasts usually retreat to the warmth of Beijing’s many mahjong club

There is music played in parks, too. Groups of amateur musicians pick their spots and, using traditional Chinese musical instruments like the two-stringed erhu, entertain passersby with a repertoire of tunes from the Peking Opera, or others. Sometimes a passing diva may join in, and sing along in the high-pitched voice that is typical to that act. And these days, local buskers are bringing Western sounds to the parks with guitars and tambourines.

Many of Beijing parks contain artificial lakes, and these are usually busy spots, no matter what the season. In the summertime, you can rent a rowboat or a paddleboat  and cruise around the lake for a very reasonable hourly rate. Lazier park-goers have the option of a battery-powered craft. But whatever vessel you choose, beware the war zones. One minute you might be whispering sweet nothings into your loved one’s ear. Turn a corner, and you might find yourself surrounded by young Chinese kids in nuclear submarines and destroyers taking aim at a laser-activated buoy. It will shower you with water if they find their target.

Local men often gather at the lake edge to try their fishing luck. The rods they use rarely have a reel, just a line attached to a primitive stick. They yank their baited hoots out of the water to see if there is anything wriggling on the end of the line. Some throw their haul back at the end of the day, and others bring it home to feed their pet turtles. Unless it is a smaller, sealed off area that is specially stocked with lake fish, you will not see many taking their minnows back to eat.

When the day is drawing to a close, you should try to locate a particularly scenic spot that faces west. There you will find photographers both professional and amateur eagerly snapping away at the sun as it disappears to make room for night.