Posted by: Sam Olsen | October 24, 2011

Beijing Parklife

To say that they like rules in China is like asking if they eat rice. It’s almost bad here as in Yorkshire, where everything seems to be regulated. (We once went to a cafe in the Dales where there was a set of house rules, ten or so long, on the front door, including in capital letters “No free tap water will be offered”. Welcome indeed.)

So it was no surprise that the parks in Beijing – from where we have just returned after a 4 day trip – have tighter regulations than the Financial Services Authority. The park in question here, named Ritan, surrounds a former Imperial altar to the sun (ri in Chinese). The fact that red is the colour of the Sun, and also of Communism, probably gives it a more exalted place in Beijing’s park lists. And although beautiful, it was a rather different experience to the laissez-faire of Hyde or Central.

Lawrence and I had been let loose on the city for the morning, but with only a few hours between Larry’s morning nap and our lunch, we couldn’t go far. So a close by park seemed a good idea, and Ritan was the closest.

We grabbed a Hyundai taxi from the rank outside the hotel, and headed into the midmorning traffic. Lane discipline isn’t too tight here, and the drivers have to be aware of errant motorbikes, swerving cars and Volkswagen police cars. But keeping an eye on other drivers isn’t the only way the taxistas pass the time: they listen to very loud radios (normally a talk show of some kind), and practise the art of hawking up huge amounts of flem every couple of minutes, which they spit out into the street with obvious vigour. It’s a happy life.

After having tried to drop us on a random street a half mile away (why? Seriously, why?) we eventually arrived at our destination. The park was a pretty urban space, full of pruned conifer trees – not shaped like an English garden – and winding stone paths that lead between secluded openings. The feeling was one of connected spaces rather than an overall open space.

Ritan Park, red like the Sun. Or Communism

The first thing we noticed was a strange warbling, which appeared to be coming from a bandstand perched on a rocky outcrop. From the path below, we spied a group of middle-aged persons assembled to sing/wail about something, accompanied by a toothless man on a mouth organ. A younger fellow leaned back on one of the bandstand pillars, staring intently at anyone that might inadvertently look at the group. I would love to know what they were singing about, because they were really putting the effort in. No castrated cat would ever have been able to compete with the sheer decibel count.

The other park users were of all sorts: young, old, male, female, Chinese, Russian… Yep, for some reason the area was absolutely full of Russian women, walking around in their tottering heels and frumpy coats. A bit of a surprise really. Lots of activities were on show, from warbling to reading the newspapers put up in frames.

Elsewhere, chipmunk-like creatures scampered around everywhere, although they were not as numerous as the old folks doing tai qi For those not lucky enough to have seen tai qi in the flesh in China, it is an extraordinary sight. One old bird spent a good five minutes knocking on the top of her head, alternating hands, and staring at a large bush. An elderly gentleman appeared to swim past us, doing a rather smooth breaststroke along the path. And the man bowing up and down at high frequency didn’t look all there.

Except that he must have been. Because the tannoy said so. As we entered the park a loud female American voice boomed through

It's quicker to read the paper than the rules

the conifers with a list of thirteen park rules that had to be obeyed. Number 4 was that no “mentally ill, dangerous or sloppily dressed people were allowed in.” Number 6 pointed out that “feeding or beating of animals was strictly controlled” and number 11 reminded park users that “biting is not allowed”. What kind of park was this, you might ask? Just as I did. We began to look around at our fellow users a bit more keenly, and then realised that it was probably time to go home.

And not only because of the fear of madmen stalking us. We were by this stage both looking very yellow, the air thick with pollution. Larry insisted on a play on the ground, but his hacking cough signalled that the yellow-ness was no longer external.

So with that, we left the rules of Ritan behind, and plunged back into the world of spitting taxi drivers and ignored red lights.

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