Bundled up in Beijing

We climbed up here!
We climbed up here!

It’s not that we hadn’t expected it to be cold in Beijing. We’d read the long-range forecast and knew to expect temperatures of 1-12oC. The day before we left we realized we couldn’t find any of our warm clothes despite having unpacked everything that had been in our wardrobes prior to our move to the villa. As with the Great China Visa Hunt of a recent blog post, we had to resort to looking in unexpected places. At around 10.30 pm the night before our departure we found them – in a dark storeroom under the stairs, inside a suitcase.

It’s funny how impossible it is to imagine a temperature before you actually experience it. Two jumpers, four vests, a pair of jeans, some leggings and a coat would surely do it? That and some nice clothes for evenings. How wrong we were.

On the sixth of November, when we arrived, it coincided with the city’s earliest snowfall ever. We arrived at 2am, with our warm gear in our cases, of course and it was not until we stepped outside and into our taxi that we remembered, suddenly, what cold really feels like.

At that hour of the night we did not expect the hotel’s communal areas to be toasty warm. It was chilly in our hotel bedroom and the bathroom floor was icy to our bare feet but hey, it was the middle of the night. Maybe no other guest had just moved out of our room and so it had not had a chance for a warmthrough. The next day we discovered the air conditioner had a warming function so thought no more of it. When I felt the need to keep my coat on during breakfast the next morning, I didn’t really think about that either. Later that day, sitting in front of the lounge logburner, still wearing our hats, scarves, coats and gloves, did seem a little unusual but it wasn’t until the second day that we discovered that the government decides when the heating goes on and it was not scheduled for a good few weeks yet. Now we understood.

Our trip to China in the winter had seemed like such a great idea when we’d booked it, and arranged to meet up with our great friends, Sue and Pete Valentine, during their own SE Asia trip. We’d assumed it would simply be less crowded. Apparently, it was. Though you could have fooled me. Those Chinese are hardy, patriotic, folk, it seems. Our queue to see Mao’s tomb was an hour long at 9 in the morning. Our ears froze, the soles of our feet froze onto the Tiananmen Square and the slow-moving throngs of people meant that it was impossible to put a spurt on and warm up through power-walking because that would have caused us to crash headlong into other people every few seconds.

Unfortunate hats in Tiananmen Square
Unfortunate hats in Tiananmen Square

Luckily, the furry hat vendors were making a killing. Ian succumbed to a rather Eastern European furry job with ear-flaps, while I bought the first one I found out of desperation. Later that day, I replaced it with a rather nice purple knitted number. By now I had discovered that the only way to survive the freeze was to wear two pairs of socks, leggings under my jeans, two camisoles and two thermal long-sleeved vests, a cashmere polo-neck and one scarf under my coat and another over. And even then, I had to get into bed fully clothed for two hours back in our vaguely warmed bedroom for two hours on our return.

Or was it just me? Has our blood thinned after too long in the tropics? I wished I’d put a hip flask in my luggage. That would have done the trick.

Despite the misery of feeling like an iceblock, the trip was simply fascinating. Not least because of the passion the Chinese have for visiting their vast, glorious monuments out of season but for the very fact that those monuments are vast and glorious. The scale of them has to be seen to be believed.

Tiananmen Square is several times larger than I could have imagined. It’s 109 acres and one of the five largest squares in the world.

Crowds in the Forbidden City
Crowds in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, with its acres of rough-hewn marble bridges, terracotta walls and blue, green and gold rooves, ceilings and fascias stretches a massive 180 acres. It has 980 buildings and is more than 500 years old.

But it was not until the Temple of Heaven that I fell in love. It seems the Chinese tend to be prescriptive and it is here in this sprawling garden with its painted covered walkways you are supposed to engage in ‘spontaneous singing’. And so they did. Clusters of folk singing everything from what sounded like Chinese opera to gospel, without training, led simply by someone who could keep time. It was here that senior citizens clipped cloth onto a bench, sat astride it and played cards or checkers. Some even brought their songbirds in cages along for the fun of it. A lithe chap, dressed in black with a  gold, jangly, skirt, belly-danced along to his stereo. Others did tai chi or qi gong. The energy of the place, this time covering almost 3 km of parkland, appears to make everyone who experiences it to burst into spontaneous smiling. Yes, even me, despite the cold.

Belly dancer at Temple of Heaven
Belly dancer at Temple of Heaven

And these three were seen in just one day. It’s an incredible place, packed with surprises on every corner and photo opportunities, from the apparent love of eating insipid corn on the cob like lollipops, to baked sweet potatoes, to the pop up stalls selling heaps of vegetables under flyovers. Oh and the bicycles.

Of course we visited the Great Wall of China, only this inclement weather forced us to choose between a foot of snow or dense fog. We chose fog. Even as a warm-up mechanism, climbing thousands of steps of uneven depth (some almost the height of my knee) was not quite as appealing as it would have been had we actually been able to see the view once we’d scaled a hill.

Jo, Pete, Sue, Ian at The Great Wall
Jo, Pete, Sue, Ian at The Great Wall

For me the pinnacle was not the wall, but the Summer Palace. Even on a chilly day, a day where weather had washed all colour from the sky leaving it like a monochrome, hand-tinted photograph, the experience was life-changing. Slightly larger than Temple of Heaven, three-quarters of which is water, the place has a magical, ethereal quality. To see such calm, such organized peace, trees as uniform as soldiers and landscaping as precise as a zen garden surrounding a lake of insurmountable beauty, was a gift for which I will forever be grateful. It was here that I forgot the cold for several hours and drank in the view.

Summer Palace Zen
Summer Palace Zen

Five days into our trip when we’d discovered the hotel’s Tempranillo to provide the best central heating we awoke to a surprising warmth. The government had relented and the heating had been switched on.



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