Blossoming Beijing

Friday, 27 March 2009

Spring has sprung! and Beijing is polishing its wares in preparation for August’s 2008 Olympic Games. There has never been a better time to reacquaint your family with the city before the summer heat sets in and hoards of tourists arrive, writes Tania McCartney

Beijing is changing.

The skyline has completely readjusted itself – real estate is booming, shopping malls are multiplying and Olympic venues have unfolded like a child’s pop-up book. Despite the grey skies, there are new and improved flowers, shiny plants and bright, modern sculptures jutting out of canals. The restaurant scene is becoming even more international and the thriving arts scene is being whispered about from Sydney to Stockholm. It’s a glorious time to be living in Beijing, and if you’ve been smothered in the daily grind, now is the time to get the family outdoors and feel the new buzz around the capital.

Standing near the Bird’s Nest is virtually impossible to do with your mouth closed. The National Stadium is getting used to the slack-jawed populace, gawping at its awesome architectural façade. This massive steel nest was, not surprisingly, inspired by the interwoven twigs of a bird’s nest and its twiggy walls are stuffed with transparent plastic cushions which filter light and change colour. The neighbouring Water Cube, or National Aquatic Centre, is another architectural feat that’s stunning on the eye. This massive structure was actually inspired by the formation of soap bubbles and is also insulated with pneumatic cushions.

If trying to get a closer look all Beijing’s Olympic venues wears you out, Beijing’s parks are currently caught in spring fever. The whole family will love blossom-viewing, kite-flying and the regular, line-up of locals playing mahjong and dancing with ribbons or racing crickets. Kids may even be sketched by a calligraphy expert, wielding a giant brush and using only water and the cement as her paint and canvas.

Now is the time to get the family outdoors and feel the new buzz around the capital / China is studded with innumerable historical sites – and Beijing embraces the lion’s share, including that little something they call The Great Wall

All Beijing parks are beautiful – their gates, pavilions, ponds and altars take the breath away, but kids will especially love the play areas in virtually every park, complete with sporting facilities and a series of carnival rides taken straight out of a 1950s kids’ adventure novel. The rides only cost a few extra yuan and make for a fun family day out.

Chaoyang Park probably has the largest collection of kiddie-kitsch rides and lots of boating options on the lake. There are sporting facilities galore and don’t miss a visit to Sony ExploraScience. Yuyuantan Park is also huge and has two play areas and an enormous lake. This is an ideal spot for picnicking while the kids run around under the falling blossoms.

If you don’t do picnics, Ritan Park has a cache of nearby restaurants – some backing right onto the park. Catch goldfish in the pond, jump on the bouncy castle and then have lunch nearby or stop in the park’s pretty, shaded tea garden. In April and May, Ditan Park coats itself in thousands of peonies near the east gate, and as the weather warms up, a real carnival atmosphere saturates the park with a myriad of fairground games.

For more spring wandering, gasp a breath of fresh air in the magnificent Fragrant Hills at the foot of the Western Hills. The beautiful Azure Clouds Temple and chairlift to Incense Burner Peak offer wonderful views. The nearby Beijing Botanical Gardens will give you a real blossom fix, with acres of fairytale blooms, including magnolia, crab apple and ornamental peach gardens.

If you are all blossomed-out and crave something longer-lasting, Beijing delivers. With its 5000-year-old, deeply cultural history, China is studded with innumerable historical sites – and Beijing embraces the lion’s share, including that little something they call The Great Wall. You don’t, however, have to be a Chinese scholar to enjoy the history-soaked treasures of the capital.

This may be a relatively grey city, but the myriad of green oases offer the illusion that you’re somewhere far more exotic

Pink walls, massive copper urns and a series of ancient palace-like halls make the achingly historic Forbidden City (Gu Gong) the perfect spot for little Emperors – or even the odd Disney Princess. If you start at the beautiful Jingshan Park just north of Gu Gong first, the kids can skip happily amongst the fan dancers and the throngs of elderly Beijingren, clapping and chanting songs from the Cultural Revolution.

After Jingshan, enter Gu Gong by its quieter northern gate and you’ll be greeted by the surreal and very pretty Imperial Garden, where you could easily imagine concubines toting baskets of pomelos across the courtyards. As you head south from the Inner Court to the Outer Court, the kids can rub their hands on the red doors bearing the Emperor’s name for luck. On the Gate of Supreme Harmony, you may just see an “Emperor” waving imperially to the crowds below.

With large, leafy gardens and long, flag-studded walkways, the very spiritual Temple of Heaven is a Beijing must-see at this time of year. The Heaven’s Heart stone on the Circular Mound Altar is where people stand to face the sun, their hands pinned to their chests in prayer. The kids will love the Three Echo Stones where they can hear their own voice echoed once, twice or three times, depending on which stone they’re standing on. At the circular Echo Wall, they can send whispers around it and hear each other 65 meters away!

Afterwards, visit the Natural Science Museum or go shopping at Hongqiao market’s toy store for some kites to float on the spring breeze.

Springtime is also perfect for exploring the myriad of pavilions, temples and halls of The Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan), including the 728-meter Long Corridor once strolled by Empress Dowager Cixi and the famed Marble Boat, sitting heavily in Kunming Lake. Suzhou Market Street, with its water-front streets and traditional shops, is well worth some serious exploring. There are no barricades to prevent kids leaping into the waterways, so keep a tight hold on little Emperors. Take a boat on Kunming Lake and roam through the halls on Longevity Hill – there are petrified forests for the kids to get lost in and wonderful views over the parklands.

A fitting end to a springtime family tour of Beijing would have to be The Wall. Forget Badaling – the only place to see The Great Wall is at Mutianyu, about one hour from town via the Jingcheng Expressway. The trip features a meandering drive into the hills passing restaurants and fishing ponds, to a quaint, beautifully restored part of the Wall, that’s rarely too busy. The biggest drawcard for kids and adults alike, is the super-slick toboggan ride, snaking in a silver ribbon down the hillside. So cool, you’ll want to pay the entry fee twice.

Springtime perfection.

First published in Little Star magazine.

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