Beijing's Winter of Content




Travel writers often speak disparagingly of winters in Beijing, when cold, dry winds blow out of Siberia and Mongolia to the northwest, laying a gentle layer of sand and black coal dust almost everywhere.  And it cannot be denied that the spring and fall, when the air is crisp and clean, are the best seasons for exploring the city's narrow alleyways and traditional parks. 

But close your eyes for a moment and imagine the following scenes. Snow lying on the slanted golden roofs of the Forbidden City, frost blanketing the rustic grounds of the Confucius Temple. A team of horses straining in the cold winter air to pull a wagon load of logs down city streets amid a steady stream of taxis and bicycles. The warming sight of steam rising from street-side breakfast stalls in the early morning hours, as people brave the winds for a hot bowl of soybean milk before heading off for work.

Consider, for example, the regular group of swimmers at Shichahai Lake, just north of Beihai Park. Undeterred by the cold, they continue their daily dip into the icy lake in the winter as a crowd of fellow Beijingers watch incredulously.  Nearby, fishermen chop circles in the ice, throw in their lines and wait patiently for the fish to bite.

The city's avid ballroom dancers, who take to the parks, or just about any open space, in the early morning hours, are still here cutting up the pavement on the pavement on the coldest of winter days. Oblivious to the biting winds snapping and roaring around their legs, their attention is riveted on the complicated movements of the tango or the for-trot. In the playgrounds, toddlers are bundled up in so many layers of clothing that they find it difficult to move their little arms, which are extended straight out to the sides, or to even bend over. Their one consolation for movement in this freezing weather is the kaidangku, or slit-seat pants--to facilitate toilet training--from which their small, red, chaffed bottoms protrude. Throughout the day, elderly men, bundled up in heavy cotton-padded overcoats, and with woolen caps pulled down tightly over their heads, can be seen walking in the parks, swinging cloth-covered bamboo cages. This is ostensibly to give the caged birds exercise as they cling tightly to their narrow perches. It is also why it is often said that China is probably the only place in the world where people walk their birds and eat their dogs. A popular winter dish, euphemistically called "fragrant meat," dog meat is said to prevent winter illnesses. In the open-air markets near Ritan Park, fur-clad Russian and Mongolian buyers haggle for down winter coats and other items to be shipped back home. The deal clinched, they climb on the back of open-air bicycle carts, wrap their arms around themselves to keep warm, and transport their goods back to the hotel.

At the Summer Palace to the north, skaters glide across the huge expanse of Kunming Lake, surrounded by mountains and temple roofs glistening in the morning sun. To the far side is 17-Arch Bridge, and on the other sits the famous Marble Boat, built by the Empress Dowager in the Qing Dynasty, seemingly stuck in the ice. The not-infrequent "ping" heard coming from the ice is a bit unsettling, and makes one wonder, perhaps a bit too late, if it's safe to skate here. There is an air of excitement as Beihai Park opens for the evening session of ice-skating. Brightly colored Christmas lights strung across trees surrounding the lake give it a festive appearance, while the park's White Dagoba stands out from the darkness, bathed in rays of electric white light. The lake is a microcosm of the city's busy streets, as skaters (emulating the city's taxi drivers?) throw caution to the winds and move in all directions. Speed skaters whiz past, throwing up a spray of shaved ice into the faces of unsteady novices. While most of the skaters move in a counterclockwise direction, a small number of rebels seem to take joy in moving in the opposite direction, or just cutting straight across the center of the ice. Figure skaters do spins in the center of the lake, while hockey players send pucks flying dangerously into the air. Small children sit on bingche, or ice chairs--a small wooden slat attached to two metal runners--as they are pushed across the ice by doting grandfathers. In the Qing Dynasty, members of the imperial family would come to this same lake, where ice sledding was one of their favorite pastimes. The notorious Empress Dowager Cixi would take a spin on what was called an ice bed, a long rectangular board with blades attached to the bottom. As the empress was pulled around the lake she would enjoy watching people play a game similar to ice hockey as fire works exploded over the frozen lake.

As soon as dinner is over, elderly grandmothers, who have been at home all day caring for the grandchildren, head out of the house to practice the Yangko, a traditional northern Chinese folk dance that has made a comeback in the capital in recent years. The sound of beating drums and gongs that accompanies the dance penetrates the freezing air during winter evenings, no doubt making those sitting in warm houses wonder what drives people out on such a cold night.

Chinese New Year temple fairs are another important part of the winter scene in Beijing. On the first day of the New Year holiday, which runs for several days, sellers at Longtan Park set up stalls offering a wide variety of traditional Beijing snacks and toys. There are folk performances, lanterns, and riddle guessing contests for the kids. Despite the cold, the park is so packed with people, pedestrian traffic slows down to a snail's pace.

Talk to the average Beijing resident about their memories of winters past and you'll find that recollections of Beijing winters differ little from those elsewhere. "It snowed a lot more when I was younger," says De Zhiming, a Beijing theater worker, echoing a dubious complaint that has probably been heard around the world for centuries. "My family lived in a courtyard house," she recalls sentimentally, "and when it snowed, the air seemed so clear." De, the granddaughter of a former Manchu official who served the Qing Dynasty, also recalls making xue rer, or snowmen, sliding in the snow with her feet, and having snowball fights with her friends.

Ask a local resident what other fond memories he or she has of winter, and the conversation will invariably turn to food. No one who has visited the city in the winter can forget the piles of cabbage lining the streets and stored along slanted rooftops of traditional houses, a reminder of years past when the city's fresh markets had little variety, and cabbage was the main winter fare. With economic growth the traditional mountains of cabbage are slowly getting smaller. "As soon as you see the cabbage on the street, you know winter is here," says Li Xiaojun, a Beijing taxi driver. "In the past there were few fresh vegetables available in the winter, and cabbage was all we had," she says. "Now living conditions are much better and you can get a lot of fresh vegetables. We eat a lot less cabbage now."

In the early morning hours Beijingers--hugging themselves to keep warm--hunker down for a hardy breakfast of hot soybean milk, fried doughsticks, steamed breads and baozi, or steamed buns stuffed to bursting with meat and vegetables. In the night markets, vendors serve up hot noodle soup, eight-treasures porridge and roasted meats. During the day, one can snack on a variety of foods served up by itinerant food sellers. One Beijing favorite is sweet potatoes. The sweet-potato man has turned his bicycle into a restaurant on the go. A used oil drum, balanced between he two rear wheels, serves as a baking unit. small cakes of coal are fed into an opening at the bottom of the drum, which roasts the sweet potatoes strung around the top rim.
Another popular winter treat is the candied haw. As many as nine pieces of this small red fruit, which resemble miniature apples, are strung on a small wooden stick, and then dipped into a boiling candy liquid. "The colder the weather, the crisper the candy coating," says Li.

Some of the fondest memories are of intimate meals spent with friends and family sitting around a steaming hot pot dinner on a cold winter evening. Tables are piled high with dishes of thin-sliced frozen mutton, bean curd, cellophane noodles, and cabbage. Diners place these into the broth, heated by a charcoal-burning brass pot with a chimney. Another popular winter dish is roast mutton. Friends gather around a special barbecue stove placed on the table, cooking thin slices of mutton. A book on favorite foods of the Ming Court poetically described a nostalgic scene from ancient times: "At snowfall, plum flowers are viewed; roast mutton is eaten in warm rooms."

A favorite place to enjoy a winter mealis in one of the many restaurants that line Beijing's rear lake area, where one can enjoy dinner while looking out over the moon-reflected lake. After finishing your meal, take a stroll around the icy lake before retreating to one of the many nearby coffee shops or bars. Order a drink and pull up a chair beside the coal-burning stove to enjoy the warmth with friends as you watch the crowds of Chinese outside rushing home at the end of a cold winter day.

The spring and fall may be the best times to visit Beijing. But, if you've not spent a winter's day in the former imperial city, you've missed a special experience. 




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© 2013 Paul J. Mooney