“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
I landed in China in January. It was a New Year. I had new hopes, new dreams. I was on a new adventure. China was this wide new world, waiting for me to see whatever I could see. The problem was that it was cold. Did I say cold? I mean frigid. Did I say frigid? I mean FROZEN! I had landed in Beijing expecting a winter, but what awaited me outside was a polar region that had somehow developed over a metropolitan city. The temperatures were the lowest I ever remember experiencing for any period of time. For a little longer than a month, the average temperature was about 0F°. The high during the month of January was 12F° and it got down to a staggering -22F°. All of this was before the wind chill! It did not snow very often, however, only a few times – maybe a total of four separate times in January. The wind was terrible at times, though. There were times of constant wind, and gusts could reach 50-60mph. It felt COLD. It was so cold that many establishments had low smoke coal stoves to warm their guests, as the normal heating was just not enough to heat a business.
Regardless of these nasty weather conditions, Cassey (my wife) and I managed to view the city that was new to both of us. The first places we managed to explore were Beihai Park (The White Pagoda) and Jingshan Park (The Beijing Mountain). These were both very cool places to visit. These were not places that were popular to foreigners. In fact, few people in general showed, due to the cold weather and wind. Beihai was a Buddhist temple built above the Forbidden City. It was the temple that the emperor would sometimes visit to pray for the empire. Jingshan Park was a peaceful place, also overlooking the Forbidden City, that was for the emperor to think peacefully and write poetry.
We climbed to the top of Beihai, which was a tall hill with the temple on top. It was very beautiful – you could almost see the entire city of Beijing from the top. The temple was split into different layers, each layer at a different height up the hill. Each place had a place for prayers and incense. Prayers could be written on small wooden prayer tokens and placed at any of the tiers. At the top, there was a café. Cassey and I had hot cocoa and sausages. Jingshan was a beautiful park, even in the terrible winter. There were frozen lakes covered in snow, temples, and pagodas throughout the park. There were also several tall hills. One was the tallest point inside of Beijing. We yet again climbed up in the icy cold wind to see our new city.
Cassey and I tried several times to enter the Forbidden City, only to learn there was a reason it was called forbidden. Instead, we visited the Lama Temple and the Burial Palace during that time. The Lama Temple was where the Dali Lama, the head of the Lama Buddhism, comes to pray and meditate. It was a very interesting place to visit. Of course the Lama himself was not there when we went, but there were thousands of people braving the cold to say their prayers and offer incense. The temple also had prayer wheels, which were cylinders with prayers carved into them. It was said that if you spin the wheel, you were praying whatever prayer was written on the cylinder.
The Burial Palace was the palace adjacent to the Forbidden City. It was where the emperors and empresses went to be prepared to die. It was also a place where the emperor could gain wisdom from past emperors. There were several gardens and ponds, rock formations and buildings. Most of the garden and water areas were frozen, but it was a beautiful visit nonetheless.
Cassey and I also saw Houhai, a large lake, and Wangfujing Hutong, an alleyway with many shops and stands selling foods and trinkets. Houhai had many hutongs (alleys) that went off to different sides. The lake itself was frozen very solid. In fact, many people – adults and children alike – enjoyed various games, sports, and activities on the ice. It was quite fun to be out on the ice, watching people skate and play. The hutong in Wangfujing was amazing. There were so many different foods and small things to buy. I quite enjoyed myself with all the new food to try.
Eventually, Cassey and I were able to go to the Forbidden City. I got to see it the way few people – Chinese or foreigners – get to see it. There were hardly any people in the Forbidden City when we went. I was able to take pictures of everything, even the empty roads and alleys within the city. All of the museums inside the buildings were easily accessed, and the windows used to view the preserved interior were not crowded. I was told that is a rare thing in China, especially in Beijing. Either way, I enjoyed my time where only royalty walked in the ancient times. The rivers in the city were frozen, as were the statues throughout the city. It was an amazing view, though, and I was glad I had a chance to see it.