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Old places offer new perspectives

By Michael Rhys Card | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-19 10:21
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Ridge beasts on a temple roof at Beihai Park in Beijing. MICHAEL RHYS CARD/CHINA DAILY

With the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and increased restrictions in Beijing, this year's May Day holiday didn't offer the usual opportunities for travel that it generally would. But, not to be deterred, I took the chance to (safely) head back to some of my favorite spots that remained open, and perhaps, because of the controls in place, I was able to explore them in greater detail and reevaluate them from a fresh point of view.

First on the list was Beihai Park, a place I've visited many times in all seasons. Rather than heading straight to the park's most popular site, the White Pagoda, I explored some of the temples and palaces to the south of the prominent landmark.

Without the mass of crowds constantly forcing me forward, I felt much less pressure to move from place to place. I was able to take my time and focus more on the incredibly complex details that went into the construction of these buildings, in particular the intricate mythical creatures, or ridge beasts, perched on the corners of the glazed tile roofs.

Michael Rhys Card

The size and amount of these creatures played multiple roles for buildings in the past, both representing its significance-the greater the number of creatures, the more important it was, with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, unsurprisingly, having the highest headcount-while also acting as protection from demons and helping to prevent fire.

Though these creations follow a general aesthetic style, the colors and designs on display at the park have a unique flavor to them that I may not have had the time, space or patience to appreciate on busier days, making it an extraordinary experience at such a well-known spot.

My second destination was Jingshan Park, which offers one of my favorite viewpoints in the city, especially at sunset.

After taking my usual route to Wanchun Pavilion at the top of the hill, I decided to check out the gardens at the north of the park. While wandering among the flowers, watching a clowder of vagrant cats and a group of elderly visitors intently photographing the spring blossoms, I found that the temple complex in the north of the park had been reopened and I was exploring freely alongside only a handful of other visitors.

The area itself was not unlike countless other temples in the city, but being there with so few people, I couldn't help but feel that this is how it would have been experienced by the royals who had it built.

The relaxed setting also gave me the time to stop and talk to an elderly local photographer, who was more than happy to show me some of his work, which he publishes under his online name of Lao Xuesheng, or "old student". We talked about our favorite spots in the city to photograph and he told me a little about his life. Again I felt that, in more ordinary times, I wouldn't have had the chance to explore and appreciate the park in this way.

These are unprecedented times and, first and foremost, caution is needed, but, as with any situation, there are silver linings if you look hard enough. Visiting these iconic locations at such a time provides a very different experience-you learn more about the places and see things you would otherwise overlook. These parks are packed with amazing features and pieces of culture and history that are not initially obvious. By making the most of the current situation, I've been able to appreciate these sites even more and realize that, after three years of living here, I still know so little about them.

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