November 2013 – Constant media attention on the horrendous state of Beijing’s air quality tends to overshadow the positive aspects of life in China’s capital city. Intensely cold temperatures and stifling air pollution give Beijing residents every reason to stay home and hibernate during the long winter months. Instead, a lively outdoor urban culture springs to life.
The nearly arctic winter temperatures thoroughly freeze Beijing’s numerous lakes and ponds, making them perfect public arenas for ice staking and sledding. Crowds form around the vendors that rent chair-like sleds and bicycle-sled hybrids to eager skaters. Smiles and laughs are as common as the massive sled trains that spontaneously emerge from the mass of cheerful sledders.
Complementing the vast open spaces of Beijing’s lakes and ponds are the city’s numerous parks and palaces. The iconic Chinese imagery admired around the world can be found in Beijing’s historic parks and palaces which retain their beauty even in the depths of winter. From the crowded walkways of The Forbidden City to the less travelled paths of Beijing’s more unknown parks and palaces, trail wanderers will encounter the time-honored ambience and classic styles we might expect from open spaces rooted in Chinese tradition.
Hutongs are the historic alleyways and buildings of the traditional northern Chinese neighborhood. Unfortunately, without the protection of proper preservation policies, the majority of hutongs in Beijing have fallen victim to the rapid growth of China’s enormous economic expansion. Under constant threat of demolition, a few famous hutong districts still exist in the heart of Beijing where a thriving shopping and social scene unfolds. Trendy shops and modern designs blend with traditional Chinese architecture in the narrow hutong alleyways that force people together and contribute to the electric atmosphere on the street.
The 798 Art Zone is Beijing’s famous post-industrial art district. A collection of chic cafés, shops and bookstores accompany the various indoor and outdoor galleries. The post-industrial landscape itself is transformed into an open canvas for the work of local artists and becomes a shared space for social activity. The creative energy of the 798 Art Zone is augmented by the 751 D●PARK which is a second redeveloped industrial space designed for fashion and performance. The two art districts get their names from their past lives as factories in an electric power company. Design has replaced coal as the primary commodity in these two art spaces which provide Beijing residents with a stylish and engaging hangout.
Colorful descriptions of Beijing’s outdoor urban culture shouldn’t undermine the fact that millions of Chinese must cope with the harsh realities of a polluted environment. China’s environmental crisis may be due in part by a lack of solid environmental policy and in part by the current structure of the global economy, but nonetheless, it reflects the grim reality of the unhealthy relationship humans have with nature. This is most clearly witnessed in China which bears a disproportionately large percentage of the burden caused by our global environmental crisis. Beijing’s lively outdoor winter culture represents the resilience of the human spirit but it also demonstrates the deep disconnection our human civilization shares with the earth.