Images & Descriptions of a Winter's Day in Beijing

Written by Dec 12, 2007 00:05
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Image 1: Typical Tiananmen Square

On that late afternoon arrival in Beijing, there was no sign of it. I was glad to be back for my second visit in this city that covers an area greater than Belgium, yet whose downtown feels like the kind of place you wouldn’t mind getting familiar with. What gives Beijing this hometown feel, I can’t say for sure, perhaps it’s the grid like town planning that sees great thoroughfares stretching out from Tiananmen Square, or perhaps it’s the underground stations that work to the ebb and flow of hundreds of thousands of human feet.

Whatever the reason, on this mid-Spring Festival day, Beijing was her usual winter self: busy, grim-skied and very cold. Tiananmen Square, a place I always drift to on arrival, seemed greyer than ever: the vast square was the same colour as the sky and only the ever-present people added colour with their dashes of red scarf or blue hat.

Men in thick padded jackets held long streamers of kites that were tossed in the stiff breeze and the front gate’s architecture lay hidden behind a thick coat of scaffolding.

Image 2: Beijing Olympic Games Timekeeper

This was Beijing, as I knew her and as the evening drew the night around her shoulders, I took a last stroll around Tiananmen as the lights came on and the timekeeper proclaimed there were 915 days remaining till the Beijing Olympic Games.

The taxi driver and I had some trouble locating the street where my hostel lived. It turned out to be street much too narrow for taxis to enter: a skinny hutong, located off the cutely named Jiaozi Hutong. I was one of the only guests. I settled in to the welcome heat, grateful for the chipped cup and flask of boiling water that greeted me. Yes, this was Beijing.

Even when I closed the curtains on the night, the roofs and the skeletons of trees, there was still no sign of it; just a star or two twinkling knowingly over my sleep.

Image 3: Early Morning Hostel

I woke up the next morning and could feel it; the outside world muffled. Overnight someone had stolen Beijing and replaced it with a city I couldn’t recognise. A city surprised out of its old familiar grey and into something new and white and total.

The red lanterns and Chinese flag outside my hostel were startling as blood against the snow.

I was delighted. This was a dream I didn’t even know I’d had, come true.

The street was a black and white still photograph of reality. I ordered a plate of steaming jiaozi for my breakfast from a hole-in-the-hutong that masqueraded as an eatery. I poured a generous helping of brown vinegar into my little bowl, added some garlic and gobbled them hungrily.

Image 4: A Beijing Street

Beijing seemed to have been caught off guard by this silent intruder. The snow continued to fall inexorably and it was the thick, feathery snow that sticks. The roads, usually invisible beneath cars and buses were now invisible beneath snow.

The odd car that attempted the streets left its tracks like some wild animal, its headlights the startled eyes of one caught out of place and struggling.

The trees welcomed the snow on their empty trunks and became ghostly figures hunched over the road with latticeworks of branches snarling into fairytale archways.

This was Beijing as I had never seen her before, quiet as a mouse and lifeless as the frozen expanses of Siberia somewhere far to her North. I trudged her empty streets and felt I was walking on the moon.

Image 5: An Empty Park

I’d planned to go to the Forbidden City, but the snow reminded me that we are not always in control of our destinies. This place was a million miles away from the Beijing I’d arrived in yesterday and all it had taken fate was a few hours of white stuff falling from the sky to execute. How clever she is!

The parks that edge the Forbidden City were empty, save for the willows whose branches dripped like fine black rain into the narrow channel of water that runs through their centre.

The leaves of various plants knifed through the snow and the forms of ground-covering conifers seemed to bunch together in an effort to keep out the cold.

Still the snow fell, as though determined to drain this world of warmth and colour.

Image 6: The Forbidden City Versus the Snow

Out of the blizzard, against the spectre of snow, stood the Forbidden City. Although, even its famous red walls paled under a layer of fluffy white, slowly but surely being wrapped up in cotton wool.

The huge portrait of Mao Zedong remained aloof and ethereal as this white host started to engulf the guards that stood to attention beneath him . They, to their credit, were as stiff as waxworks, apparently unfeeling of the snow that piled up on their shoulders.

Hundreds of people still thronged the area, puffed up with winter jackets and barely recognisable as human beneath hats and scarves and gloves.

At the entrance a group of uniformed soldiers waged what was obviously a losing battle against the snow. With rank and file precision they pitted their shovels against the drifts...backwards and forwards they marched and shovelled and marched and shovelled...

Image 7: The Chinese Flag

I knew I would see nothing of the Forbidden City in such weather and found myself growing colder with every minute. I moved my chilly feet up a gear and stamped over to Tiananmen to see how the square was facing up to the deluge.

The red flag with the five gold stars that has flown here every day since October 1st 1949 didn’t disappoint and flapped defiantly in the wind. Its zealous guardians, two unfortunate soldiers, must surely have been numb with cold as they stood motionless on their stone platforms.

The flagpole looked so fragile, as though someone had drawn a pencil line from the ground into the sky.

Image 8: The Frozen Police Car

And what of Beijing’s police officers that wintry morning? I found them on Tiananmen Square sat as snug as bugs in their smart Hyundai with its tinted glass.

I wondered if the car would ever move again. Like the flag and the soldiers it seemed to have been frozen into the landscape. Icicles, where the snow had melted and dripped, hung from the front bumpers. The standard, and usually blaring, red and blue lights were covered with a layer of snow and the car’s invisible occupants flicked the windscreen wipers every so often to clear the freshly fallen flakes.

A few more hours and I imagined the car would disappear under the snow, lost forever.

Image 9: The Star of the Show: A Snowman

Someone had a sense of humour that day. A child perhaps, or visitors from somewhere who, hoping to leave their small mark on the grand history of Tiananmen Square, had taken the snow and made something of it.

There – in the shade of the tough exterior of the Forbidden City, the statue-still soldiers, the spindly flagpole with its fiery red flag, the silent police and the 440,000 paved square metres of this world famous centre of the Capital of the People’s Republic of China – was a snowman.

A little portly in stature and with features that were probably pilfered from a nearby litterbin, this humble and humorous snowman stole the show.

Image 10: A Family of Three

It was only mid-day but I already felt as though my gloved fingers had turned to stone and my feet had frozen inside my two pairs of socks and heavy boots.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the insidious cold and wet were beginning to seep through all my layers of defence. My eagerness at the novelty of snow was soon superseded by the necessity of getting myself somewhere warm and dry to thaw out for a while.

I made my way down Tiananmen Square and felt so lucky to have experienced this day. The wintry-wonderland version of Beijing imprinted itself in my mind forever. I knew I would never forget it as I followed the hurried bundles of padded clothes that represented a family of three, taken by their humble human figures resisting the elements, back to warmth and civilisation.

 More Beijing Travel Reviews
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3. <a>Beijing: A Weekend Whirlwind ICTHUS17 from US Jan 31, 2007 12:01
Comments (3)


Dec 21, 2007 03:05 Reply


A splendid picture! I am
green with envy of your experience. How beautiful the wintry version of Tian'anmen square! Thanks!


Dec 13, 2007 23:54 Reply

GHOST said:

Well written, LemonCactus!

You caught a lot of feeling in your writing! Thank you. It made me wish I was there experiencing it with you.


Dec 12, 2007 17:58 Reply


nice article and pictures. i feel cold just reading it!! it takes a while to thaw out after getting so chilled outside.

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