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Photo Essay: The Carnival Ice Wonderland of Beijing’s Beihai Lake

Imagine sitting on a miniature sled and gliding around a frozen lake, propelling yourself with two metal spikes, whizzing between small children on ice bicycles and tiny ice gondolas. 
For a child of the subtropics like myself, frozen lakes and rivers are a fantastic spectacle, so on this trip to Beijing there was only one place I wanted to see: the frozen wonderland of Beihai Lake, where for an hour or an afternoon you can glide around the ice on a chair on skates, Chinese style of course. 

Beijing can be a brutal place in winter – bitingly cold, densely polluted, shuttered and closed against the chill – but on the right day, it can also be stunningly beautiful. Out on the ice, surrounded by the madness and colour of hundreds of children on oversized cartoon character sleds and overshadowed by a gorgeous temple stupa, it’s as good as it gets.

Beihai – Details
Ice sledding is available every day through winter at Beihai (Wenjin Jie entrance), not far from the back of the Forbidden City. 
Ice sleds start at 40 yuan for hire, for an hour or a whole day – basically as long as you can stand in the sub-zero temperatures (about an hour for most people).

Nan Shan 南山: Skiing Chinese Style

Skiing? In China?
Is that a thing?
It’s not the reason most people visit China, for certain. 
And as for the participation of the local population, I’d heard Chinese people approach skiing much the same way they approach, say, hot air ballooning. That is, you plan to do it once in your life so you can boast about it to friends, and you take millions of pictures of yourself doing it so you can post them on Weibo and say – oh yeah, this is me hot air ballooning. 
Young Chinese woman takes a classic ski selfie: note pouted lips, absence of actual skis.
I’d heard Chinese ski resorts were struggling because nobody stuck around for long enough to actually learn to ski, rather, they took a lot of photos of themselves in ski outfits at the snow, had one or two disastrous runs on the beginner slope, had some pot noodles and went home. It being all about the experience, rather than the development of long term skill that would guarantee repeated business winter after winter for the ski resorts.
Well, turns out that’s all rubbish.
From what I can see skiing and snowboarding are hot in China, and growing hotter by the minute.
We spent all of this last week skiing at Nan Shan Ski Village, about 75km north of Beijing, where I learned a few surprising things about the Chinese ski industry:
1. It’s Cheap
I must say I did wonder what kind of ski experience I was going to get for $25 a day. I imagined dodgy rope tows, creaking rusted lifts and people skiing in jeans.
Here’s what we actually got for $25 a day: 
Airconditioned shuttle bus to and from our hotel in Beijing
Ski hire and lift pass
Thirteen runs: Seven green, five blue, one black
$25 would buy me about 45 minutes’ ski time back home, and the prohibitive cost means we ski way less than we would like. Welcome to Ski China. It’s affordable.
2. It’s Well Run
The slopes are groomed, the lifts run like clockwork, and the ski hire shop is a well-oiled machine.
There is close attention to safety, and the longest time I spent queueing for a lift was five minutes. Impressive.
3. There’s Something for Everyone
Snowboard slope: beginners
Although it’s not a resort where advanced skiers might enjoy spending an entire week, Nan Shan has enough variety and complexity for everyone for several days. There’s a long steep black run, a snowboard park, mogul fields of varying levels of difficulty, beginner slopes aplenty (separated for skiers, kids and snowboarders – brilliant idea), a kids’ playground and two toboggan runs, one of which is actually a high-speed luge that starts on the mountaintop.
Snowboard slope: advanced
Flying Saucer Toboggan Run: super icy spin.

4. The Food is Great
Spicy noodles. Bibimbap. Hamburgers. Hot chocolate. And my personal favourite: fragrant lamb kebabs yang rou chuanr cooked on the outside grill overlooking the slopes.
Canada Ski Cafe – burgers, fries, sandwiches, hot chocolate, passable coffee.

Which is not to say there aren’t some classic Chinese moments on the slopes: the guy who stopped in the middle of a narrow run to take a business call on his smartphone; the Chinese princess who lost the plot close to the top of one of the slopes dissolutely kicked her skis and beanie down the mountain, sobbing loudly and dramatically. When someone on a passing lift called gave her grief the sobbing immediately gave way to a torrent of high octane abuse.
Or the messages over the loudspeakers:
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is waiting for you.” 
Half an hour later: 
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is still waiting for you”
Later still:
“Child Wang, Child Wang. Your mother is getting very angry. Return to the Ski Cafe at once!
Child Wang wasn’t having a bar of it. He had discovered the joy of skiing.
Nan Shan Ski: Details
A daily shuttle bus service leaves the San Yuan Qiao and Wudaokou areas in Beijing
40 yuan pp return
Departs 0830 daily
Returns 1630, 1700, 1730 daily
Pre-book seats the day prior by calling or texting 010 8909 1909
Ski hire and lifts: 
Weekdays 155 yuan full day (advance booking – call or text 010 8909 1909 the day before to reserve)
Weekends 255 yuan full day
Weekdays 260 yuan full day (purchase on arrival)
Weekends 390 yuan full day
On snow accommodation is available at the Shirton Inn (580 yuan per night, standard double) or in a six-bedroom Norwegian Villa (4880 yuan per night).
Many people opt to stay in Beijing and travel to Nan Shan each day. The San Yuan Qiao area has a Novotel, an Ibis Hotel, and Oak Chateau apartments nearby.
Ski Clothing:
Ski and snowboard clothing (including goggles, helmets and gloves) can be hired at Nan Shan. There are several snow gear shops on site but be warned – they carry only expensive European and Canadian/American brands.
Decathlon sports store has several outlets in Beijing with a  wide range of ski and snow board clothing, helmets and goggles.

Living in the Shadow of the Great Wall

There’s nothing less than awesome about the Great Wall. Its size, its scale, its sheer magnificent impressiveness. I love the way the wall ribbons over the crest of the hills, anchored at intervals by stout square signal towers, and winds into the distance. You could walk along it forever and never tire of the view. 
The last time I saw the wall was at the end of a long winter, the trees bare and the ground still dry and barren. Not a leaf of green broke through the pale wintery landscape, but here and there fragile white peach blossoms were beginning to show, and as we walked through the orchards it began to snow softly. It was quite magical.
Last weekend I visited for the second time, just as a heatwave gripped Beijing. The temperature soared to forty degrees and Beijing’s sidewalks shimmered with radiating heat as tourists, red-faced and sweating, stood fanning themselves with the free hotel pamphlets given out by fast-moving hotel touts. Men with boxes of icypoles roved through the crowds at Tianamen Square, calling their wares “Iced treats! One kuai! One kuai! One kuai!” Moving even short distances led to rivers of sweat and mountains of bad temper. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and up into the hills, and the Wall.
Driving from Beijing north to the village of Mutianyu the most noticeable difference was the blanket of green. Full birch trees lined the road and by tiny rivers stands of weeping willow drooped green to the ground. Fruit orchards spread in every direction, the road punctuated by umbrella-covered stalls selling gold peaches, ruby plums, garnet cherries and plump orange apricots laid out in appealing baskets and wooden boxes. I’d entered a brilliant cornucopia of fertile verdant farmland.
Then the Wall. It rises above the village of Mutianyu, now one of the most popular sites from which to visit the wall, and a short walk brings you to the chairlifts lifting you effortlessly and conveniently up onto the wall itself. In the height of summer the hillsides are covered in a thick foliage which creeps right up to the wall itself, obscuring parts of it from view.
I love that Great Wall. The broad, hot stone path along the top. The cool, dark sanctuary of the heavy-stoned signal towers. That feeling of living history. The human sacrfice endured to build it. All that it symbolises, both good and bad. I culd walk along it for days, sleep on it under the stars, and marvel at it endlessly.
But the oppressive and intense heat and the crowds finally overcame my desire to hang out on top of the Wall all afternoon, so we came down to stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Bei Gou. 
Bei Gou sits below Signal Tower Number Eighteen on the Mutianyu stretch of the Wall. At that point the green hills give way to sheer-sided rocky mountains with the Wall gripping improbably to the highest jagged edge of the ridge. On the north side of the signal tower the steep treeless slope broadens out just below the tree line into the green valley housing Bei Gou.
The hills above the village are covered with stands of chestnut trees bursting with bunches of pale yellow pipecleaner flowers on the tips of their branches. The village’s homes number less than fifty, built with local stone and red brick, and roofed in traditional curved black terracotta tiles. The low, simple houses face south to catch the winter sun and are fronted by fertile vegetable gardens full of corn and beans, shaded by peach and apricot trees.
That night I fell asleep to the sound of crickets, and dogs barking in the next valley, and the sweet warm smell of the end of a hot day. Early next morning I took a walk through the village. I wondered what it must be like to live always under the shadow of that iconic wall, to see it high on the hill each day, and to be just far enough away from the main tourist drag to have to continue farming for a living. It must be like living in the shadows in more ways than one.
At the top of the village a big old gnarled walnut tree, bursting with green leaf and already laden with the smooth round green pods in which the walnuts are growing, shades the path. I stopped to talk to a farmer resting under its branches who told me many of the young people have left the village for work elsewhere, and only old people and very small children remain. This seems true as I wander further through the village – there is a school without children, and only a few elderly people sitting near the lone store playing cards and chatting. I ask the farmer if he ever makes the climb up to the signal tower. “What? No, it’s too far, more than an hour’s hard uphill walk, and what for?”

I walk from the walnut tree down to the store, a delightfully ramshackle affair with a curtain for a door and a haphazard system of stock display. Packets of crackers spill from boxes on the floor and bottles of shampoo line up next to the soy sauce and vinegar. When I ask for water the owner, a woman in her sixties, tells me to take a bottle out of the chest freezer near the door. Anticipating a long cold drink I open the lid to find the freezer hasn’t been turned on and the water is the same temperature as the jars of blackbean paste it sits amongst. Warm.
Outside, several card games are being intensely fought and those who aren’t playing are watching and commenting on every move. They’re all pretty lively for a bunch of elderly farmers, but I suddenly realize that other than my own children I’m the youngest person in the village by a long way. Where are all the young people, and the children? 
I hope they’re all at work, or perhaps at school in a bigger town nearby. Perhaps. Or perhaps the farmer was right and Bei Gou, like so many villages in rural China, has been bled of its young folk, seeking fortune in the cities. Still, those remaining seem to be having a terrific time gossiping and playing.

I stopped to chat to this lovely eighty year old, who was just sending a text message to a friend. Perhaps to invite her down to the store for a game of cards?
Not wanting to be overly nostalgic about the tough life that farming offers, there are some encouraging signs that Bei Gou’s prospects are on the rise. The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu has restored several homes for holiday rentals, and has expanded their Brickyard Inn at the entrance to the village. The village roads look recently tarred, and there is fresh construction happening here and there. So perhaps the shadow of the Great Wall will eventually shorten, and the young people will return.

Beijing Li Qun Roast Duck

Have I died and gone to roast duck heaven?? I think I must have. Tucked into an old hutong alley in Beijing is a true gem – Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. Yes, it’s in various guide books so it’s no longer a secret, but that doesn’t make it any less good. This is truly fabulous food. And exactly what makes this truly fabulous food? 

Firstly, the location – just follow the ducks painted on the walls to get to this old house down a small lane. The restaurant entrance is a red door leading down a dark hallway. At the end of this you can see the flames from the duck roasting oven straight ahead, with five fat ducks hanging inside. I can already tell that this is going to be a memorable meal. Walk past the fireplace into the covered courtyard, where the elderly owner is having a bowl of duck soup before the busy night ahead, and chatting with the waitresses. Doorways lead off the courtyard to various ‘dining rooms’ which were presumably once living areas and bedrooms. The walls are painted a cheery imperial yellow and there is geometric patterned lino on the floors.  If you imagine your grandmother decided to convert her old weatherboard cottage in Spring Hill to a char-grilled steak joint, you’ll get the picture. It’s very home style. 

Secondly, the food. At Li Qun they make just one type of dish here, and they do it really well. These Beijing ducks are plump, with a fine crispy skin. The oven fire is fuelled by fruit tree wood, rather than gas, so the ducks have a delectable smoky edge to the crisp skin and succulent meat.  The accompanying pancakes are thinner than wafer and a little larger than others I’ve eaten, which means they can hold a bit more duck and hoisin sauce. We chose several side dishes like cucumber smashed with garlic, and deep-fried peanuts with vinegar, to cut through the richness of the duck meat.
Thirdly, there’s the ambience. Here, it’s contagiously fun and every single person is enjoying themselves immensely. It’s a low-brow, home-style experience. Don’t dress up, don’t expect an indoor bathroom, but do come with a big appetite. As your chosen duck is being carved at your table into clever slices, each with the necessary crisp sliver of duck skin, you can appreciate the theatre of it all. And the cost? About $15 a head, including tsing tao beer.

Beijing Hand Made Shoes

When I decided to break my silence and talk about shoes I knew there would be no stopping it. Now I’m going to tell you about the handmade shoes in Beijing. The Nei Lian Sheng store is at the other end of Dazhalan Jie to the dumpling restaurant I visited yesterday. This place has been turning out traditional Chinese cloth shoes since 1853, similar in style and construction to those made by the Moganshan shoemaker

The outside of the store is highly decorated in gold, blue and red, and as you pass through the wide gold-trimmed doors you feel as though you have stepped back in time to an era when retail shopping began. I imagine the interior is laid out in much the same way as it has been for the last hundred years or so, the inside walls lined with shelves of cloth and leather shoes, and the wooden and glass cabinets displaying more of the same. A central island of shelves is surrounded on four sides by more glass cabinets, and these display the shop’s premium shoes made from coloured and embroidered silk.

Of course I had to buy a pair – I chose a simple black traditional design with straps, they are as comfortable as slippers and will be perfect for tramping the streets of Shanghai in summer. 


See how the sole is made from folded layers of fabric, stitched together? And how it is heavily hand-worked with tiny little stitches in hessian thread? How lovely is that?

Beijing TianHai Dumplings

Odd perhaps that the first thing I’m writing about in Beijing is food, when there are all those other magnificent things, like the Temple of Heaven and The Forbidden City, to write about. But not really – I start thinking about lunch exactly five minutes after breakfast is finished. And the best thing about China is that lunch starts soon after 11am, about the same time as I would usually be tempted to eat a slab of cake and drink a quart of coffee. Dumplings, on the other hand, are much more satisfying than cake, and make an excellent fast lunch. Plus, eating lunch at 11.15am means you can start dinner at 5.30pm, leaving enough time for a small supper before bed. 

These particular dumplings (jiaozi) are from TianHai restaurant on Dazhalan Jie. I was ridiculously proud of myself because I could read both characters in the restaurant’s name, although the mental efforts required almost killed me. I seem to remember a similar feeling as a five year-old sounding out the word c-a-t for the first time. It goes something like this: 

me: hmmm……hey! I know that character! that’s ‘tian’!……OK,OK…tian something…….oh! that looks the ‘hai’ in ‘Shanghai!’ Guys!! You guys! This is the TianHai restaurant!!

guys: Yeah……it says that in English above the doorway Fiona………..

Hmmm. Encouragingly, the place is full of Chinese eaters as well as tourists, and has a pleasingly shabby interior with dark wooden tables and chairs, art deco lamps and loads of atmosphere. And cheap! This plate of (exactly) 22 jiaozi set me back 12 kuai ($2). They were really delicious, with a rustic thick skin with a bit of bite, and a pork filling flavoured with ginger, some rice wine, and shallots. A little vinegar to dip each one in, a cup of green tea, and that’s lunch. All over by 11.34am.

Peach Blossom Snow

If it should snow in springtime in China, particularly after the fruit trees have begun blossoming, it is known as a ‘peach blossom snow’. It’s not very common, but so far this Spring there have already been a few occurrences in China’s north.
We had taken an afternoon walk through the Mutianyu orchards and chestnut groves to the neighbouring village of Yingbeigou, using Eloise Walter and Emily Spear’s descriptive and lovely “Walking Guide to Mutianyu” (they have it for sale at The Schoolhouse). I wish all walking guides were more like this one – it fits perfectly in a pocket, it’s well written and has just enough detail to keep the walk interesting without feeling like you’re on a guided tour. 
On the way home, winding back through the chestnuts, it began to rain, cold and hard, and the wind picked up its pace. Looking up. we could see a cloud descending rapidly over the mountaintops. We ran! But before we could find cover the rain became soft flurries of peach blossom snow. It didn’t settle for long but it looked so beautiful! 

The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu

We stayed in Mutianyu at a wonderful village house, number 101, run by The Schoolhouse  at Mutianyu. 
The Schoolhouse is like a poster child for sustainable eco-tourism – they have helped turn the village into a destination in its own right with a restaurant, lodgings, a glass-blowing studio, community projects, and a series of traditional village houses which have been carefully restored to protect the original footprint, but now have energy-saving bonuses like double-glazing and under-floor heating.

Outside, village life goes on as usual amidst groves of gnarled chestnut trees and orchards of peach and apricot. Little pathways wind up and down over the hillsides and between the stone houses. Firewood is collected, gardens are tended and children take the bus to school. Higher up the hillsides still, the Great Wall watches silently and protectively over the village, as it has always done.

Great Outfit for the Great Wall

Chinese women sometimes have a knack for wearing the most incredibly impractical outfits.  Every time I have been on top of a mountain in China, there is always someone in skyscraper heels, wobbling over uneven paths and being steadied by the hand of a boyfriend, girlfriend or husband in more sensible shoes. The outfit usually also involves at least one piece of completely weather-inappropriate attire – think sable-trimmed coat in summer, or sparkly miniskirt in winter. Why be practical when you can be outrageous?
(To be completely fair, I have my own wardrobe full of impractical outfits, and shoes – how I love them. But I never wear them to climb a mountain.)

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Wow. The Great Wall of China may not be visible from space (that’s a myth, apparently) but it is still bloody amazing. We arrived in Beijing last night to miserable rain and dark grey skies. After leaving Shanghai in the throes of spring and arriving north in the depths of winter, I was ill-disposed towards the city. We headed instead to the little village of Mutianyu, for two nights by the foot of the Great Wall, arriving just on dusk to lovely old houses and steep winding streets, but unable to make out  the wall through the heavy rain.
This morning, though, we woke to glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, with that unmistakeable silhouette of the wall visible far above us.

The climb from the village passes through about a thousand roadside stalls selling cold water, cold beer, pyjamas, souvenirs and walking sticks. Should you need a lace parasol, they have those too. Further up the hill stretch rows of ladies calling out to offer you a taste of their dried fruits and candied walnuts. 
Just before the Best Great Wall Cable Car entrance a ming dynasty guard in fully authentic plastic helmet was playing Chinese chess (xiang qi) with a worried guy in a suit. 

I opted against the cable car, even though it was the Best, and the chair lift (no such impressive title for it), and walked up instead, a steep but not impossible climb. The view from the top is all the more impressive when you have had to puff and pant your way uphill on foot. And what a view – rugged mountain ranges stretch away both north and south of the wall. The steep brown hillside is dotted with the white puffs of the first peach blossoms of spring, a delicate contrast to the solidness of the wall itself stretching like a great stone ribbon unfurled to the horizon. Walking along the top, through the gatehouses and up and down the stone pathways, I am struck by the wall’s absolute magnificence. Don’t ever pass up a chance to see it. Ever.

I’m trialling a new larger size photo format. Let me know if you have problems downloading them.