The local parks are full of activity, even at 6:30 in the morning, with people dancing, running, opera singing, playing music and practising tai chi and marshal arts using sticks, swords and ribbons (ribbons look a bit wet next to the sticks and swords).
Walking backwards clapping hands is quite popular for some reason. It looks frackers. The fitness equipment, that no one ever uses in UK parks, is fully used here with, mostly old, people stretching and exercising. I join them briefly and am rewarded with beaming smiles.
During the day, in the shade of Gingko Biloba, Acers and Plane trees, old friends play Chinese chess and cards. You hear saxophone and singing and see young and old strolling through the gardens with umbrellas to protect their skin.
Families bring tents and have picnics. Couples bring their child (and occasional second child) to play. The one-child policy is still in force in China but has been relaxed slightly. Our guide, Haiming, explains: “Now couples may have a second child but only if they are from an only-child household themselves”.
Everywhere is spotlessly clean. Especially the parks. No litter. No graffiti. No chewed gum on pavements. An army of park wardens pick up individually fallen leaves. Some parks charge a small fee of 5 Yuan to enter, such as Chaoyang Park in Beijing – I guess to contribute towards the cost of this. Others, like Huangxing Park in Shanghai, are free.
Both Beijing and Shanghai are green cities in terms of their parks and with trees and flowers lining the city streets, but air quality is poor giving the sky a constant hazy blanket. On the train from Beijing to Xi’an and then on to Shanghai we pass through dozens of massive cities with factory chimneys and power stations pumping out gases and fumes that literally obliterate the sun. From the top of the Shanghai Tower it is hazy but can just see the Yangtze – so air quality is apparently good today. It is a stark reminder that China, with its population of 1.5bn, needs to take action to reduce emissions if we have any hope of halting global warming.
In the evenings women and men unselfconsciously dance on the pavements in the streets and in the parks. Older ladies prefer ‘square’ dancing where they perform a series of moves before turning clockwise 90 degrees and starting again. Within a 100m stretch, you might see three different dances going on – the music competing.
Spending a day in the local park, away from the tourist attractions, and you experience another side of China – the ‘real’ side – where people walk backwards, sing their hearts outs and dance uninhibited.