A Late Winter Snowstorm in Beijing

Snow painting from China First Capital blog post

I fulfilled a life-long goal today – and I’m now paying the price for it. Since my first visit to Beijing in 1981, I always wanted to see the city during a snowstorm. Today, I got my wish. The snow starting falling this morning, and it’s still coming down, ten hours later, soft, clumpy and slow. I’m now stuck at Beijing’s Capital Airport, waiting out a four-hour snow delay.

Waking early this morning as the snow began to accumulate,  I knew precisely where I wanted to go. I took the articulated #1 bus down Changan Boulevard and got off at Nanchizi. I then wandered around on the eastern edge of the Forbidden City, and was stopped dead in my tracks by just the sort of view I’d long visualized. The snow covered the banks of a narrow, twisting canal leading to the palace’s vermillion bulwarks. The ancient trees were all duffeled by snow, as was a small ancient-style wooden skiff moored to a little dock.

It was a view of Beijing new to me, and yet also somehow deeply familiar. The living landscape mirrored images in traditional Song and Ming Dynasty Chinese landscape paintings I’ve admired for decades. There was the same sense of quiet serenity, of a natural order largely undisturbed by man. While I’ve long since forgotten most of what I once knew about Taoism, the landscape this morning in Beijing seemed a pure expression of the naturalism and stillness that are at the religion’s core.

Now, of course, there is much less of the old, Ming Dynasty Beijing left standing, compared with when I first visited 29 years ago.  All but a few fragments have gone under the wrecking ball.  Turning away from the canal near the Imperial Palace, the scene could no longer be mistaken for a Song Dynasty tableau. Instead, it looked more like Chicago during a snowstorm: lots of slush, and slow-moving automobile traffic.

In other words, Beijing in the snow wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it for all those years. Noticeably absent:  peddlars selling gloves lined with dog-fiur (I had a pair back in 1981) and small handheld coal-fired braziers, crenellated grey-tiled roofs piled with snow, and, most especially, Bactrian camels. Long, slow-moving caravans of Bactrian caravans.

Back at the sixth-story home of a friend, I stared out over a view far more typical of today’s Beijing: an intersection of vaulting bridges and curving exit ramps where two eight-lane roads intersect. Cars moved slower than usual, and there were far fewer of them. Overall, it was the quietest day I can recall in many years in Beijing.

I had a flight to catch tonight back to muggy Shenzhen, and the snowstorm caused the familiar sort of havoc. Most flights at Beijing’s large airport were cancelled.

It’s been a very long and unusually snowy winter in Beijing. Today’s storm was not particularly severe, about six inches or so. Oddly, the temperature stayed well above freezing all day.  The Chinese, I’m told, have a saying that it gets warmer during a snowstorm, and then things turn much colder afterward.

The snow falls on a very different Beijing than the city I first came to all those years ago. Much that was uniquely sublime about the city’s architecture and street-life are gone. But, Beijing is still a very special place, and no big modern city is more wondrously transformed in the snow.