I fulfilled a life-long goal today â€“ and Iâ€™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 itâ€™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, Â 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 Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve admired for decades. There was the same sense of quiet serenity, of a natural order largely undisturbed by man. While Iâ€™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 religionâ€™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.Â All but a few fragments have gone under the wrecking ball.Â 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 wasnâ€™t quite as Iâ€™d imagined it for all those years. Noticeably absent:Â 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 todayâ€™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 Beijingâ€™s large airport were cancelled.
Itâ€™s been a very long and unusually snowy winter in Beijing. Todayâ€™s storm was not particularly severe, about six inches or so. Oddly, the temperature stayed well above freezing all day.Â The Chinese, Iâ€™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 cityâ€™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.