Wherever I travel, I make a concerted effort to examine the local plants, including wild foliage as well as carefully planned gardens. Having traveled from my home in Virginia to two diverse spots in the U.S. West this year—San Diego and southern Utah—I was not disappointed by the variety of plants and plantings in those locations.
What a surprising development, then, to land in Beijing only to find many of the same plants I see every day in my community: marigolds, salvias, celosias, roses, begonias, petunias, geraniums and the like. Hydrangea bushes. Ash, elm, maple, oak and willow trees. The urban gardens around my hotel, in the central business district and at major tourist attractions in and near Beijing could have been lifted directly from the Washington, D.C., suburbs where my wife Jean and I live.
But I soon realized that Beijing, China’s capital and third largest city. is located near the edge of hardiness zones 6 and 7. The temperatures we enjoyed during our weeklong trip there in October were about the same that folks back home were experiencing.
And I began to recognize that there are only so many colorful, hardy, compact, easy-to-grow and inexpensive bedding plants in the world. If China had discovered or developed better or more exotic ones than the rest of the horticultural world, surely gardeners in the West would have discovered them and spread them in massive numbers to gardens and parks with similar climates.
Even given the fact that I was suffering from serious jet-lag, though, it soon dawned on me that the government and private gardeners were doing some interesting things were relatively mundane plants. In Tiananmen Square, some flowering plants were arrayed on wire frames to give displays a three-dimensional effect. Clever topiary designs appeared here and there. At the entrances to a couple of popular tourist destinations, flowers with contrasting colors were arranged in a large vertical display that spelled out a word in Mandarin (I had no clue what that word might be; the only character I learned was the one for “exit.”)
By the middle of the week, I finally understood that I was missing the big picture. Chinese gardens aren’t really about plants. They’re about space and shape. They’re about people and their relationship with nature. They’re about water and sky and timeless truths. The plants are there to help guide the way, to set the mood, to draw us in and hook us.
That realization was reinforced when we visited the Summer Palace, a vast park—mostly water—west of downtown Beijing. It’s a leading destination for foreign tourists, yet it seems to be one of the most popular escapes for Beijing residents, too. They stroll the Summer Palace walkways and lounge on benches and buy inexpensive snacks and toys for young people, unaffected by howling tour bus guides and their flocks. (Corn on the cob was easily the most popular snack, by the way, which blew my mind.)
It’s impossible for even the most Type A Western visitor not to succumb to the rich rewards of riding across the lake on a boat with a dragon’s head. Everyone must pose for photos on a bridge decorated with lions’ heads. And you can’t fail to become mesmerized by the changing light and gentle breezes that play upon the paths under massive willows. You can give up all sense of time gladly.
Back in the business district the next day, I noticed an older man riding a bicycle with about 20 shrubs balanced precariously on the back. He got off and walked the bike across six busy lanes of traffic, never spilling a single bush, before reaching his destination: a small park crammed between an even larger thoroughfare and the remnants of the 15th century city wall in central Beijing.
He dropped off the shrubs, soon to be followed by bicyclists with shovels, who surveyed the scene and then departed immediately. Before leaving town I didn’t return to the park to see if the bushes—lacking any covering on their root balls—were planted in their designated spots. But I’m fairly confident that the job was completed with typical Chinese efficiency.
A few words about traveling to China: Yes, it’s a long trip, even if you can get a direct flight, as we did. Yes, it’s a pain to get a visa; you have to visit a consulate at just the right time on just the right day, or you have to pay a service hundreds of dollars to do it for you. But it’s so very worth it. Even on a foggy day, the Great Wall takes your breath away. Two segments of it are less than a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing. And there’s a funky, little-known tourist spot worth visiting in central Beijing: an old observatory from pre-telescope days with exotic metal machines and a great view from the roof.
However, it’s the people who really impress. Knowing only four words of Mandarin (good day; thank you), and probably mispronouncing them consistently, was not much of a barrier as we expected. We got overcharged badly on one cab ride, and we got dumped short of our destination during two cab trips by drivers who really didn’t want to go where we wanted to go. But my strongest memory is of Jean interacting with a manager and waitress in a restaurant we visited one night.
I was a bit hesitant to just stroll in to a restaurant at random in Beijing, particularly after a long day of walking around temples, of pointing to maps in taxis and of negotiating the city’s subway system. But sooner or later we had to give up hotel food for a true Chinese dining experience. I can’t remember what Jean ordered; thank goodness the menu had pictures of all the dishes. I took the easy way out and ordered duck, with the only tricky part being my hand motions simulating the use of a knife in order to communicate that I wanted only half a duck.
The manager and waitress, both young women, wanted so badly to communicate with us, but they spoke only a few words of English. Jean asked for a Tsingtao, a Chinese beer. They didn’t have it, but at least they could substitute another beer. It was when Jean tried to ask whether the beer she received was warm that things got comical. Jean started rubbing her hands together while speaking “warm” and “cold,” which resulted in the two young women covering Jean’s hands with theirs, each in turn, in the belief that Jean was feeling cold and needed a little TLC to warm up before her meal arrived. I wish I had a video of that scene, but the memory of the three laughing women is one I won’t soon forget.