Appropriately, the sun was shining when I first visited Ritan Park. The name literally means “Temple of the Sun” and the site used to be the place where Ming and Qing emperors would make sacrifices to the Gods. Now it is a peaceful oasis, one of the loveliest parks in the city. And the place where I spent my very first hours getting to know China.
Ritan Park is in the eastern park of the city, surrounded by embassies and the “Little Moscow” district. (If you’ve read Oracle Bones, you may recall that this is the part of the city where Peter and Polat used to meet.)
I gravitate towards urban parks, especially when I am overwhelmed by a new city and not sure where to begin my exploring. Since this square of green was located fairly close to where I was staying, it naturally seemed like a perfect place to begin.
I entered through the West Gate, and within seconds I saw examples of the morning park activities I had read about. To my right, off the main entranceway, was a small group of couples dancing, while a lawnmower churned behind them. I moved to the north side of the main path and spied yet another small group of waltzers. No one seemed bothered by the shifting noises, melodies merging in the morning breeze.
The fan ladies were the ones I was really looking for, but unfortunately, as I approached a large group, I could sense their routine was about to end. I snapped this shot just as they finished up:
I went and sat under the tree near where these ladies had gathered, hoping they would start up again, but it was clear I was too late. I admired their pink and red fans, marveled at all the pastel umbrellas bopping by and practiced saying “Ni hao” to some Chinese children.
Circling through a few other nooks and crannies of the park, I came upon young boys playing with a hackey sack toy topped with colorful feathers. There was also a girl practicing her flute, two older men playing cards and a group of women, performing together with this “yo-yo” like device that they pass to each other using only the strings attached to sticks that they hold in their hands. I’ve still been unable to figure out what this contraption is called, but it was fun to watch them for a while:
Eventually I came upon this stunning pagoda and lotus pond, which was glistening in the morning sun. This is only one of about 35 shots I look, trying to capture each low-waving willow branch and blossoming lotus.
The musicians shaded underneath seemed to be in between sets, there were only sporadic notes and tunes coming from their direction. I picked a rock to sit on, had a snack and waited for them to start up again. To my surprise, they began with a musical interlude of the Scottish hymn Auld Lang Syne. (As my trip progressed, I learned that musicians play just about anything on their instruments here, from traditional Chinese folk songs to Christmas tunes!)
To the left of the pagoda is this unique stone boat, home of the popular Stone Boat Cafe. The place was just opening up as I passed by, and didn’t look ready for business just yet, or I might have gone in for a cool beverage. Instead, I walked back around to the other side to take this shot, and watch the fisherman:
I read that these anglers pay to buy a fish that they then throw in the man-made lake and try to catch. Hours of enjoyment…if you like fishing! There was a whole bunch of them scattered around, but I just watched this one guy for a while, hanging out on his own little jetty.
A few days later I would return to this spot in the evening with my Couchsurfing host, Johanna, for some drinks at the cafe. The park (which is free to enter, unlike some others in the city) closes about 10 pm, but one gate is left open for folks to access the cafe, which has live music performances every Thursday night, and more often in the summer. I didn’t know this until now, but it seems the stone boat has free wireless too.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this place left such a lasting impression on me, but it’s probably my most favorite spot in China. Is it because it was the very first place I visited in the country? Or was it the simple understated beauty of people just doing things in a park? The every day regularity of the place is what struck me most. In the end, it doesn’t really matter why — but I certainly know it will be easy for me to cherish this early and perfect moment of my travels through China.