The Temple of Heaven and Earth in the center of Beijing city was once a forbidden part of the city exclusive for the imperial crown. The area around the temple which was the tallest building in China at that point in time was surrounded by thick forests. In present day China the area around the temple is a huge recreational park where people come everyday to exercise, meet, gossip and socialize.
The gardens themselves are tranquil and enticing but its the people who bring the gardens to life. We reached the Temple of Heaven around nine in the morning and the gardens leading to the temple were bursting with activity. People were exercising on cycles, on jungle bars and doing push ups. There were groups learning ball room dancing or dancing traditionally Chinese dances with props such as ribbons. The most interesting part was that all these people who were engaged in such robust activities were all old, the average age being 60 years or more.
Groups of people were playing a unique game with a feather weighted down by a ball or steel rings. It required some crazy football skills as it needed to be kicked and passed to each other. Each group was a mix of men and women equally enthusiastic about being alive and kicking (quite literally). There were choir groups, people playing Chinese checkers, people knitting, gossiping and even practicing Tai Chi.
The park was predominantly populated by older men and women only because the younger folks were away working as it was a week day. Another striking aspect was that the women were as involved in playing or exercise as much as the men quite contrary to what older folks in India are expected to do. Which is shuffle along on morning walks and participate in religious activities. I have seen older people exercise in U.S too but there would be one or two odd older folks in a majority of young enthusiasts. The older folks are stereotyped as restrained to sunning themselves on rocking chairs on the porch.
This sight of people enjoying themselves in the outdoors in such numbers was truly amazing. There were old men upside down on the jungle gym, there were folks playing badminton with two bats and folks in traditional costumes dancing or learning to dance impromptu. Some of the games being played were ones that we knew but then there some that were so unique. These spaces provided people a chance to form friendships along with being physically active at an age where people in other countries were withdrawing themselves from active life.
Each city in China is divided into districts and each district has an exercise area complete with exercise bikes which are soldered to the ground. Thus making it accessible for anyone who wants to use them. Old, young, men, women and children seem to use these spaces in equal numbers. This was one major distinction that I found in China vis a vis any other country I have been to. China’s infrastructure amazed me but along with creating new buildings and roads enough thought was given to create such spaces which allowed people to breathe. We were quite blown away by what we saw in China as it broke many stereotypes of what people think China is about.