Good Morning, Beijing - China Travel Story

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Good Morning, Beijing

Upside-down from a tree she hangs, her wiry hair blowing in the cool Beijing breeze. Twisting her lithe body, she jumps down and suddenly is standing straight as a reed, attempting to lift her left leg over her head. I hold my breath unconsciously as, inch by inch, her leg rises into the air, but she falls achingly short of putting it over her head. Dumbstruck, I silently stand there, momentarily mesmerized by her near-perfect suppleness. And then I break into applause for this diminutive elderly Chinese woman.

China's capital is at its most magical early in the morning. Unlike its more sassy sister cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, where an energized nightlife rocks into the wee hours, Beijing seemingly slumbers after 10. But, like most Chinese communities, its parks and plazas spring alive to greet the rising sun with taichi and other sports, some I recognize, others I don't.

They are everywhere: outside of a dumpling stand in the middle of a sidewalk, in an alleyway of their still-sleeping neighborhood, in the many public parks of Beijing. Solo or in small groups they stand, twisting and turning, bopping and hopping around like children. But it is in central Tiantan Park, hugely popular among locals as a venue not only for taichi, but also for myriad of activities from ballroom dancing to croquet to Chinese martial arts, where I meet my 72-year-old friend.

Along with another elderly lady, she is leap-frogging down a park pathway. So comical they appear, springing their way toward me, that I am forced to stop and smile. And then I see they are not alone, other grannies are moving and grooving on the grass.

Greetings are exchanged, and the Chinese wonder woman, who is clearly the ringleader of this senior citizen circus, breaks into her most advanced and impressive moves for this awestruck American. Much to their amusement, I drop my daypack and join in on the fun. But the fun really begins when I partially lift my long skirt.

A collective whoop rings out when they see the size of my chunky, er, well-developed calves. Soon they are taking turns tapping them, wrapping their wrinkled fingers around them, with one cheeky lady even poking my stomach. With a group nod, they flash me a thumbs-up and declare me a healthy specimen of a woman.

What I had witnessed was merely the morning's warm-up, and soon a serious session of taichi starts. In a circle we stand, eight women, with three of us under the age of 60. This ancient Chinese sport consists of stretches and gentle movements that are performed at a slow, dance-like speed. Long recognized in China for its positive effects on physical and mental well-being, taichi has become increasingly popular in Western cultures, and for good reason.

My elderly master eagerly watches as I rapidly pick up the simple, easy-to-follow movements, stopping at times to correct my posture and breathing. At one point, with my right arm pointed downward and my left leg raised behind me in the air, I constantly tip over, my sense of balance being weak. Rattling away in Chinese, our teacher comes to my side and gestures that mental focus and deep-breathing techniques are integral to taichi. I then clear my head, seeing only the grass, hearing only the sounds of my body breathing and I successfully hold the position. Looking up, I see smiles, nodding heads and thumbs-up signals.

For the next two mornings I return to the park and to my friends, who are delighted to see me. Each day my movements become more fluid and confident, and I walk away an hour later feeling more limber and energized. But then the moment has come to say goodbye; I am leaving Beijing that afternoon. Hands are shook, addresses are scribbled down and photos are snapped. Impulsively, I stoop to kiss the Chinese wonder woman's wrinkled cheek. Our eyes lock and she warmly grips my hands.

Walking away, I find myself getting teary eyed and, as cheesy as this is to admit, humming "Let There Be Peace on Earth". Like a movie reel, images from the past year fly by and I see the countless people who have befriended me, assisted me and have gone out of their way to make my stay in their country a positive one. I hum louder. I walk faster. The images flash frantically. Joy, thankfulness and anticipation flow through me, and I run. China awaits.

Story Courtesy to Kelly Sobczak

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