After a frantic day racing around Beijing heading out to 798 arts district in the morning then doing a travel writing workshop at the Bookworm in the afternoon, my last morning in Beijing should be tranquil. Time for some reflection by Beihai Lake, soaking up local life and seeing how everyday people start their days. Also when the pirate DVD stores don't open until 9, re-aligning your qi is the next best thing.
On a hazy morning Beihai Park is the centre for exercises from tai chi to hackysack as Beijingers converge to stretch and strain, shout and sing. Mostly it's group participation - a bossy instructor out the front with a headset telling people to lift their legs or how high to jump. There's traditional music played including old Party songs and slow-mo sword skills, but my favourite is the calligraphers with giant sponge brushes painting in water on the concrete paths. There's a huddle around the old gurus as younger guys try to perfect the fat-bellied curves or the jagged peak of characters. So much grace and work just to see it dry out as the sun warms.
Beijing has been part of the relief effort for the recent earthquake in Chengdu. Three days of mourning finished on Wednesday just as I arrived, but there were still noticeable signs. Several people are wearing quake relief t-shirts with big hearts on a map where Chengdu is and there are subway ads about how to give money. The Bookworm's Chengdu branch became an overnight relief centre distributing food, tents and other vital supplies. Fear of aftershocks has meant that many people are too afraid to return to their homes, so the Bookworm's ground-floor premises seems a safe spot to sleep for the night. People I spoke to said that the relief situation was evolving quickly so one moment there'd be a dramtic need for medicine but as NGOs arrived the needs would shift to tents or drinkable water. One of the best solutions if you're reading this would be to donate directly to a grass roots group organised by Peter Goff, a former journalist who manages the Chengdu Bookworm. It seems like a small contribution to a much bigger problem.