Beijing may be great place to retire

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While strolling along the winding streets of Beijing and among the city's many ancient architectural splendors, it can be quite easy to get lost in the crowds, figuratively and geographically.

When I travel I have an unfortunate tendency to pay more attention to the historical plaque on a nearby monument than notice the name of the road we walked down to get there.

As a result, it also became easy, as I was staring up in awe at the Great Wall of China or the palace structures in the Forbidden City, to forget to lower my glance to notice what was right in front of me.

Last week, I mentioned that despite the economic progress that has been made in China, the country's citizens have few political or religious freedoms and still live under surveillance in a police state.

However, despite this repression, the people of Beijing, who live in one of the world's most polluted and congested cities, find ways to experience and create a type of beauty I had never seen before and might never witness again. It took me a couple of days to notice this fascinating trend, because it came from a group I would least expect.

Our guidebooks explained that most of Beijing's fashion and art scene was driven by a group of young, technologically sophisticated, westernized hipsters. What we found, however, was the most interesting people in the city, the group that seemed to get the most out of each day and that had the most desirable lifestyles, were Beijing's senior citizens.

The elderly folks in Beijing regularly celebrate life, friendship and nature much as you would expect a group of beach-loving, college hippies to do - with a strange mix of extreme kite-flying, outdoor aerobics and dance classes, and a version of hacky-sack called "jianzi" made from bottle caps and feathers.

These groups would gather primarily in parks and some of the bigger public gardens in Beijing, and my experience playing jianzi with some elderly, and pretty athletic, ladies who were probably pushing 80 was one of the highlights of the trip.

While we were walking through one of these large park that originally served as a enormous temple garden my traveling companion, Bradley, a Wisconsin transplant and Internet entrepreneur living just north of the San Francisco Bay Area, said that Beijing has to be the greatest place in the world to retire.

Judging from what I saw in the park that day - literally hundreds of seniors dancing, playing games, flying huge ribbons in the breeze, practicing yoga and martial arts, worshipping, clapping as they walked, playing musical instruments, and singing traditional hymns - I could not disagree.

We originally went to the park to visit the magnificent Temple of Heaven, one of the places I was most excited about visiting.

Originally built during the Ming Dynasty, The Temple of Heaven in Beijing sits in the middle of a huge public park and is one of the most incredible buildings in China.

The precisely planned, three-tier navy blue structure, elevated on three concentric stone circles, contrasts beautifully against the pale blue sky, so from whichever angle you look at it, the only thing you see behind the temple is the sky - the heavens.

The enormous structure, which caused my mouth to drop in amazement when I first saw it, was unlike anything I had ever seen, and when I lowered my glance and observed those around me in the temple park as I walked out toward the exit that sense of amazement remained, and maybe even increased.

This is the second of three columns about a visit to China by Walla Walla University student Martin Surridge. Watch for the next installment May 2.

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