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Friday, April 22, 2016

It’s tulip time again in Zhongshan!

You've got to hand it to the Dutch … they certainly know a thing or three when it comes to marketing to the Chinese. Whenever a flower bursts into bloom here in BJ, you can bet your bottom kwai that there will be a load of happy-snappy people with their iPhones, Canons and Nikons shooting pictures for all they are worth.

And just as the Chinese learned pretty quickly that the world loves their scruffy pandas (yes, they are scruffy, for all their so-called cuteness!), the Dutch use their national flower – the tulip – to woo the rubber-neckers in return.

Hence, it can have been no mere accident that the then-Princess Beatrix of Holland (now the reigning queen) gave a whole load of tulips to China way back in 1977, when China and Holland created diplomatic ties. The gardeners in charge of Zhongshan Park (中山公园/中山公園) must have thought Christmas had come early. More tulips were added in 1996, and to celebrate a good thing, they decided to hold a tulip festival to milk it for all it was worth; and the Dutch, pleased to oblige, have been donating 300,000 bulbs every year ever since then.

The park normally charges a 3 RMB entrance fee; but despite that, it is one of the least visited parks in Beijing. But come April time, that all changes. They charge 10RMB entrance, and the place is packed! Mind you, as I wait my turn in the queue there are two tourists obviously from out of town having an argument with the ticket girl… “But we haven’t come for the tulips,” they are insisting; “we came instead to see the normal sights of Zhongshan. Now can we please get in for 3 kwai?” (That, I have to admit, is probably a very loose translation, LOL!) But the ticket girl is obviously hardened to such entreaties, and insists they pay the same price as everyone else; while “everyone else” are starting to lose their patience with these cheapskates.

Now, if you have ever been to the Netherlands in the spring, the chances are that you will have visited the legendary Keukenhof tulip fields which really are a staggering sight. But if you haven’t, then I guess you could be forgiven for thinking this park is pretty staggering too, albeit on a very (very, very) much more diminutive scale.

As we surge into the park, there is a splash of red and yellow that everyone wants to be photographed in front of. But these aren’t even tulips, FGS! They are petunias and violas. Never mind; they are flowers and that’s what counts, it appears.

And then, as we turn the corner, splashes of actual tulips greet the eye – over 100 varieties apparently are grown in the park. Everyone has their phone or camera out and it soon becomes pretty difficult navigating one’s way between the jutting-out bottoms along the path. But at least the signs requesting people not to trample on the flower beds appear to be having some effect. These signs are everywhere, perhaps due to the fact that a couple of weeks back, hoards of tourists at the annual spring expo in Jiangxi province liberally helped themselves to the myriad displays of tulips on show, decimating the entire place.

It’s almost as if these people have never seen a tulip in their lives before. Or maybe they have finally found an excuse to try out their zoom lenses on cameras they bought ages back and then couldn’t quite work out what to do with them?

Whatever the reason, there is certainly more interest in the two-colour tulips, in particular the red-and-yellow ones. Could this be because they are the national colours? Perhaps. But certainly they are very attractive, meticulously arranged against a backdrop of thousand-year-old Cypress trees.

The subtle shades of the red-turning-to-white varieties are equally stunning, though they get much less attention:

The problem, if indeed problem is the right word, is that there are almost too many of this wonderful flower, and tulip fatigue is beginning to set in…

… though the double varieties are certainly eye-catching, even if they are past their prime…

Yet again a splash of red-and-yellow tulips takes centre-stage amongst others of their peers…

And lest anyone actually cares what it is they are actually gawping at, there are a few rather niggardly signs listing some of the varieties on show. No one pays them the slightest attention.

The problem is that with Beijing’s dry climate (today the humidity level barely touches 20%) the tulip season lasts only a fraction of the time it does in Europe, with the result that if you blink, you are likely to miss the best shows. And we all know that there is nothing as sad-looking as a tulip long past its prime…

But worry not! For Zhangshan is not just famous for its tulips, even if this is the tulip festival. Equally impressive, in a totally different way, are displays of buddleia which give out a sweet scent to the passers by.

There are even a few specimens of peach and plum blossom still out in the more shaded areas, where they have come into bloom slightly later than their colleagues in sunnier climes.

But to my eye, even if this is tulip and buddleia time, what is even more impressive is the display of peonies which are having to share centre stage with their floral rivals. They are wonderful, and to my mind they simply have to be the best-loved perennials of all time.

Now, of course, along with plum blossom, the peony is a traditional floral symbol of China, where the ‘Paeonia Suffruticosa’ is called mǔdān (牡丹). It is also known as fùguìhuā (富貴花) meaning "flower of riches and honour" or huawang (花王) – "king of the flowers", and is widely used symbolically in Chinese art.

The colours stretch from red through to white with everything in between. Quite stunning!

And while most are still snapping away with their cameras and selfie-sticks, I come across an artist who is actually sat in front of a peony that he is doing a wonderful job of copying (though why he doesn’t just take a photograph of it and copy that, I’m afraid I have no idea).

Lest one forgets, however, Zhongshan Park was formerly the altar in the Ming and Qing Dynasties where emperors at that time offered sacrifices respectively to the God of Land and the God of Grain every February and August of the lunar calendar. But it appears that the great unwashed have little time for history or anything that doesn’t have flowers bursting out in profusion. The area around the square-shaped Altar of Land and Harvest is virtually empty, and those that have ventured into this corner of the park have obviously either lost their way or are looking for yet more varieties of plants to take shots of...

After all, having one’s photo taken with a piece of real history isn’t nearly as exciting as sticking one’s head through a cardboard cut-out for yet another picture op, with a graceless looking windmill as a backdrop, is it? (My… those marketers from the Dutch Tourist Board must be rubbing their hands with glee!)

But this cute pussycat is not so impressed. He has obviously seen it all before, a thousand times over. Humans! you can see him thinking, as he stifles yet another yawn before closing his eyes and dreaming of… well, whatever it is that bored-looking moggies dream about when they have a surfeit of time on their hands…