Chair Skating

I have lived in northern climates all of my life.  And one of the things I’ve learned is that in order to survive a northern winter you must get out of the house once in a while.  And dashing to the store to buy more chips and salsa doesn’t count.  You’ve got to get the blood flowing.

We're not hibernating creatures.  We did to get outside in the winter months.
We’re not hibernating creatures. We need to get outside in the winter months.

For most of my life that meant skiing.  My father, having been raised a short distance from the base of Mt. Washington in northern New Hampshire, had us on skis at an early age.  And since we lived in a place that gets 5 meters of snow each winter, the ski season was generally long and well serviced by Mother Nature.  Come the weekend, off to the slopes we went.

There is a nascent but growing skiing industry in China and you can actually hit the slopes within an hours’ drive of Beijing.  And there’s more to come.  Chinese developers have figured out that the skiing business is actually a real estate play, and since the Chinese view real estate on a par with gold in terms of its investment attractiveness, big things are bound to happen.  Get ready for Vail X 3 is my guess.

Everyone likes to be outside on a sunny day.
Everyone likes to be outside on a sunny day.

I’ve never skied in China, however, in part because my daughters never took a shining to the sport and, in part, because I know I was spoiled by the splendor of the skiing in New England and the Western Rockies.  And, in part, admittedly, because I fear that the Chinese ski in much the same way they drive.  Which makes me think that a day on the slopes might be a lot like running back and forth through an active minefield.  Not my idea of recreation.

I do, however, go chair skating.  It doesn’t give me quite the same sense of freedom and exhilaration but it is a whole lot of fun.  And it gets me outside although the presumed link between being one with nature and privacy doesn’t hold here.  There are just too many people.  Secluded is very hard to come by.

A blind troubadour serenades.  Notice the wooden clapper he operates with his foot.
A blind troubadour serenades. Notice the wooden clapper he operates with his foot.

Beijing enjoys almost a perfect environment for chair skating.  There are numerous lakes and ponds in the area, including several in the center of the city that the government has benevolently preserved for public use.  And while the temperatures are cold the climate is arid.  Beijing sits only 300 miles from the eastern edge of the Gobi Desert so there is relatively little precipitation in the winter months, leaving the lakes and ponds with pristine glass surfaces ideal for any variety of blade propulsion.

But why chairs?  When I asked a Chinese friend of mine I was met with a blank stare, ultimately followed by the admonition, “You think too much.  Sometimes you should just do.”

Fair enough.  Guilty as charged.  It’s a Western thing.  Despite my years in China I’m not satisfied knowing that wherever I go there I will be.  I want to know where I am and why.  And what comes next?

This being modern China, of course, there is commerce involved.  The chairs are inevitably rented out by some entrepreneur with a hand for welding (The propulsion sticks are typically two screwdriver blades welded together and the blades are made from re-rod welded to the bottom of angle iron.) and an in with whoever decides who can operate concessions on public property.  (These rules are often unclear to foreigners.)

On the way to and from there are always interesting places to discover.
On the way to and from there are always interesting places to discover.

But I have my own theory about the origins of chair skating.  Chair skating, when you think about it, is perfect for a relatively poor country with this many people.  If skiing is financially out of reach for all but the richest Chinese, ice-skating isn’t exactly open to the masses.  A pair of skates doesn’t sound like much of an investment to most Westerners but if you can’t afford a second pair of shoes you’re unlikely to splurge for a pair with such specific functionality that they can only be used on frozen water.

And ice-skating does take a little practice.  You can’t just strap on a pair of skates, jump onto the ice, and be sashaying your way around the rink.  Not on a par with learning to juggle perhaps, but not quite falling out of bed, either, although falling is inevitably part of the learning process.

Chair skating, on the other hand, requires little investment, one-size-fits-all and can thus be shared, and the learning curve is measured in minutes, not days.  We all know how to sit, after all, and sitting is a big recreational draw for anyone who works 60 – 70 ours per week or more.

The propulsion poles are usually just screwdrivers with extensions welded on.
The propulsion poles are usually just screwdrivers with extensions welded on.

And it’s a bit silly, which is, I think, ideally suited to the Chinese definition of fun.  Although their culture is built on a lattice of rules and norms, or perhaps because of that, the Chinese seem attracted to recreational activities devoid of structure and discipline.

And they have a sense of humor to match.  One of the things I love to do while chair skating is to park my chair off to the side and just sit and listen.  The air is absolutely brimming with laughter.  But it’s laughter without boundaries; more like giggling than the controlled chuckle or guffaw that most of we Westerners can muster when we’re supposedly having fun.

Things can get a bit dicey on a crowded pond since the chairs aren’t equipped with any steering mechanism and the blades glide more than they cut so there is little in the way of lateral stability.  No one seems to mind, however, when you go crashing into them.  You’re more likely to get a shriek of excitement and a peel of laughter than any kind of stern look or verbal admonishment.  (You might get that, ‘My god, that’s a big nose’ look but it’s not judgmental.  We’re just foreigners.)

Trains often form and dissolve spontaneously.
Trains often form and dissolve spontaneously.

Trains that act like whips add to the excitement and typically form spontaneously, often a result of unintended collision.  They seldom last, however, because no one has a plan or a well-defined objective.  And they’re not supposed to.  That’s too much like work and chair skating is all about cutting loose.

Other forms of ice propulsion are also available and typically comingled with the skating chairs.  There are always a few people with traditional ice skates and I’ve witnessed a couple of lads carrying hockey sticks, although never with a puck in play, so I can’t be certain they really know what the sticks are for.  And on my last outing I saw an older Chinese fellow attempting to skate figure eights backwards although he was wearing speed skates rather than figure skates.  He didn’t appear ready for the Olympics but was otherwise making do with what had to be an imperfect match between tool and task.

At this location in North Central Beijing you can step off the ice and into a Starbucks for a hot chocolate or warm cup of coffee.
At this location in North Central Beijing you can step off the ice and into a Starbucks for a hot chocolate or warm cup of coffee.

A more technologically advanced version of the skating chair is the skating bicycle.  By replacing the front tire with a couple of handcrafted blades you can craft a vehicle ideal for traveling longer distances or for pulling a long train of skating chairs.

All told, it’s a whole lot of fun and a great way to get out and have a few laughs during the long Beijing winter.  And if you happen to go to a pond or lake that is even remotely popular rest assured that the usual gaggle of street vendors will follow.  You can enjoy a charcoal-roasted potato (no toppings, I’m afraid) or my daughters’ favorite, a stick of candied Hawthorne berries called tang hu lu, while you sit and soak in the giddy atmosphere.

Making do without much.  And understanding the recuperative power of a little laughter.  Wherever I go in China, there I learn.

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Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

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