All week, bright sunshine and 60-degree temperatures have filled the Sichuan University campus lawns with crowds of happy folk. Families, the elderly, kite flyers, dog walkers and students have been putting this amazing weather to good use. Blankets are spread to relax or sleep on, then filled with light snacks to indulge upon later. Toddlers plow gleefully through those seated on the ground while doting grandparents follow close behind. Doggies romp freely with one another as owners chit-chat among themselves. Retired men, flying kites, keep skillful hands on their string reels while watching their homemade creations sail high over our heads. College couples, entwined in each other’s arms, whisper sweet sentiments in between nuzzles and carresses.
It is a scene I have never seen on the quiet campus of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. A small, 3-year school just doesn’t have the drawing power of a noted Chinese university whose lush grounds, majestic ancient-style buildings and central city location make it the place to patronize for a few peaceful hours.
But this entire week really brought out both locals and tourists alike by the thousands, not only to the Sichuan University campus but many small neighborhood areas throughout Chengdu.
What’s been the big fuss?
It’s peak autumnal season of the Chinese Ginkgo trees!
THE CHINESE GINKGO 银杏 (Yin Xing)
I did some research on this tree, since it’s such a popular sight along almost every street here. This is what I discovered.
The Chinese ginkgo, also spelled gingko and known as the maidenhair tree, is of the ornamental variety. It has lovely fan-like leaves and produces nuts which are used in herbal supplements. According to the website I found, an extract is made from the leaves of the ginkgo and drunk to strengthen memory and concentration. It is also used to treat numerous ailments, including tinnitus, fatigue, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, leg pain, multiple sclerosis, cancer, bronchitis, coughs and reproductive tract problems. The World Health Organization has even approved the use of ginkgo leaves to treat Raynaud’s Disease, a condition in which blood flow to the surface tissue of the skin is temporarily reduced.
It was brought to the New World from China in the 1700′s and has been known to do quite well in our US environment. It can survive freezing temperatures, drought conditions and heavy rainfall. However, it doesn’t fair well in arid climates so those of you living in Arizona, let’s say, won’t be finding any ginkgo adorning your boulevards.
I also learned the female tree produces a small, tan-colored fruit that has an objectionable odor. Most horticulturalists and landscapers avoid planting the female ginkgo tree for this reason. Despite that set-back, it is definitely a favorite for gardeners. It requires little pruning and has strong resistance to pests and disease. It can even be grown as a bonsai, sitting in a small pot and trimmed into a desirable shape.
But among us Chengdu folk, it’s not the hardiness, the medicinal value, or the gardener’s favorite that is bringing us out in droves to gaze at these beauties. It’s their amazingly gorgeous golden autumn leaves.
DRESSING THE CITY IN GOLD
It is hard to describe the excitement of the Chinese over the autumn ginkgo.
The few blocks, small lanes and alleyways, or larger parks and school campuses that have them are currently overrun with anyone and everyone out to take advantage of this spectacle.
Professional and amatuer photographers alike make their way under the trees’ golden, leafy tresses to get just the right light. They also have their pick of shots from among young models, wedding couples in full marriage attire and little children who wander about and strike poses while those nearby toss leaves high into the air to cascade downward upon them. Friends and family are ready with their cellphone or digital cameras. After snapping away, they then huddle together, reviewing the photos again and again to agree upon the keepers and the discards.
So popular is this seasonal experience among locals that the city government has chosen certain rare gingko spots for just that: ginkgo viewing and nothing else.
All week, our neighborhood side street lined with majestic ginkgo was blocked off. A sign along the wider street and a connecting narrow road (Splendid Lane Alley) stated that no cars were allowed, either for parking or driving. From December 5 to 12th, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., pedestrians only had access.
Ginkgo news spreads fast in this city so you can imagine what the past five days have been like in my neighborhood: tourist central!
What great fun it has been to watch those of all ages and backgrounds walking aimlessly down the middle of the street with a canopy of yellow gold above them and a carpet of the same beneath. For the only time all year, the street sweepers were off duty from cleaning away the fallen leaves. Their traditional twigged brooms lounged against trees or lay idley along the curbside while piles of leaves crunched under our feet.
It has been a nostalgic journey for me, remembering my childhood years of play when Fall overtook our yard in smalltown Marshall.
A WEEKEND CHILL; A WEEKEND CLEAN-UP
This weekend, however, brought an end to our yearly Chengdu ginkgo viewing.
Our temps dipped into the 30s at night, 50s during the day with darkening skies and light drizzle during our morning hours. The street cleaners have been busy at work, sweeping away all that crisp beauty that all week brought us frolicking folk out by the thousands. Car traffic has returned, mingling that once fragrant fall scent with dastardly fumes.
Of course, not all of the gingko have faded away. There are still trees holding desperately to their colorful covering but it’s a losing battle. Winter is fast approaching southwestern China and the gingko are proving to be the first victims.
We all have steadfast memories to enjoy from last week’s gingko tree photography sessions. I know I certainly do, along with next year to look forward to.
(Note: My autumn gingko photos are soon to follow. Downloads are excruciatingly slow on this computer, thus the delay. They should be appearing in full within the next couple of days.
In the meantime, it’s the anticipation of Christmas (December 25) for me, and Chinese Spring Festival (January 31) for the Chinese, that is overtaking most of the excitement at the moment.
I’ll be off to Luzhou for a few days to enjoy the holidays with our Peace Corp members and Luzhou church community. Then it’s returning to Chengdu to finish up the school year at Sichuan University before our Chinese New Year vacation days finally set in.
If I don’t get back to you before then, here’s wishing you an early Merry Christmas from China and Ping An (Peace) for the upcoming new year.