Staying young in old China

Visit the park around Beijing’s Temple of Heaven any morning and you will not be so worried about getting old. Hundreds of elderly people will amaze you!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Beijing’s Temple of Heaven

As the years go by, the inevitably of age becomes a fear for many people. It wearies, slows and cripples even the most active souls of yesteryear.

Growing old is as timeless as the world from which we must one day pass from. Yet a denial of the undeniable has seen stories for generations of a ‘fountain of youth’ or, to many people, ‘the holy grail’.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising

In Beijing, a group of elderly residents has found a holy grail of sorts. In the shadow of the city’s Temple of Heaven, they gather each morning to drink (figuratively-speaking) from the elixir of life. It’s not some mythical potion or ancient relic they’ve found, though. It’s a simple dose of exercise and fun.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising

From the early hours every day, until the sun gets too hot in late morning, hundreds of senior citizens come to the large Beijing park that encircles the temple itself. And together, in community, they release their youth.

Walking through the grounds of the Temple of Heaven (which are about 3km2 in total), you find all sorts of activities going on.

Dozens of people are having a ballroom dancing lesson on one walkway, on another a group is practising a performance with flags.

An old woman sings to a crowd under a group of trees; an old man shows off his bird collection; some play cards and others discuss calligraphy.

Small groups of people play badminton or hacky-sack.

And near the centre of the park a large gathering of more than a hundred people chant and clap together in time to a song someone is leading, although everyone clearly knows the words already.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising
Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising
Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising

Visiting the Temple of Heaven’s park

It’s fascinating to watch – and not just because there is such a variety of activity that every corner reveals another entertaining sight. No, it’s mainly fascinating because of the energy with which these ageing Beijing residents throw themselves into the games and groups.

There’s an image, often, of old people taking it easy in their later years, spending more time inside than out and not being overtly active. A trip to the Temple of Heaven Park contradicts all of this and puts many a young person to shame.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising
Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising
Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising

I’m sure it’s not a uniquely Chinese thing but there are aspects of the culture that make this much more common than in many Western countries.

Firstly, the family homes these people live in are often small or crowded and encourage the residents to go outdoors.

Secondly, with less retirement homes and similar institutions, there isn’t a ready-made sense of community for these people and this is one of the best ways to socialise.

And, finally, this idea of group participation in cultural and sports demonstrations has always been much more ingrained in the Chinese culture.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing park with old people exercising

There may be no such thing as eternal life – or even a silver bullet to slow down the ageing process. But a visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing does prove that you don’t have to let old age get the better of you.


Although it’s an enormous city, you’ll find most of the best places to stay in Beijing in the neighbourhoods to the east and northeast of the Forbidden City.


Although it’s more expensive than your average hostel, Peking Youth Hostel is definitely the best in the city, with a good location and helpful staff.


Although it’s great value, Sunworld Hotel Wangfujing feels quite upmarket, with lots of facilities and a good location.


Enjoy the stunning views from the spacious rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing, where there’s also a gorgeous indoor pool.


An absolutely gorgeous hotel, the Rosewood Beijing has impeccable service, an indoor pool, and excellent dining.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

2 thoughts on “Staying young in old China”

  1. I had the privilege of traveling to Beijing and witnessing this first hand. I am a registered nurse working on my Masters Degree in Nursing Education. One of the things I have recently learned about are NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities) causing me to remember what I witnessed in Beijing. What a great way for older adults to maintain community, stay connected and remain engaged!

    • I love the idea of ‘naturally occurring retirement communities’ – what a cool way to think about older people coming together to exercise their bodies and their minds. And, in this case, I’m sure it’s as much about the mental health as the physical. I’m sure you’ve found this yourself in your studies. Great, also, that you can use this experience on your travels for your masters degree! 🙂


Leave a comment