We arrived in Beijing after our 28 hour train ride from Ulaanbaatar. We had reserved three nights in a private room at a popular hostel and had only a vague idea of what we would do with our time in Beijing. Seven nights later (yep, we extended our stay multiple times) we were finally on our way out of Beijing — exhausted, but quite pleased with our visit. I’m sure that some would cover the same ground that we did in fewer days, but we’ve come to accept that we are content seeing fewer sights in order to linger longer at (and between) each one. For me, our visit to Beijing was especially interesting because I previously visited the city with my family on a guided tour back in December 1998. My memory of many of the details of the trip is somewhat fuzzy (so many temples…), but I was excited to see how well the modern-day city matched up with my memories.
Our highlights included:
China’s premier attraction is the Forbidden City. The complex is the historical home of China’s emperors and was off limit to the masses for over 500 years.
We set off to visit the palace on our first morning in Beijing. Our attempt to get an early start was somewhat successful, but we were no match for the huge hoards of Chinese tour groups. It was an intense start to our visit to Beijing.
While the palace is huge and the large courtyards are able to absorb the masses, there are a number of spots in which you have to peak through a small entranceway in order to see inside the building. Michael, a giant in China, could just hang back and look over everyone’s head. Being vertically challenged, I had to battle my way to the front for a peak. And it truly felt like a battle — those middle-aged Chinese women do everything but throw punches to get to the front (pushing and shoving is par for the course).
In spite of the craziness, the Forbidden City was well worth the craziness (and good practice for what was to come). The complex is huge — with one massive courtyard leading to another massive courtyard. We made our way through the courtyards with the aid of the mediocre, location based audioguide, although the map on the audioguide console was probably more helpful than the audioguide itself.
Luckily, we found that the smaller, side courtyards were much less busy and more peaceful than the central ones. There were also a number of exhibition halls that (relatively) few people seemed to make it into, including the Clock Exhibition Hall filled with ornate clocks brought from overseas. It was a great reminder that even taking a few steps off the main tourist trail can make a huge difference, even in the middle of the Forbidden City.
We had originally planned to walk through Jingshan Park right after visiting the Forbidden City since it is right across the way and features a large hill with great views of the surrounding area. The hill is unusual for otherwise flat Beijing and is actually made from the piled earth excavated while digging out the moat to surround the Forbidden City.
Unfortunately, it was incredibly foggy/misty/smoggy when we visited the Forbidden City, so we decided to pass and return later in the week. The views were still somewhat obscured (that’s Beijing for you!), but it was a nice park to explore.
Beijing in filled with hutongs, which are basically old neighborhoods with narrow alleyways. We spent some time exploring the Nanluogu Xiang hutong, which appears to be in the process of getting a somewhat controversial facelift to restore the area to its “original appearance” during the Qianlong period (18th century). The work is adding a sense of uniformity to the walled residences and might be making it look a bit too fake/Disneylandish (not to mention the general concern that gentrification might be at play pushing traditional residents out of the hutong). Nonetheless, we managed to get away from the main tourist drag and into the maze of quiet alleyways (only residents can drive their cars or motorbikes down the streets) for a glimpse at traditional life in a huge modern city.
Our guidebook touts the Lama Temple as the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It’s conveniently located near the historic Nanluogu Xiang hutong and provides a different perspective from some of Beijing’s other major sights because it is still very much in use. The smell of burning incense fills up each courtyard from the many locals who come here to pray.
Temple of Heaven Park
Michael was particularly excited to visit the Temple of Heaven Park, which is a huge park based on Confucian design. The park was originally used by the emperor to pray for good harvests and to seek atonement. As a child, Michael recalls receiving a small model of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is one of the centerpieces of the park. The building was impressive in person — apparently it is built without nails or cement! The park is solidly on the tourist circuit and there were lots of tourists crowded around the temples within the park. Despite this, we once again found that we could easily get some peace and quite by wandering through the garden areas just off of the main walkways.
In yet another example of what a small world we live in, while visiting the park we ran into the two Israeli guys that we’d shared our train compartment with from Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border (where they got off and we continued on to Beijing). This occurred just after we ran into the German couple from our Gobi desert tour group at our hostel in Beijing!
The summer palace is considered one of the can’t miss sights in Beijing. It holds up to the claim in my opinion. One of my favorite memories from my first trip to Beijing is of walking under the covered walkway of the Summer Palace and emerging to see the giant stone boat in the (partially frozen) lake. It was fun to return with Michael and to discover that there is so much more to this park/palace complex than most tour groups manage to see.
The summer palace was used as the summer retreat for the emperors to escape the heat of the city. It surrounds Kunming Lake, which is rather large after having been enlarged in the 18th Century. Most famously, Empress Dowager Cixi used funds earmarked for a modern navy to build the marble ship that sits at the edge of the lake. Probably not the modern navy that they were thinking of…
My favorite part of our visit was seeing the park being actively used by locals. There were a bunch of people doing group dancing (zumba style) and a huge choir/band practicing!
Chairman Mao/Tiananmen Square
When we were in Hanoi we visited Ho Chi Min. When we were in Moscow we visited Lenin. So how could we resist the opportunity to visit our third embalmed socialist leader and see Chairman Mao in the flesh? Visiting hours for the Chairman at his ridiculously large mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square are limited (7:30am-1pm Tues-Sun). Visiting is also complicated by the fact that you cannot bring a bag or camera in with you. There is a bag check office to the east of the mausoleum where you can check bags and cameras (fees charged by the size of the bag, with a separate camera charge that we avoided by claiming that there was no camera in our backpack). The first time we showed up we discovered that the mausoleum was closed for a couple days while President Duterte of the Philippines was visiting.
The second time we showed up at around 11am, checked our bag including our camera and phones (because they’re cameras, right? once we got to the line we saw all the Chinese still had theirs, so that was totally unnecessary although we couldn’t have used them in the mausoleum anyway), and made it to the back of the massive line only minutes before the line was closed to further visitors. Luckily, the line moved quickly and we were done by 12:20pm or so. Half the experience was people watching — especially as we got closer to the front of the line and everyone rushed to purchase white flowers to place in front of the Chairman’s portrait. It would have taken a fairly large Uhaul to truck all those flowers away!
As for Mao, he looked… orange. Really orange. They appear to use an orange florescent light to light him up, although even in the shadows under his ears he still looks orange. Another weird embalmed socialist leader experience, but still oddly worth it each time.
The Great Wall
Of course, no trip to Beijing would be complete without visiting the Great Wall. Because of the difficulty getting to the wall on public transportation, we opted for a tour run out of our hostel to the Jinshaling and Simatai sections of the wall. After an hour picking people up throughout Beijing and a few more hours getting to the wall, we were set lose to explore on our own with instructions to meet at a separate entrance 7km away.
The section that we walked is less restored and sees fewer tourists (although that’s a relative concept). Walking along the wall felt more like being on a stair master at times as the section isn’t exactly flat. By the end of our climb (and the many, many steps down to the exit) my knees were even feeling a bit shaky!
Of course, being a group tour someone was super late getting back to the meeting point. We enjoyed a late lunch before getting back to the city super late due to traffic. In fact, instead of being dropped off back at our hostel, we were basically told that our option was to hop off and take the subway (45 mins) or wait on the bus for another 2 hours as it navigated city traffic. Subway it was!
Perhaps my favorite temple due to its quirky side alters filled with statutes of imaginative monsters/creatures.
Also, Michael liked that there were cats there. The temple didn’t seem to be on the tourist route and was pretty empty when we visited.
The Olympic Park/Bird’s Nest
The two major stadiums built for the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics, the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, are located side-by-side in the Olympic Park. Set away from many of Beijing’s sites, the area reminded us of La Defense in Paris, except the area seems to function solely as a tourist attraction now. We didn’t opt to pay the high fees to tour either complex and settled for a stroll through the park between two metro stations.
Despite our many protestations that we “don’t visit museums” anymore, Beijing had a few that were worth a visit. The National Museum of China has a huge collection, including a huge exhibit on Ancient China on the basement level.
Michael stopped by the Beijing Railway Museum, which is housed in the old Qianmen Railway Station, while I lingered longer in the National Museum. We also made a quick visit to the Capital Museum, which is also housed in a huge building, although much of the space is lost to open space.
We focused on the small galleries on the Peking opera, folk traditions, and the history of Beijing, and then bypassed the rest of the museum.
While not necessarily a highlight, I forced Michael to attend the Peking Opera with me based on my recollections of the performance being… special on my prior trip. In retrospect, maybe not the best reason to go again. I didn’t realize when we booked the ticket that the performance is a one hour show in a hotel theatre that is performed primarily for tour groups. There is essentially no set and the performances move rather slowly (although the high-pitched singing is an interesting experience). I think that there is a decent chance that it was the same theatre and performance as the one I saw in 1998… Oh well, you can’t win them all.
We knew that Beijing would have a lot to see, but I think that we were both surprised by how much we enjoyed the city. Transportation was easy (we used the subway a lot and purchased the reloadable cards to avoid the lines) and the food was great (subject for another post). While the weather didn’t really cooperate and it was cold and rainy for much of the time (and smoggy for the rest), we made it work and hit up museums while it rained. We stayed in a great neighborhood just south of Tienanman Square that had lots of street food and fun statutes everywhere.
The crazy thing is that even after a week in Beijing, there are still lots of sights that we didn’t make it to! Oh well, another trip 😉
[This blog post describes our trip to Beijing, China on October 17-25, 2016.]