Even though Beijing is not an ideal city to live in due to the high level of pollution, extremely cold winter and high density, it’s a perfect place for a sightseeing trip as it’s steep in history and culture. Unlike Shanghai, Beijing does not feel like a modern city. Instead, it feels very communist and the historical monuments and architecture are still very prominent. I recommend spending at least four full days in Beijing and definitely wear comfortable shoes because there’ll be lots of walking involved. In part 1 of my post on Beijing for tourists, I’ll focus on the historical sights that can’t be missed while in part 2, I’ll focus more on the cultural parts of Beijing.
The Great Wall
Chairman Mao once said that 不到长城非好汉 which roughly translates to ‘He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man’. While this may not be a compelling reason to visit the Great Wall for most of us, it is one of the great wonders of the world, parts of it are thousands years old and we used to (incorrectly) believe that it was visible from space. There are a couple of popular sections along the Great Wall that are close to Beijing – Badaling and Mutianyu. Badaling is easier to get to and hence, is more popular and tends to be overcrowded. We decided to hire a taxi to take us to Mutianyu instead and the whole trip took us just over half a day. It was not very crowded when we were there, but disappointingly, I felt that it was too developed and hence, lost some of its authenticity.
A few of the issues I had with it were (1) a Subway sandwich outlet near the entrance, (2) a lot of work has been done to restore the wall and you can actually see that most of the bricks were new, (3) there are quite a few vendors along the wall, selling souvenirs and snacks, and (4) there is a slide to descend the wall which seems odd. I’m probably being picky as it’s not surprising that the Chinese are trying to monetize one of the greatest tourist draws and it is also necessary to restore the wall in order to make it safe for visitors. Other than to appreciate the amount of work (and lives) going into it along with the magnificence of this piece of architecture, there are also fantastic views along the wall, so it’s still #1 on my list of places to visit in Beijing. Perhaps during my next visit, I’ll go to a different part that’s less developed such as Jinshanling.
Forbidden City and Jingshan Park
The Forbidden City, along with Tiananmen Square, is the core of Beijing. It is the Chinese imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It has been beautifully restored and gets thousands of visitors on a daily basis. We spent more than two hours there and we didn’t even manage to cover all the buildings and exhibitions within the palace. We started from the Tiananmen Square side, where Chairman Mao’s photo is just above the entrance. The grounds are well kept and the Chinese architecture is impressive and grand. Having grown up watching historical Chinese TV dramas, I can almost imagine the proceedings going on and the Emperor along with the Empress and the hundreds of concubines in these grounds.
We exited at the northern end of the palace, where there is Jingshan Park, which is definitely worth a visit. If I’m not mistaken, this was where the last Emperor of the Ming dynasty committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree when it became evident that the dynasty was falling to the Qings. In a pavilion on top of Jingshan Hill, which is the highest point in Beijing, we enjoyed a full view of the Forbidden City and fully appreciated the scale of it. Allow another 1-1.5 hours for Jingshan Park.
We dropped by Tiananmen Square before our visit to the Forbidden City but did not go into the National Museum or Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall. Even though there’s not much there other than a very gigantic square (definitely the biggest square I’ve ever been to) surrounded by massive buildings, it symbolizes the power of the government but also reminds us of the ugly history of the Communist Party. Of all the places we visited in Beijing, security was the tightest here so do behave and try not to look dodgy!
The Summer Palace is one of the few relaxing places to visit in Beijing, as its size makes it feel less crowded. It is the largest imperial park and was used by the royal family for R&R during summer. At the center of it is a large lake, where there is a beautiful bridge and lovely willow trees, making it quite a romantic walk. Take the time (I think we were there for half a day) to walk around the whole park, as you’ll come across bridges, flowers, painted ceilings, pavilions, etc. Don’t miss the marble boat, which is certainly unique and beautiful, and also the Suzhou Market Street where there are traditional shops along the water. We also climbed up the hill to see the temple and enjoyed the view from above. The best time to visit the Summer Palace is during autumn or spring, when the weather is cooler and hopefully, pollution isn’t as bad.
Lama Temple/Temple of Heaven
There are two prominent temples in Beijing – Lama Temple and Temple of Heaven. Each of them is unique and if you have time and haven’t grown tired of Chinese architecture yet, do visit both temples. Lama Temple is a Buddhist temple while the Temple of Heaven was used by the Emperors for worship ceremonies. Lama Temple has a more manageable scale, but its architecture is not too different to the buildings in Forbidden City, at least to my untrained eyes. Within the temple, there are many bronze and golden statues and in particular, an 18m tall Buddha statue. Our visit there took only an hour.
On the other hand, the buildings within the Temple of Heaven have very unique and beautiful architecture and decoration. Unlike other Chinese architecture which mainly features red and gold, blue is a prominent colour in the Temple of Heaven. However, the Temple of Heaven is within a park which is larger than the Forbidden City and it is a long walk from one monument to the next. The main monuments are the Circular Mound Altar, Imperial Vault of Heaven and Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Other than the Hall of Prayer, I didn’t think that the other monuments were worth the trek. So unless you fancy a walk or you’re keen to learn more about the Emperor’s religious practices, my recommendation is to just spend an hour here, going through the north gate and checking out the Hall of Prayer.
Have you been to Beijing? What did you think of the sights?