Beijing is a lively and colourful place to visit. It's all the things you think it's going to be: heavy with ancient history and beautiful ornate design, rich in story and religious memory and monument, busy with wave after wave of people, permeated with strange smells, yet looking forward and ever modernising. Which is a lot to take in. The best way to start taking it in is to get out on foot or on the train network and see the city's main sights. Standing in Tiananmen Square you'll feel like you've really arrived and you can think about your next moves.
Which could follow this six day itinerary visiting the city's main sights and a couple of extra besides, leaving the last day's activities up to you.
The airport link between Beijing airport and the city is quick and easy, care of the Beijing Olympics. There are plenty of English signs explaining what to do, and a button on the ticket machines for the English version. Then it's a pain free single train ride to a station connected to the underground network.
It's slightly more challenging above ground, due to the apparent lack of traffic rules, but once you're settled into your hotel set out again on foot, or venture onto the flat-fee underground, and try and get a feel for the layout of the city. Tiananmen Square should be your first goal. Mao's Mausoleum is on the Square's apron, and the Forbidden City is at the other end, but unless you're arriving early you're going to need to come back and go inside them another day. Being in the midst of these iconic sights will reaffirm the feeling of having arrived.
To make a more authentic entrance onto the grounds of the Summer Palace, instead of just catching a cab or hopping the underground, arrive by boat in the style of the royal family. The added bonus of this mode of travel is that the boat to the palace leaves from the canal within the grounds of the Beijing Zoo, so you get a free stroll though the zoo, with special consideration for the louche Pandas, naturally. Don't stray too long though, the Summer Palace deserves a whole days worth of your attention.
One of the other advantages of arriving by boat is that you're dropped off at the opposite end of the lake to most of the buildings, which means you're granted the pleasure of spending an hour or so walking towards them, crossing intricately carved and arching stone bridges, and passing forests of huge water lilies and hidden temples. And the view is part of the experience, the Summer Palace is a perfected landscape created in miniature, so that the temples that grace the hills in the distance are actually smaller than life sized, designed to make the grounds appear larger than they are. Arriving at this entrance also means you're travelling in the opposite direction to the large tour groups.
Arm yourself with a map and circle the Seventeen Arched Bridge, the Long Corridor, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Collecting Moisture, The Hall of Happiness and Longevity, the Gate whose Eaves Capture the Clouds and the Temple of Heartfelt Contentment, which has a seat on which to sit which is supposed to provide just that. You may also want to take a boat ride from the island reached by the Seventeen Arched Bridge to the main hill covered in temples. The Lama Temple is the one right at the top, it, and some of the other temples, closes earlier than the grounds so climb to the top for the view sooner rather than later.
The Temple of Heaven is supposed to mark the spot where the heavens meet the earth. Raised on a hill, and then raised some more on tiers and stairs, then built three storeys up, this round temple is another impressive testament to Chinese art and design, with its roof of blue tiles, made to slot together without the need for glue or nails, and a ceiling of individually carved and painted panels. All made by hand about two hundred and fifty years ago. Expect crowds and a slightly festive feeling when visiting, rather than the hushed reverence you feel in European churches, there could be music, or impromptu tai chi demonstrations, after your stroll though its large landscaped park to its interior gates.
Beyond the Temple of Heaven are the hutongs, the slightly crazy alleys that are market, bank and residence for some, and resemble the Beijing you might have seen in the movies. Within these narrow streets are all sorts of treasures, including an art supplies alley – get your scrolls, bespoke stamps and stationary here - ancient tea houses, silk warehouses and shops selling Chinese medicine, as well as the old money changing lane - it's the skinniest so that people couldn't run away if they tried to steal anything - and a few narrow streets people still live in. Some of the alleys have been cleaned up and given a neon shine, some sell tourist trash – well, this is the heart of Asia, and some are lined with restaurants. This is also where some of the most popular backpacker hostels are.
Lao She's tea house is on the Tiananmen Square edge of the hutongs, and though it's quite touristy, it's still one of the most popular places to catch a Chinese variety performance, a bit of opera, a bit of dance, an bit of acrobatics for example, over an immense menu of tea options.
Most visitors to China are aware of how long The Great Wall is, so it's not surprising that there are many sections you can visit. If you're based in Beijing there are three popular sections to see:
Badaling: The most photographed and closest to Beijing, but also the busiest section of wall.
Mutianyu: About an hours drive out of Beijing, this section of wall is steep to get up to, so it's an idea to get the cable car up to conserve energy to attack the very steep section of wall at the far end of the 'public access' portion. At the other end of the accessible stretch is the toboggan you ride down from the wall. On the approach are market stalls.
Simatai: This section has had a lot less repair done on it and the locals refer to it as 'wild wall'. If you're coming from Beijing and want to have a more authentic wall experience this is a good option, however it's best with an overnight stay, and if you're going to do that you might as well hike along it for a bit and sleep on it as well – waking up to a sunrise over the wall...
There are tours to all three sections of wall, often combined with a trip to the Ming Dynasty Tombs which are a short bus trip away.
The Forbidden City is worth saving for the fifth day, when you've had a bit more exposure to Beijing's history and a few names might begin to stand out. Here's a hint: Empress Cixi, is like an evil step mother salivating for power, Jin Pin is the shockingly unattractive (sorry Jin), concubine, and Pu’yi and Guangxu are the last and next to last Emperors. Recognising a few names will make it a bit more enjoyable, but you don't need to do any research, especially if you opt for the audio tour, which is the only way to get filled in on what you're seeing: there's very little reading matter, and even less in English.
Though this was once one of the most exclusive places on earth it's now overrun with visitors daily. There's little furniture, art or artefacts to look at, but the complex itself is fascinating, both the square layout of walls hiding houses and the meaning of the allocation of living apartments within, and the way it's designed and decorated. The central hub of the palace is the busiest area and there's gift shops and cafes in the gardens, but you can get away from the crowds in the East and West palaces which flank the main temples in the centre. Here, where it is too time consuming and labyrinthine for the shepherded tour groups to dwell, the soap opera of intrigue that was the court life of the people who lived here begins to unfold with the help of your trusty audio guide.
At 5PM the music plays over the tannoy and you have to exit. If you leave by the back door, you're in line with the entrance to Beihai Park, which is open until 9PM. There's a famous restaurant here, and a tea house, but it's the lotus flowers and older people writing calligraphy on the pavements using huge brushes dipped in water that make this a really lovely place for an evening stroll.
If you exit though the south gate, across the road from you you'll find Donghuamen, a lively night market around a man made pond. The cafes, bars and restaurants here are pretty expensive but only by comparison. Pass by the Bell and Drum Temple in the middle of a busy traffic island if you fancy an extended evening stroll.
If you want to see the preserved remains of Chairman Mao get out in the early morning and wait in the queue outside the Mausoleum before you go into the Forbidden City. They usher you though quickly and you can't take any photos, but the queues are still long every morning outside the huge tomb.
At the end of your time here leave some time to either see the modern side of the city – the Olympic buildings, Factory 798, the Bauhaus designed art gallery in north east Beijing, and the Dashanzi art district, and do some shopping, or go further back in time with a visit to the Temple of Pool and Wild Mulberry, which is supposed to be older than Beijing, the Ming and Quing era Cuandixia Village, the Confucius Temple and the Underground City.
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