Written by Kat Mackintosh
China deserves a visit of more than a few days – Beijing deserves at least five of its own to see all the must see sights – this is the way I managed to fit as much into five days as possible:
Arriving in a new place after a long flight is always a bit disorientating – especially if you don’t speak the language or read the script and don’t know where you’re going. The good news is that arriving in China is easier than it could be. From the airport you only have one train option to link you to the underground, and once you get that far all trips are a flat fee and the ticket machines have a button to press for an English translation – score!
Now that you’re feeling all empowered it’s time to brave the roads where I’m convinced people are trying to hit you - or if not trying then failing to try not to. My secret remedy to this problem is to affix yourself to the oldest looking local you can find – not only do they command some respect they’ve also managed to survive the roads this long.
Once settled, the first thing any visitor to Beijing should do is head to Tiananmen Square if you’re a walker walk some of your way to get your bearings, if not, remember the flat-fee underground is your friend. Walking around the vast island in traffic between the old city gates, Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in the Beijing you’ve seen photos of.
If you have time for it wander around the hutongs to get a feel for the other side of Beijing, the side with all the people and the smells and the colour, before sitting down to your first local meal, which I’m sure you’ve been waiting for hungrily, in one of the restaurants. I decided the best way to choose a restaurant was to agree on certain features to insist upon – menus with photos is probably the big one, but I followed that by not dining anywhere that was empty or that had strip lighting - but everywhere I ate was fantastic so either I was lucky or the strip lighting check box was enough.
Venturing into Tiananmen Square on your first day means you may want to head further a field on your second. You can’t come to Beijing and not visit the beautiful laid out gardens and monuments of the Summer Palace, and it’s a good choice for a first full days outing. You can get there by boat from the Beijing Zoo which means you can have a quick look at the pandas on your way though, followed by a quite civilised boat ride along the canal – which is the way the royal family used to move between the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. The boat brings you in at the bottom of the gardens so you approach the main temples and palaces on foot beside lotus thick waters, getting the full view of the lovely landscape on the hill rising in front of you. Many seperate monuments, temples and palaces make up this palace complex – all laid out as if it’s a miniature landscape all of its own with a horizon of scaled down pagodas suggesting distance. The detail of it is genius, who would be so exacting as to consider creating a horizon to compliment the beauty of the palace.
Even if you consider yourself a proper ‘traveler’ rather than a ‘tourist’, popping from sight to sight to see them all, there are some places where both groups meet up and the Temple of Heaven is one of those places. UNESCO has listed it and, set in a huge park, the tour buses love it, so be prepared for people in lines following guides with loud speakers. When I remind you that it is round with a three tiered blue roof you’re sure to have the image flash up in your mind – its beauty is photogenic as well as awe inspiring in person. It’s pleasant to wander the gardens, visiting the Hall of Echos as well and it’s worth taking the time to examine the detail in the carving and the paintings. Each block was done by hand in China’s very labour intensive way, and each dragon on each tile of the temple roof has had its eyes painted on individually.
This is an auspicious spot – supposedly where the heavens meet the earth - but don’t expect reverence, the cultural revolution stamped a lot of that out and it hasn’t crept back to the same extent.
Enter from the South Gate and you’ll see all the temples line up in front of each other and exit by the North gate to spend an afternoon in the hutongs. Pay special attention to the art district which will be on your left. Begining there you can walk through to the famous banking and money streets and past the ancient tea and Chinese medicine shops and a shoe store that sold shoes to Russia’s Tzars.
If you’re planning to visit Lao She’s Teahouse for the eclectic evening of entertainment it offers, tonight would be a good night to book it, you can dine there too, if you can afford it – as well as taking tea of course. Lao She’s is quiet touristy now but still one of the easiest way to enjoy snippets of a variety of Chinese traditional entertainment.
Watching the film ‘The Last Emperor’ and a brisk semesters jaunt through Chinese history – where I’ll admit I began to lose track of the names and can only really remember Empress Cixi, like an evil step mother salivating for power, Jin Pin, the shockingly unattractive (sorry Jin), concubine and poor Pu’yi and Guangxu, the last and next to last Emperors – was enough to tug my heartstrings towards the prison of perfect luxury that was the fabled the Forbidden City. But even if I knew nothing about it, the name would be enough to make me want to visit. Save this trip the fourth day so you’ll have caught up with a bit of history and be more excited about your visit, then pick up a reasonably priced audio guide – virtually your only source of on site information in English - to hear some of the stories that bring this place to life.
The audio guide offers several routes, one goes straight though the palace’s centre, the other weaves through the East and West wings as well. The weaving routes will take about five hours, the centre route as little as two if you’re moving quickly, but you’ll miss out on a lot.
If you’re like me then you’ll be thrown out of the Forbidden City at five o’clock – a charming tune played over the tanoy rings the end of the day here – after which make a beeline for Beihai Park which is open ‘till nine PM and a lovely place to stroll and ponder the vast weight of history you’ve just come into contact with. If you enter through the north entrance and exit through the south you’ll end up at a colourfully lit area between two lakes lined with markets bars and restaurants – a good place to spend your fourth evening in Beijing.
On your fifth day you’ll have absorbed enough history to get out of the city and see The Wall. Several sections are open to the public and your finances and time restraints may have the final say over which section you visit. The Mutianyu section is about an hour and a half out of Beijing, and is well preserved and well serviced, but not the most touristy stretch. There are transport links but it’s worth looking into the cost of hiring a driver for the day, who will drop you at the bottom and meet you in a few hours.
Most people get the cable car up the hill onto the wall then walk along it – on your far left is a very steep section – but definitely worth the effort and on a good day the conquerors at the top will cheer you along. Coming down from the wall you can use the cable car again or else opt for the less known option – a toboggan slide. It may seem like an unlikely marriage of ancient and modern but it’s a logical and quick way to get down the hill and the younger people love it.
Come back to town via the shopping district beside Tiananmen Square and drop into the night markets to pick up any last minute gifts or treasures, like a Chairman Mao watch, some jade or some tea, before filling up on noodles.
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