My last post was about Xi’an, one of China’s ancient capital cities, this post is about its current one – Beijing. We took our second overnight train of the trip between the cities. The first nocturnal journey had gone smoothly, I am a big fan of killing both the accommodation and traveling birds with one stone. Chengdu to Xi’an was fine, a little emotional at the beginning after saying our goodbyes but I had no complaints about the journey itself. I watched 12 Angry Men in my bunk and it instantly went into my top 5 films of all time – bonus. The Xi’an to Beijing leg wasn’t so great though, I sneezed a lot and didn’t sleep very well at all. By the time we arrived I felt like I had a cold, I was under the weather during the first day in the Chinese capital. Anyway, enough about poor little me…
Beijing is a metropolis, an absolute giant with a population of around 20,000,000. On top of this vast population I’d imagine it’s the most-visited city in China, perhaps along with Shanghai. It is the closest big city to China’s greatest attraction and also has many places of interest within its boundaries. Again, I have to repeat the confession that’s been running through my posts on China – I didn’t actually know much about Beijing or what was there before arriving in China. I doubt many British people could reel off a list of things to see in Beijing, it seems to me that China remains quite mysterious. The first place of interest we visited was Tienanmen Square. This place is permanently busy and you pass through airport security checks to get to it. Most of the tourists were Chinese, the country is so vast that very few of my students in Sichuan had visited the capital. I’m shocked when I hear someone hasn’t made the trip to see London but then England doesn’t compare to China for size. The panorama photo below suggests the square wasn’t very crowded, that’s not how I remember it.
You can visit several cultural sites from Tienanmen Square including the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace for almost 500 years, this secluded area in the heart of Beijing was the home of the emperors and their people. The likes of you and I weren’t allowed in, hence the name ‘forbidden’. A portrait of Chairman Mao watches over you as you enter, by chance he was on my t-shirt the day we went…
There were so many rooms to visit but we didn’t have a lot of time to see all we wanted to see in Beijing, to be honest I think we rushed the Forbidden City. Reviews and guidebooks describe it as the most incredible thing to see, it didn’t leave this impression on me. The garden at the end was quite beautiful, that is what sticks in the memory the most. After leaving we crossed the road and climbed the hill in Jingshan park, from its summit you look over the Forbidden City and get a sense of its scale. The rooftops get lost in the heavy Beijing smog.
Other places of interest around Tienanmen Square include the National Museum of China and, my personal highlight, the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. The National Museum was informative, it’s a tall order trying to take in China’s enormous history but this is the place to do it. Although I am a history graduate I am only really interested in the 20th century, this is what I was most eager to read about. What happened before that? Well from what I gather there were centuries of fighting between regional warlords and lots of dynasties basically. Boring. Skip forward to Mao. It seems Mao’s revolution has brought some relative stability to the country, the people are behind their country and its system – whether through genuine belief or fear is a different matter. The People’s Republic of China was born in 1949 and this new state needed a new flag, I thought this exhibit showing the different ideas was very cool. In my opinion some of these are actually better than the one they chose.
Time for the best part of Tienanmen Square – Mao’s resting place. The mausoleum is only open during the morning so we set an alarm and headed for the square, thinking we’d get in quite quickly. Wrong. People come from all over the country to pay homage to the father of modern China. The queue was already massive by the time we got there, lots of people holding flowers as if they were visiting a loved one’s grave. I think we noticed one other non-Chinese person, apparently getting up early and queuing to see the dead body of a person many consider a tyrant isn’t high on many itineraries – who knew? I had never seen a dead body, why not start with one of the biggest historical figures of the last 100 years? To show respect no photos are allowed, the photo on the left is the queue beforehand and the one on the right is the view of the exit. Mao is guarded by two soldiers and you must keep walking, no stopping to have a get inspection allowed. It was quite a surreal experience.
Away from Tienanmen Square we managed to tick off a few others sights in Beijing, the big one that was missed was the Summer Palace. It was optimistic to see Beijing within a few days, especially as one of those was reserved for the wall. Beihai Park is located just to the side of the Forbidden City, the ex-imperial garden is now a lovely public park. Not so public though, I’m pretty sure it was expensive to enter. We rented a boat on the lake, something I’d recommend doing for some relative peace and quiet in the middle of Beijing.
The final two places worthy of being mentioned in this post are the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Temple of Heaven. Modern China and traditional China exemplified. I know from living near to London the impact an Olympic games can have on a city and a country, I think the Chinese probably took it to a whole new level in 2008. The government wanted to impress the world and invested a fortune to put on a show, they needed a stadium worthy of a young Usain Bolt et al – the Bird’s Nest and its iconic design met the mark.
As I said, we didn’t have all the time in the world to see everything we would have liked to and it was a matter of sacrificing either the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven. We opted to go to the Temple of Heaven, it was nearer to our hostel. The Summer Palace will have to wait – I’d like to revisit Beijing in another season, July was too hot. So, the Temple of Heaven has its own complex, it’s a nice park where we saw locals jogging, there were some really nice flower displays as well as benches for taking it all in. All you could want in a park. The temple itself is ornate, intricate and everything we’d come to expect in an important Chinese building.
Beijing has so much to offer, the fact this post has gone over 1,000 words is proof of that. I haven’t even spoke about the culinary world of China’s capital, we spent 3 evenings in a row trying to hunt down restaurants that served mock duck pancakes – this was my favourite meal before I went vegetarian, my willpower struggled at times. I need to go back there in a cooler season, eat some nice fake duck pancakes and see the Summer Palace. Until then, I won’t be completely satisfied with my Beijing experience!