Beijing - 北京

by - May 09, 2014

Tiananmen Square
My visit to Beijing was an excellent example of all that is beautiful about the exchange to Hong Kong.  On a Monday morning, I arrived at the library early as usual in order to make a good start on the week’s work.  As I planned what I needed to do, I realised that I was more on top of things than I had anticipated and could probably afford to have a few days off.  In true exchanger fashion, my thoughts turned immediately to travelling somewhere and by the time I reached my first lecture I had already made a quick itinerary for a trip to Beijing.  I mentioned this to a friend of mine in the class who was also interested in visiting the city and by the end of the day we had assembled a group of four who wanted to go.  A week later, we would be on the Great Wall of China, three days into our trip.  Such are the unique and intoxicating opportunities on offer at this moment in my life.

Day One: Tiananmen Square and Beihai Park

Beihai Park
Tiananmen Square 
We arrived in Beijing from Hong Kong in the morning and grabbed a cab into the city centre where we would be staying at the Qianmen Hostel, south west of Tiananmen Square.  After exploring the side streets to find some food, we meandered up to the famous (or perhaps in western eyes infamous) square itself.  The world’s largest public square, Tiananmen has been the focal point of the few major protests against the communist authorities, most famously in 1976 and 1989.  Possibly due to the history of protests, it isn’t particularly convenient to get in  - it is only reachable through underground subways which contain guards and metal detectors.  As a result of this, despite being reasonably crowded, the square felt a bit sterile - as if everybody was trying to be on their best behaviour.  At the northern end of the square is the main gate to the Forbidden City and after getting our photos in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao, we cut through the outer courtyards of the palace on our way to Beihai Park on the north-western corner.

This park, formally an Imperial garden, is based around a network of lakes and temples and is a popular hangout spot for locals to spend their evenings.  In the centre of one of the lakes, accessed across a bridge, is an island with a large white Buddhist stupa at the top.  We were able to climb up to this point for great views over the park, the Forbidden City and Beijing as a whole - which despite being a reasonably gloomy day, wasn’t anything like as smoggy as we had been led to believe that it would be.  Continuing north through the park we eventually arrived at the Drum and Bell Towers, once the central point of Beijing and a Chinese equivalent to Big Ben - with drums sounded to mark every hour.  A good selection of restaurants surround the towers and one of these served well recommended Peking Duck - a must-have dish for any visitor to the city.  It certainly didn’t disappoint and was exponentially better than any that I have sampled back in Europe. 

Day Two: The Forbidden City and Jingshan Park

The Forbidden City from Jingshan Park
Inside the Forbidden City
We awoke to rain on the second day of our spontaneous Beijing trip and therefore tried to adjust the itinerary towards activities as indoor-based as possible.  With this in mind, we settled on the Forbidden City - as unmissable to China visitors as the Great Wall.  The walled city is the physical and cultural centre of Beijing and was once the home to the Emperors of China - named because only a privileged few were allowed through its gates.  Now the tables have turned and millions of tourists pour in every day to get a glimpse of the grand buildings and museums located inside.  Much like the Kremlin in Moscow, the Forbidden City requires a whole day to appreciate it fully and get to see all of its many parts.

The Clock Museum
Entrance into the city is from the southern gate, off Tiananmen Square, with the famous portrait of Chairman Mao on it.  Students get a discount, but the ticket unfortunately doesn’t include some of the extra exhibits such as the clock museum, though these were definitely worth paying for - the clock museum was full of the gifts that foreign dignitaries had given to the Emperor from Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Yes, the Forbidden City was full of package tourists, but to go to Beijing and not visit it would be unthinkable.  As part of a package with the Forbidden City I think it is important to visit Jingshan Park to the north, which is an artificial hill built from the excavations required for the palace and its moat.  The views back over the palace (and the rest of the city) are great and worth the climb.

Even elephants kowtow to the Emperor

The hutongs north of the Forbidden City

Day Three: The Summer Palace, Lama Temple and Olympic Park

The Summer Palace

View over Kunming Lake
One temple was just not enough for the Emperors of China and in the summer they would escape the heat of Beijing by heading about twenty miles to the north west of the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace, in what would then have been the countryside but is now part of the sprawling city suburbs.  The focal point of the palace is Kunming lake which was extended by the Emperors to provide an oasis of cool while being large enough for them to survey naval exercises.  The palace is also ingrained into the consciousness of China as it was the site of one of their great humiliations, when during the Second Opium War a coalition of British and French soldiers sacked it.  Many of the Chinese artefacts in the British Museum and its French equivalents were taken in what was frankly an atrocity - the sacred lawns of the old palace on which only the Emperor was allowed to walk were supposedly used by the British as a cricket pitch.

The pride of the Chinese navy…
What exists now was rebuilt at a slightly different site (we didn’t have enough time to see the ruins of the original palace unfortunately).  The current palace was rebuilt, but unfortunately the Emperors didn’t learn their lessons in terms of wise use of their resources - funds that were meant for the modernization of the Chinese military were diverted to the rebuilding.  This is perfectly symbolised by a large marble boat that is built on the banks of the lake which it is said was made using the funds earmarked for modern warships to replace the wooden rafts that were being sent up against the British and French ironclads.  As with the Forbidden City, entrance was cheaper for students.  The feel was very different to its city centre equivalent - this was more of a park containing beautiful buildings and the locals seemed to be using it as such, with many of them flying kites or doing tai-chi.  The best way out to the palace is on the rapidly expanding metro network, with the nearest station a short walk from the entrance.

A statue carved from a single tree
We could have spent a full day at the summer palace but there were plenty of other things that we wanted to see and we made our way back into the centre again on the metro.  We had by now done many of the major sights of Beijing and we spent the afternoon seeing some of the ‘best of the rest’, starting with the city’s most significant active Buddhist temple - the Yonghe Temple, which in the grand scheme of Asian temples was not particularly impressive but was still pretty enough.  Next up was the famous Olympic Park in the north of the city, which some guidebooks suggested had gone the same way as many other similar parks and become empty and soulless.  When we turned up however we were impressed to find that it was very busy, with more kite flyers and families out for weekend strolls in the sunshine.  After seeing the iconic stadium covered so much during the 2008 Olympics it was definitely worth a look and easily accessed from the city centre.  Our last location of our fairly busy day was on our way for dinner at a wonderful dumpling restaurant, as we saw the drum and bell towers which would once have been the city’s main timepieces.  We topped off the day by returning to the Forbidden City after dark to get some pictures of the beautifully illuminated walls and towers.
The four of us in front of the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium
The bell and drum towers

Day Four: Mao’s Mausoleum, Temple of Heaven and Panjiayuan Antiques Market

Temple of Heaven Park 
Chairman Mao in his crystal case 
Myself and Kevin started the day by getting up early and going over to Tiananmen Square to see the mausoleum of Chairman Mao.  Having already done trips to see the preserved bodies of Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in Moscow and Hanoi respectively, a part of me liked the idea of completing the “communist leader hat trick”.  Additionally, both of the aforementioned mausoleums were actually fascinating - both for being able to see the physical form of men who had shaped human history and also to watch the reactions of the tens of thousands of (mainly Chinese) people who file past on a daily basis.  In Moscow, the majority of visitors were morbidly curious westerners - but in Hanoi and now Beijing, the crowds were full of what were essentially mourners, some who cried at the sight of their dear leader’s body.  There were obviously no photos allowed inside, but I was able to find this one on the internet.

The Antiques Market
We picked up the others from the hostel and walked south to the Temple of Heaven Park, about two miles south of the Forbidden City.  The name is a bad translation - the location is not a temple, but is rather an 'altar’, where the Emperor used to come to make offerings to pray for good harvests and the like - though there are no monks, clouds of incense .  The main structure (shown above) is actually named the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests” and is one of the iconic sites in the city - though is actually smaller than I imagined.  The surrounding park is a haven of smaller shrines and gardens, with locals doing everything from Tai Chi to ballroom dancing, playing hacky-sack to badminton.  It must be said, that the Chinese make far better use of their public spaces than we do.  After some casual wandering we made our way east to the last sight of the trip, the antiques market at Panjiayuan.  I had expected the market to be a tourist trap, but it must be said the vast majority of people who were there were locals.  The goods on offer ranged from busts of Lenin to jade jewellery - and I was able to pick up a (supposedly first edition) English copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”, which seemed appropriate having been to see him that morning.  With that, our time in Beijing was up and we made our way through the heavy traffic to the airport on what was yet another gloriously sunny afternoon, feeling thoroughly delighted that we had gone ahead with our spontaneous visit.

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