The China portion of our blogging is going to take a somewhat different form from our previous posts. In each location, we will summarize our overall thoughts and impressions of the city or region and then include a laundry list of the exact place or attractions we’ve seen and a brief description of each. This later part promises to be a bit less introspective and also somewhat less entertaining, but this is the product of a few factors.
First, as you may have noticed, our blog has fallen a bit behind with some blame due to the Great Firewall of China and even more to procrastination. Life is about to get a bit more hectic for us in the near future (we will soon elaborate) and we will likely have very little time to catch up, and so the same level of depth of discussion is not realistic.
Second, there are certainly numerous and sometimes dramatic differences between the cultures and people in different regions of China, but the sad reality is that what we’ve previously referred to as the Hanification of Chinas cities has left very little variation between the urban centers across the country. Many of the observations of one city are quite the same as another, and we don’t want to be to repetitive in our commentary.
Beijing’s international image seems clouded in reports of periodic outbursts of severe smog, and this is something we both expected and were none too excited to experience, especially immediately on the heels of two weeks in Mongolia’s pristine airs. But what we did experience was beyond our wildest expectations, such thick smog that the upper floors of ten story buildings were barely discernable and the city’s iconic CCTV building completely disappeared into the haze. On days when the smog set in – and this happened six of our eight days in Beijing – nothing was clear and wandering the street felt a bit apocalyptic on the worst days. We had two clearish days in our eight, and from what we were lead to believe from people we talked to these clear days are becoming much more infrequent even in the past year. As prepared as we thought we were for the smog, we had no idea it was exactly this bad.
And that’s pretty much the only thing Beijing doesn’t have going for it, other than the severe smog we found it to be a remarkably comfortable place – and yes, I do realize that this is a bit like saying the serial murderer down the street is actually a swell guy so long as he’s not holding a knife. But Beijing has plenty of history, tons of greenery, lively old alleys and is one of the few cities in China that retains the culture of its people in the buildings and layout. The food was pretty good too – sure, everybody comes for the duck, and it was fantastic, but I think you stay for the delicious donkey meat sandwiches and fried snake.
This complex was originally built as a palace for the emperor’s son, but when the son ascended to emperor the palace was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery. It survived the cultural revolution, supposedly largely thanks the influence of one of Mao’s most trusted advisors who had studied here as a boy.
And it is a beautiful temple with colorful and bright Chinese style buildings and interior decoration in the Tibetan style. While the temple is kept well restored, it is not overly so like many of Thailand’s temples and it does retain a lot of its character. It was a surprisingly pleasant place for being right in the center of Beijing.
To best describe this place, cold and massive are the words that come to mind. Whereas Red Square was surprisingly small and full of character, Tiananmen Square was a large, grey, fenced and emotionless area in front of the Forbidden City. The square itself is surrounded by huge cold concrete buildings like the China Museum and the Great Hall of the People. Tianamen Square was well covered by security, hawkers, and tourists.
Forbidden City / Palace Museum
The Forbidden City is basically the main palace, the former home of most of the emperors. It is an enormous place, filled with countless buildings and courtyards all protected by substantial walls. It is so large that to visit all of the publicly open parts takes a full day.
There are many, many halls and chambers, all with really very impressive names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Longevity, the Hall of Character Cultivation, etc. In addition to the sights down the center of the ‘city’, there are mazes of living quarters along the sides. Each hall and building contains furniture and decorations originally from or reminiscent of those present during the residence of past emperors. It’s really an incredible place to explore.
The park is set north of the Forbidden City and has a beautiful garden atmosphere with a hill in the center which lends 360 degree views of the city. It puts into perspective the incredible size of the Forbidden City, as well as the span of Beijing. It also offers good views of Beihai Park or Winter Palace, and it is from this perspective that you truly see just how much of Beijing’s center is covered in large parks and green space.
Beihai Park / Winter Palace
A beautiful garden dating back 1000 years with paved walking paths around the lake, the Beihai Park had pavilions and towers with classic Chinese style. It was an attractive park to saunter through.
The Summer Palace grounds are really impressive, a huge park littered with temples, royal residences and other buildings. According to UNESCO, “The Summer Palace in Beijing is an outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole.” We agreed.
The Great Wall – Mutianyu
There are many sections of the Great Wall that one can visit, however, as a non-Chinese speaker, the options are limited. We opted for a tour through Saga Hostel. The tour ended up being a decent decision. The group was okay, the food reasonably tasty and the time frame acceptable, though with any of the open parts of the wall you’re seeing mostly reconstruction.
Mutianyu contained 26 watch towers and a great stretching section of the wall that climbed up and down the mountainsides. We took the ski lift up, which dropped us near the end. We walked a couple hours along the wall to the center and back. Our visit coincided with quiet a foggy, smoggy day, but we were still able to enjoy the experience.
The sight of the wall curving along the ridges is intriguing and it’s difficult to imagine how it was completed. However, beyond the sheer effort of moving and placing the stone, the wall itself is not beautiful, artistic or even imaginative. It’s hard to get too worked up about a demonstration of brute force without any artistic value. To celebrate the wall is to celebrate that which can be accomplished by slavery and forced labor, but the same could be said for many historic places.
A hip and busy tourist street with great ambience and a youthful feel. It is called a hutong but had long since lost it’s old hutong feel. Still, this is where Beijing’s young seem to congregate and that alone was worth a visit.
The Temple of Heaven
Another UNESCO world heritage listed location, the sacrificial complex contained unique buildings with beautiful relics and historical background. The most impressive was the circular, three-tiered, conically roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Saga International Youth Hostel
Located on a hutong with old style buildings and a local feel, this hostel deserves a mention because it was such a great place to stay while in Beijing. The rooms and bathrooms were tidy and clean, and the staff friendly and helpful.It was easy to access the metro and the sights of the area.