An April 2002 trip
to Beijing by Jenn966
Quote: A brief trip to Beijing as part of an MBA program (with my 45 classmates and about 4 guides to "wrangle" us!) brought the stares we were warned about, fascinating meetings with Chinese and Western business leaders and more meals on spinning trays than I ever wanted to eat!
* The "typical" tourist sites -- Tianamen Square, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and (of course) the Forbidden City -- didn't seem at all "typical" to this first-time visitor to Asia.
* Bei-hai Park, contains some of the most interesting architecture we saw in Beijing, has beautiful grounds and a restaurant that will feed you food "fit for an emperor."
* The Great Wall is a must see, and don't mind if you are on a tour that will take you to Ba Da Ling. It's gotten a bad reputation for being too "touristy" but I would remind you that you ARE a tourist and, if it's your only opportunity to see the Great Wall, it's better than not seeing it at all!
* If you are of Chinese ancestry, be prepared for people to speak Chinese to you -- whether you speak it or not.
* You may approached by Chinese people saying they are students or teachers and asking if they can practice English with you. Almost inevitably, this will turn into an invitation to see a display of artwork, offered at exorbitant prices. On our last night in Beijing, we finally found a tactic that worked: we pretended not to speak English. People spoke English to us and my friend spoke Polish back. Watching their frustation made me realize how silly it is to think that if you use simple English words, people who don't speak a word of English will understand you.
* We primarily used taxis to get around. They are relatively inexpensive (compared to NY cabs) and since there were at least two of us at all times, we decided it was better than spending time trying to figure out bus and train routes.
* The Summer Palace and the Great Wall are two sights you should see that are located outside the city. If you are on a tour, your itinerary will almost surely include them. If not, you can either hook up with a day trip or take public buses to reach them.
Hotel | "The Palace Hotel"
Have you ever entered the lobby of a hotel and the first thought that went through your head was "Where am I and what have they done to the hotel that I'm supposed to be at?" That was my first reaction to the liveried bellmen, and 5 or so story-high marble, crystal and gold decorated lobby. I wouldn't have ever chosen to stay at a hotel like this, but since I wasn't paying for it, I decided to kick back and enjoy.
We were conveniently pre-registered and picked up rooms keys quickly and headed for the elevators.
From a size perspective, the rooms were not overly large. By the end of the week, my roommate and I would have to be very careful not to trip over our suitcases and purchases. The two full-size beds were blissfully comfortable, complete with down-filled comforters and pillows.
The large marble bathroom held two sinks, a large soaking tub, shower stall and toilet with a separate door. It was thoughtfully stocked with a variety of typical items, such as shampoo, shower gel, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. No bottled water was provided: we were told that the hotel filtered all water. I didn't drink the water, but I did brush my teeth with it and suffered no ill-effects. There was a hairdryer. We were able to have an iron and ironing board brought to the room.
Having run out of clean clothes, I decided to use the hotel's laundry service. Yikes! I should have paid more attention to the price. It cost about $50 to wash, dry, press and fold/hang a small load of laundry. However, I didn't see any launderettes on the street and the clothes were too heavy to wash in the sink or tub.
Would I stay at the Palace if I were paying for it on my own? Well, since I had an extra night to spend in Beijing I decided to check into the cost. The hotel extended the group rate of $150/night to me, but I decided to pass and found less expensive accommodation closer to the Temple of Heaven, which was my destination for my last day in China. It was a beautiful place to stay, but you have to judge for yourself whether the "standard" rates are worth it to you.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 24, 2002
Peninsula Palace Beijing
8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing
+86 (10) 8516 2888
After the color and grandeur of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Forbidden City seemed a bit "flat" at first glance. But then, I started to notice the subtleties: the fine decorations at the top of buildings, the care with which the buildings were maintained close to their original condition (even down to the colors of paint).
I remember the first time I saw the film The Last Emperor and the view of the Forbidden City that opens up as the camera moved through the gates onto the first courtyard. This is one of the most interesting features of the City: you actually move through a series of gates and courtyards, each more grand than the one before. During Imperial times, you would move through the grounds in this manner, getting ever closer to the chamber in which the Emperor would (occassionally) hold court and meet ambassadors and important guests.
The buildings are mostly made of wood, and this is the reason for the large cauldrons located throughout the courtyards. While I did hear a mother or two making ominous comments to overly-boisterous children about boiling oil used as a punishment, these pots were actually used to store water in case of fire. They were made of iron so that fires could be lit under them to prevent the water from freezing during the cold Beijing winters.
After you pass through the main section of buildings, there is a lovely park and there are some pagodas which I believe you can climb to to get a panoramic view. One of the bad things about large group travel is that you live by the bus's departure time and so we weren't able to explore these areas. Leave yourself a half-day or so to see the entire palace and grounds. It's time well spent.
North Of Tiananmen Square Dong Cheng District
Beijing, China 100009
+86 (0)10 6512 2255
Attraction | "The Summer Palace"
The Summer Palace is a bit of a drive from Beijing and provided a way for the members of the court to escape from the summer time heat (for those of us from New York, I guess you could say it was Beijing's version of the Catskills). As with all of the Asian palaces I visited, there is no true "main" building. Instead, there are a series of buildings connected by walkways and gardens that lead you from the general reception areas, to the lake containing a Marble Boat(?!) and into the private areas reserved for members of the Imperial family.
One of the most interesting things I found was the long covered walkway leading from the entrance area to the lake. If you don't look up, you'll miss the exquisite paintings on the beams and ceilings (I'll try to find and post a picture of them ASAP).
We left the Palace through the "rear" entrance, and crossed over a canal on which there is a little village that housed the servants during the Imperial days. Sadly, it was time to get back to the bus -- it would have been fun to see those homes up close.
I believe there are public buses that will take you from Beijing to the Summer Palace. If not, your hotel or a tour agent could probably arrange a visit for you. You could easily spend an entire day here if you have the time, viewing the buildings and picnicing by the lake. But even an hour or two will allow you to experience this respite from the city's bustle.
Haidian, Beijing, China
Attraction | "BeiHai Park"
The White Dagoba can be seen reigning over the large lake that is the focal point of BeiHai (which means North Sea). The Dagobah was built in the 16th century to celebrate a visit to Beijing by the Dalai Lama. It has been destroyed by earthquakes twice since its original construction; the current version was built in the mid-1700s. The island on which the Dagobah stands is man made, using the earth removed when the lake was dug.
If you have the time, you can rent a boat and paddle about on the large lake (which takes up about 35 hectares or about 100 or so acres). A barge links the island near Fangshan with the Five Dragon Pavillion on the far side of the lake. Swimming in the lake is not permitted, but I understand that ice skating is popular in the winter when the lake freezes over.
Following this link will take you to a detailed description of the sights in BeiHai that I missed.
If your tour includes FangShan restaurant, try to budget some extra time to walk through the park. If you are not on a tour or if you have more than just a few days in Beijing, I think a visit to the park would be very worthwhile. If you are pressed for time, however, you might do better to pass on BeiHai in favor of other "key" sights, such as the Summer Palace or the Great Wall.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 24, 2002
Bei Hai Park
1 Wen Jin Street
Beijing, China 100034
+86 (0)10 6403 1102
By cab, Sanlitun was about 15 minutes from the Palace Hotel. The cab driver dropped us off at the southern end of the street, near the English sign announcing that you've arrived at "Sanlitun Bar Street" (it's official name). We strolled up one side of the street and back down the other, peering into smoky bars noisy with the sound of 70s hits being sung badly by cover bands. Finally, we decided we really wanted to sit and have a drink.
We picked the least smoky place we could find and pushed our way in. The beers were priced along New York lines (about $4 for a bottle -- mainly Heineken). The crowd was probably about 25% tourists, 25% European ex-pats and 50% local. The "band" consisted of two female singers backed up by a guy with a synthesizer and turntable. Things got a little fun when members of the audience were called on to participate. One of the guys I was with got up to sing himself, but decided I needed to sing with him. I wonder how many people can say they've sung "Hotel California" in a bar in Beijing?
Aside from the unique sensation of being on stage, the whole Sanlitun experience was not especially fun. Maybe I'm just too old for it. Another group of friends went to Dongdaqiao Xie Jie, a similar concentration of bars and clubs, and had a great time at Dirty Nellie's. If Irish-type pubs are your thing, you might find that preferable. Otherwise, you may find the bar in your hotel lobby will do just fine.
Sanlitun Bar Street
Sanlitun Lu or Sanlitun Jiuba Jie
Attraction | "Beijing Opera "Lite""
I'm not sure exactly how to describe the music of Chinese opera. I think it can be said that it uses a different scale or harmonic range than western music. The actors seemed to me to tell the story as much in their movement as through the words. With the basic plot explained to us -- the king returns from a battle, defeated by a commoner; unable to console him, his beloved concubine decides to kill herself to show her loyalty to him -- we were able to follow as the story unfolded.
The costumes and make-up were exquisite. I enjoyed the music, but I don't know that I would have enjoyed much more than the 20 minutes or so of it that we heard. I know it was about 19 minutes too much for some people, while others would have sat for another hour or two.
Princeton University has a succinct website that explains a little about the history of Beijing Opera that includes a description of the roles and some sound clips that might help you decide whether an evening at the Beijing Opera would be for you.
Beijing Opera Performances
175 Yong An Road
Beijing, China 100050
+86 (0)10 6301 6688
Tiantan is not a single structure. The building that is often captioned "The Temple of Heaven" is actually the Temple for the Prayer for a Good Harvest. The Temple of Heaven is comprised of several buildings and courtyards. Each year, just before the Winter Solstice, the king would leave the Forbidden City, travel in total silence through the streets, unseen by any commoner, and enter the temple precincts to make a petition for a good harvest.
To get the best sense of how it worked, enter the temple through the south heavenly gate. Up a set of stairs to the robing terrace, then another set to the Round Altar, where prayers would be said and sacrifices made. The number of steps is significant -- there are 9 sets of 9 stairs. 9, as the largest single-digit odd number, was considered the most heavenly number.
Down the stairs on the other side of the altar, you will approach the Imperial Vault of Heaven, surrounded by an Echo Wall. It is said that if you stand facing the wall and whisper, someone on the other side will hear you. We tried and it didn't work. It could have been, however, that the Chinese idea of whispering is several times louder than the American version of whispering ... most people went up to the wall and screamed.
The gates of Prayer for Good Harvest lie near the northern end of the park. As you pass through them, you get your first unblocked view of the Temple of Prayer for Good Harvests. The simple white and blue exterior belie the splendor of the interior of the building. Every inch is painted in a riot of colors, with intricate furnishings and cabinets to hold the relics. Push your way in to get a good view.
On either side of the courtyard in front of the Temple of PGH are two buildings: one which explains the annual prayer ceremony, the other containing articles used during the ceremony and scenes from The Last Emperor which was filmed in the Temple Grounds. It was a great way to end an amazing trip.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 24, 2002
Temple of Heaven
Tian Tan North Rd.
Beijing, China 100050
+86 (0)10 6702 2242
Attraction | "The Great Wall of China: Badaling"
From the entrance, you are offered two choices of a climb: steep and REALLY steep. I've called this an "athletic" sight because the better your shape, the more you'll be able to take in. We chose the steep side, and I climbed about half-way up before deciding I'd gone far enough to get a good view. Some of my classmates made it much further (the panoramic picture of the wall below was taken by one of them -- thanks, Mirek!)
Having climbed as far as I wanted and taken some pictures, I headed back down to stop in the shops. I spent about $20, and bought Chinese outfits for my three nieces, a cloisonne vase, a set of wooden dogs and a wooden dragon. Bargain with the merchants -- they'll often come down as much as 50% from the original asking price.
Our tour guide dispelled a long-held belief about the Great Wall, which is that it can be seen from the moon with the naked eye. The Great Wall is the only man made structure that can be seen from space with the naked eye. However, space starts 50 miles from the Earth's surface; looking at the Wall from the Moon would be like looking at a piece of string from 100 miles away!
Making a recommendation on this is tough, as I can't help but be influenced a bit by the guide books panning of the sight. If you are interested in a less touristy area of the Great Wall and have the time to travel further from major cities to see it, by all means do so. But do NOT leave China without visiting it somewhere.
Great Wall (万里长城)
North Of Beijing City
+86 (0)10 6912 1235
Group eating in China was fun, at least at first. A group of 8 or 12 of us would sit at a table in some amazing restaurant and the dishes would begin to be brought out to us, family-style. As I recollect, we'd begin with cold appetizers: pickled vegetables, a spicy cold beef or chicken, perhaps some soy beans or bean curd and typically a little bowl of nuts. We'd then move onto the hot appetizers: more meat and vegetables. Finally, the main dishes would be brought out. There wasn't always dessert, but if one was served, if was typically fruit, sometime a sweet rice dice or ice cream. Each dish would be placed on the lazy susan/spinning tray in the middle of the table, and you would wait until the dish worked its way around to you to take a bite or two. By the end of the week, though, I was ready for simpler meals with spicier food that didn't involve rotating a tray. If you are taking a tour, try to see if you can't take some meals on your own.
Table etiquette at these meals is fairly straightforward. Your place setting usually consists of a plate and/or bowl, a spoon in a spoon rest, a tea cup and a pair of chopsticks. As a general rule, use the spoon to serve yourself from the dishes -- not your chopsticks -- and set the spoon in the rest between servings. Some foods (like a dish of fried apples topped with spun sugar) may require you to use chopsticks, but try not to let them touch pieces of food other than the one you're eating. If you are eating from a fixed menu with a group, there will probably be just one plate of each dish per table. It's fun to try a bit of everything (unless you have allergies ... see below), so take a taste on the first go-round and then more if you want it later after everyone has had an opportunity to sample. It is true that white rice is not usually served (although it was provided on request); sometimes a special fried rice would be brought out as a final dish.
One warning: when we ate as a group, we didn't often get a good description of what was being served. I was lucky enough to usually sit at a table with a guide, one of the professors or one of my Chinese classmates. When we got no guidance from the servers, one of them could ask. If you have food allergies and will be travelling with a group in China, make sure you notify your tour company in advance, tell the guide and ask before you eat. If your allergies are very serious, think twice about independent travel unless you speak Chinese well enough to be certain that you will not be eating something that will cause a reaction.
Hamilton Square, New Jersey