A March 2005 trip
to Beijing by MichaelJM
Quote: Beijing is a great city for tourists, and in this journal I describe the sights we explored within easy reach of the City Centre.
I’ll never forget our visit to Tiananmen Square. It was a bitterly cold day, the wind was ferocious, and the red flags were vigorously flapping, but the square was constantly occupied. I guess you don’t visit Beijing without a walk across this historic square. Whilst there, we were approached by a man with his elderly father who asked that I allow his father to have his photograph taken with me. It was an East-West kind-a-thing, and he shook me by the hand with real warmth. I speculated that it was the first time he’d been to the square and wanted to celebrate by meeting a Westerner. Something that, at one time, he
could have only dreamt about.
Take in a few parks, as Beijing does these really well, and although they were not awash with blossoms, they were still spectacular. I’d heartily recommend an organised trip to a Hutong (see my separate journal), and we tried to eat in "local restaurants" to try the indigenous dishes (not all to our liking, I’m afraid).
The Summer Palace, Forbidden Palace, Great Wall, Beijing Zoo, Tibetan Temple are all synonymous with Beijing – we did them all. We saw snow, high winds, bright blue skies, and heavy rain--what contrasts.
We’ll remember a city so free of litter it’s hard to imagine, the genuine politeness and friendliness of the Chinese people, the crossing attendants with their megaphones and whistles, and high levels of industriousness. But scoured on our memory will be the nauseating habit of spitting. It’s proceeded by a low rattle to clear the throat followed by a disgusting dribble onto the pavement. It seems to be culturally acceptable, and it’s a shame that this will always be part of my Chinese memory.
The other potential predators are the aspiring "official" guides who need to practice on you so they can secure a job as games official when the Olympics come to Beijing. I’m a cynic and believe that both groups wanted to sell their knowledge to me as a "guide for the day". I’m afraid I gave them little time.
Beijing has a few beggars – avoid eye contact and keep walking. They are a nuisance but soon go away!
My final tip, again obvious, is to carefully plan your time in Beijing. There’s so much to see that you won’t want to waste a minute.
If we were travelling any distance at all or were a Little weary, we opted for taxis. Our hotel had given us a card with key place names in both English and Chinese. This proved really helpful, as we were always able to head back to our hotel or to a key tourist attraction. Drivers were able to speak a little English, but not enough to rely on. Never accept a taxi-trip off the meter – it will be more expensive than the metered fare.
Beijing has a comprehensive bus service, but we didn’t really get to grips with it, and it always seemed crammed full.
Attraction | "Shopping around Wangfujing"
The modern shopping malls are vast and generally uninspiring. I cannot be enthusiastic about the architecture, but they are very roomy and bright. The shops were fairly characterless, typical of a huge shopping mall. In contrast, the small boutiques on Wangfujing are intimate and often crammed with quality clothes at often bargain prices. I don’t know if we fell lucky, but there seemed to be sales in almost every other shop. On Wangfujing, we found small designer-label outlets, reputable "chain stores", speciality shops (one selling only chopsticks), jewellers, and loads of shoe shops and sportswear retailers. No bargaining to be had if a sale was in progress, but to be honest, the prices were exceptionally good in those circumstances.
We found a small permanent market just off Wangfujing. Entry was a little seedy, and my wife was initially a little reluctant, but it was fine. A courtyard surrounded by low-quality food stalls led to an extremely narrow alleyway flanked by stallholders anxious to make a deal. This market is mainly silk wear, bric-a-brac, and chopsticks. We hurled ourselves into negotiating for a set of chopsticks and ended up with 20 pairs for less a third of the price of the original asking price for ten. I got the impression that stallholders were having a lean time – great news for us tourists!
The Donghuamen market was originally formed in 1984, with stores selling a variety of foods based on speciality Beijing snacks. An official plaque at the beginning of the market declares, "In 2000, to carry forward the culinary culture and enhance the friendly exchanges with foreign countries, the people’s government rebuilt the night market for dainty snacks". Now there are almost 100 stalls in this well-lit road with chef’s sporting clean white overalls, hats and red aprons. Here you can buy all manner of food. We saw small toffee apples, pineapple fritters, coconuts and all manner of exotic drinks. Skewered snakes were menacingly thrust at us by stalls holders who taunted us to try and deep fried insects were forlornly lined up in display bowls. There were a range of animal’s heads (for show or to eat?) and a number of items looking as if they were the genitalia of ex-rampant animals.
The area was remarkably free of "bad aromas" and although locals were buying and eating groups of tourists tended to look and photograph. This market had a great feel to it and although I was tempted to chew on an insect I did resist (now back home I regret I "didn’t have a go"). Don’t miss this market; the sounds, smells, and atmosphere are just sensational.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 22, 2005
Wang Fu Jing Shopping Area
Wang Fu Jing Avenue, Dong Dan Bei Avenue and Dong si Nan Avenue
Once in the park, we were struck instantaneously by its serenity. Restful music was gently playing and the hassle of the street traders was gone. This park, however, claims a grisly history, as the last of the Ming Emperors hung himself from a tree as rebel troops, led by Li Zicheng, a peasant, invaded the city. It seems that the huge hill was constructed with the excavations from the mighty moat that encircles the Forbidden City, with the expressed intention of protection the palace from the evil spirits emanating from the north. We have no evidence indicating how successful this was!
It is a fair walk to the top, but it is well worth the climb, because the view is breathtaking. We tried to leave the view, until we reached the summit and then gasped to see the whole of the palace laid out in front of us like a tapestry. This vantage point provided us with a 360-degree vista of Beijing and its surrounds. Breathtaking – and that’s the view as well as the clambering to this prime-positioned pagoda. Around the pinnacle were a number of local militia - we weren’t sure if they were guarding the Buddha housed in the pagoda or just enjoying the view like the rest of us.
We slowly meandered our way back to the park’s lower grounds, enjoying the curvaceous trails and varied vegetation. Often, the path virtually doubled back on itself, and we did wonder if the emperor had been hauled up this route in a sedan chair (he certainly wouldn’t have walked!). In the park, we watched many locals practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi; some were fascinating to watch and superbly balanced in every minute movement. It was here that we first observed the "walking backwards" routine, a strange one I got in trouble for trying ("Stop it! They’ll think your taking the mickey," was my wife’s comment).
There were a few ornate buildings, but generally, this was a place to chill out and appreciate the wonders provided by nature. Remembering that this was all man-made, it was not out of place to see bizarrely shaped trees (presumably manipulated in their growth), rocks "carefully positioned" for effect, and the odd statue.
Overall, this park was incredibly serene and a superb wind-down after the Forbidden City.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 25, 2005
Jing Shan Park
Jing Shan East Street, North of the Forbidden City
+86 (0)10 6404 4071
I really wanted to think that this was a city built in the 1400s, but in reality, most of the buildings are post-18th century. Certainly the site is original, but most of the buildings were regularly destroyed by fire (accidental or intentional), and the massive "fire buckets" that circle the buildings would have proved totally inept for dousing the flames. Despite the rebuilding, it’s really not too difficult to imagine the privileged lifestyle that was enjoyed by the emperor and his chosen ones. I’m not sure I’d go for the life of a eunuch, despite the fact that the chief eunuch was highly valued by the emperor.
We gazed at the wonderful workmanship that had ensured that every minute detail had been created in perfection, and I shall never forget the comment we heard as we were looking at one of the emperor’s rooms. I was admiring the decorations and intricate carving on one of the emperor’s thrones when a loud voice remarked, "It’s just a chair. What more can you say!" The same person was probably dismissive of the giant carving that had been dragged to the city on a bed of ice – no mere feat in my view.
All the buildings in the complex had a dedicated purpose, and many are in the process of being restored to their former glory. Although this can detract from the splendour of the Forbidden City, we could not help but admire the diligence of the workforce as they used simple tools to rebuild parts of this precious heritage. The roofs of the important buildings, bordered with no less than 10 figurines and colourful patterned ceilings supported by decorated pillars, were the features of the buildings. Outside, on the ornate terraces with their vast sundials and incredible statues, we had commanding views of the courtyards and a preview of the next impressive building.
We were impressed with the imperial gardens on the northwest and northeast of the complex. They were prefect reflections of each other, and the twisted trees, curvaceous walkways, and "perilous hills" gave a surreal feel to the place. Ornate pagodas were built over gently flowing streams, and despite the crowds, it was still possible to find a quiet haven.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 28, 2005
North Of Tiananmen Square Dong Cheng District
Beijing, China 100009
+86 (0)10 6512 2255
Attraction | "Temple of Heaven Park"
The design of the park is highly symbolic. The north wall is semicircular (heaven) and the southern perimeter is square (earth). There are two altars; in the north there would have been prayers for a bumper crop, and this group of buildings is spectacularly extravagant. The large round building (you’ll often see it in photos of Beijing) is encircled by three ornately carved marble terraces evocatively named "two dragons over mountains and seas," "two phoenixes over mountains and seas," and "auspicious clouds over mountains and seas." Inside the temple, not an inch has been left unadorned - there’s a plethora of colour and design, and bright-red columns sport a gold design of exotic flowers creeping from terra firma heavenward.
We were amused by the Seventy Year Old Gate created as a shortcut for the emperor Hong Li when he became increasingly frail. This wily fellow decreed that none of his successors could use the gate unless they reached the age of 70 (hence its name), and none of them ever did! At the time of our visit, the area was blocked off for renovation.
We stumbled upon a group of tourists clustered around the Nine-Dragon Juniper Tree, so named because the tree’s trunk mimicked the shape of dragons slithering up the gnarled bark of the tree. Just let your imagination run wild!
Make sure you go to the Echo Wall (we nearly missed it) and try to whisper you’re your partner on the opposite side of the circular courtyard. The sound does reverberate along the wall, but to fully appreciate it, you’d need to ask other tourists to vacate the plot. I was tempted, but I guessed that they wouldn’t have complied.
Finally, we tried to imagine the scene with the ritual fires being lit, the solemn sacrifice being made to heaven, and the joyous celebration that would follow the preceding period of fasting.
This is a great and vast site, and I reckon it’s a must-see when you’re in Beijing.
Temple of Heaven
Tian Tan North Rd.
Beijing, China 100050
+86 (0)10 6702 2242