Visiting Outer Beijing

A taxi drive away and, using Beijing as a base, you can visit The Great Wall, Ding Ling Tombs, Lama Temple, and Beijing Zoo.

Beijing Zoo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on May 3, 2005

I’m not a great fan of zoos, but we felt that no visit to Beijing would be complete without a bit of panda spotting. We took a 50RMB metered taxi ride to the zoo and paid our reduced entrance fee (we did not intend to visit the new aquarium) and then followed our noses (something we’d have preferred not to do in the elephant enclosure!)

The small cages and animal enclosures were 50s in appearance and not really conducive to good animal health. Indeed, we were surprised how unkempt much of the zoo seemed. The monkey enclosure was run down, and the captives looked unhealthy and unstimulated – a concrete pit with the odd suspended tyre was their home. Lesser pandas were restricted to a small, barred cage, and a variety of exotic birds were captivated with little room to stretch their wings.

On our walk round the zoo, we saw elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, tigers, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, birds, reptiles, insects, and wild dogs--all, I’m afraid, in very "tired accommodations". But we’d not come to see any of these, fascinating as they might be.

Finally, we made it to the panda’s plusher pad. Indoors, two large black and white bundles were draped over tree stumps. They were static, and I was beginning to wonder if we were ogling large stuffed toys until one of the beasts twitched. We could feel the hushed excitement around the viewing enclosure, but stillness prevailed. The audience settled back to watch and wait. But I’m impatient and spotted a door, which I headed toward. This way led to open outdoor pits, and in one sat a feeding panda. For several minutes, we were on our own with this cuddly animal as it chomped noisily through a seemingly neverending supply of bamboo, its large, powerful jaw shredding the cane with no difficulty, occasionally pausing to look around before returning to its meal. After a long and close study, we returned indoors, just in time to see one of the pandas start its slow demounting from its tree bed. Actions were slow and purposeful, and when it finally "hit" the ground, the panda fell in a heap and momentarily returned to slumber.

But it was on a roll, and within seconds, this huge, furry bundle was back on its feet and limbering up for more action! A few more steps, and then it collapsed again. This whole process was repeated several times, until the panda was able to walk the full length of the enclosure and back before taking another panda nap. The gathering crowd muttered enthusiastically every time the panda moved, and I’m sure this one was working the audience. It stretched, walked, collapsed in a heap, and then sauntered to the front window – right under our very noses. Here it paused and posed and finally yawned before returning to its "bed" in the middle of the enclosure.

What a great sight – well worth our 15RMB!

Beijing Zoo
131 Xi Zhi Men Wai Avenue
Beijing, China, 100044
+86 (0)10 6831 4411

The Great Wall of China: Badaling

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MichaelJM on May 6, 2005

We decided to take the more expensive option for this trip and travel by taxi, rather than a packed, boneshaker tour bus. We negotiated a day’s fare down to 500RMB and then sat back to enjoy the journey. Our driver spoke little English, but we managed to get by with gesticulation – the important thing was that he was a very careful driver, taking no risks and pointing out points of interest.

We chose to go to Badaling because this part of the wall had a cable car to and from its summit and has been well-restored. The down side is that this part of the wall is one of the most commercialised, and we would be guaranteed some heavy sells. It was an absolutely superb day visibility would be good. We relished our leisurely journey on the cable car (60RMB for a return journey), the wall profiled against the clear blue sky, but on occasions the ground seemed perilously close.

A short walk from the cable car and we were at the entrance for the Great Wall – one small problem we’d failed to buy our ticket from the small booth that’s tucked away to the left of the exit from the cable car. A gentle stroll later, we are climbing the staircase to top of the wall, and within seconds, we are standing on this structure. It snakes its way along the contours of this mountainous region and we were left truly amazed but wondering how defendable this huge border really was. I guess the true strength of the wall was its vastness and the statement it must have made to potential assailants. I certainly couldn’t resist imagining life in the guard towers firing off the odd arrow or two at marauding insurgents or setting off the first beacon to transmit a message back to the military headquarters. Indeed for a moment I pictured the distant hoard of oncoming tourists as backup troops. This place just encourages fantasies!

We hauled our way up to the top turret passing many a wheezing tourist as the struggled to negotiate various depth and width of step on the steep slopes of the wall. But the view from this upper vantage point is magnificent as the surrounding countryside is laid out in front of you like an intricate tapestry. Once we shrugged off the traders selling personally engraved plaques, scarves and T-shirts with slogans like "I walked the Great Wall," we were able to find a peaceful spot and pick out the wall’s looping manoeuvrings along the contours of the land.

The Great Wall had been on my "must-do" list for several years and as we paused for breath I realised that words to describe this wonder of the world were hard to find. I do remember reading that Richard Nixon had summarised his experience with the words "it sure is a great wall". I’m not sure I can top that!

Great Wall (万里长城)
North Of Beijing City
Beijing, China
+86 (0)10 6912 1235

Ding Ling Tomb

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MichaelJM on May 8, 2005

Ding Ling is perhaps the most popular of the 13 Ming emperor’s tombs, and although the approach is not great (a massive concrete car park), it did provide us with some interesting insights into the emperors’ obsession with preparing for the afterlife.

A museum outlining the geography of the tombs and some of the artifacts recovered from Ding Ling was our first point of call. A scale model helped us orientate ourselves, but we had more enthusiasm for some of the fantastic jewellery and headwear that was on show.

Another small museum, more like a hall of fame, photographically showed visiting statesmen to the tomb – interesting, but it didn’t really grab my attention. Whereas on the opposite side of the walkway, a like-sized hall gave an insight into the excavation processes and some macabre photos showing the actual opening of the empress’ tomb. There were numerous artifacts on display, each with a short description.

However, the exciting part of the complex was the walk from the Giant Bixi protecting the entrance into the huge manmade mound that protected the final resting place of the emperor and his two empresses. En route, we stepped onto a couple of raised platforms that were original sites of royal mansions. They were rebuilt after a fire on a much smaller scale, but were totally destroyed in the uprising of 1911. Here there has been no attempt to rebuild, but simple plaques describe the plot and point out the significance of the building’s footings.

Next, we meander our way up the gentle slope to the mausoleum’s entrance. A modern air-conditioned atrium awaits us, with officious guards undertaking security checks of on everyone. Having walked up, we now take a route down into the depths of the tomb. The staircase seems never-ending, and then we’re in a completely empty hallway. There is speculation amongst historians as to whether or not has been totally plundered, but generally the view is that this was intended for "lesser family" who would have died before the emperor and be entombed in advance. The area was apparently not required!

Moving through, the next hallway housed the thrones of the emperor and his empresses, and at the bottom was the vault where they were finally laid to rest. Replica coffins on raised daises were surrounded by 26 boxes that had contained the royal and sacred favourite items. The vaulted ceiling was an amazing structure and the exit from the tomb marked was by a massive ornate door, which, on closure, was bricked in for added security.

Having studied this large, cavernous space, which was totally devoid of wall decorations, we emerged into the daylight and climbed short hill to view the pagoda and the surrounding panorama. A large plain in front of us lead to the magnificent mountains in the distance.

There were no magnificent paintings, gilding, or carvings at Ding Ling, but the extravagantly simple mausoleum gives an interesting contrast to other sights we’d seen.

Ding Ling Tomb
Northwest of Beijing
Beijing, China

The Summer Palace

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MichaelJM on May 11, 2005

The Summer Palace is a good taxi drive (around 60 RMB on the meter) from the centre of Beijing, but better than attempting the journey by public transport.

We spent the whole day at The Summer Palace, and every turn or climb into the hills presents you with a cornucopia of fresh sights. It has been developed over the centuries, being enlarged by Emperor Quinling in the 1700s, rebuilt in the late 1800s, and restored after partial destruction in 1900 by invaders from 1949 to the present day.

The entrance seems fairly straightforward, with a dragon or two, a temple, and incense burners, but we took a right fork in the path and ended up in an enchanting and secluded park. A lake surrounded by a covered walkway and small resting areas was the focal point, and we were lucky enough to share our experience with a small group of musicians who serenaded our inspection of the grounds. The park had numerous bridges, hidden walkways, and loads of wildlife. Long-tailed birds consistently avoided my camera by hopping behind bushes or flying off at just the wrong moment, squirrels were braver, and fish leapt out of the water for non-seconds.

Meandering round the park, we found numerous pagodas, and a climb to the top of a hill revealed the full extent of the summer palace to us. It is massive! Spread before us from the topmost pagoda was a huge lake (apparently this takes up three-fourths of the park), some incredible buildings, and amazing-looking bridges. And the great thing was that they were shrouded in a light mist that gave the park a sense of mysticism. Perfect for the amateur photographer with a new camera!

We were following our instincts, as we didn’t have a map; below us was a superb residence, and we were stepping between the roofs of individual pagodas. Never before had we got this close to the ornate tiling and "status figures" that cling to the eaves. In fact, one very narrow staircase took us to within touching distance of the roofs of three pagodas.

A walk along Changlang, a 700m, ornate covered corridor on the north shore of the lake is a must, and we were enchanted by the beautiful ceiling paintings. In the distance was the appropriately named 17-arch bridge, whilst in the foreground a smaller bridge (which could have been taken from the Willow Pattern ceramic design). We strode purposefully to the bridges, passing through several temples on route, watching the lone boatman clearing the driftwood from the lake, mesmerised by the kite fliers on the bridge, and awestruck by the guy pavement painting calligraphy (two brushes at the same time!).

Beautiful buildings with dazzling decoration, sensational statues of mythical animals, fine frescoes, sensational scenery, and wonderful wildlife are all part of a visit to The Summer Palace. It’s an absolute must.

Summer Palace
Kunming Lake
Haidian, Beijing, China
010-6288 1144

Visit to a Tibetan Buddhist Temple

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MichaelJM on May 12, 2005

The Lama Temple is a massive site and requires determination to view all the buildings and a strong olfactory. Initially this was the residence of an influential official who became Emperor in 1723. In 1744 Yonghe Gong became a lamasery and is now the finest Tibetan Buddist Temple outside of Tibet. This is a working temple and the amount of incense in use is absolutely phenomenal. It is important that you respect the worshippers as they approach the different temples and give them "right of way".

As we entered the complex, the drum tower and bell tower have pride of place, and there are three temples on the other compass points. There’s an interesting picture gallery of the Lama with a description about how he was called to his divine occupation at a very young age (less than 10). The description is a little hard to understand, but it’s worth sticking with. A lone tower houses a revered Bixi (mythical tortoise-like creature) and superb bronze lions look toward the entrance from the complex’s first temple building.

Moving through the complex, each courtyard had its own fire to enable the many worshippers to light their incense sticks. The protocol was fascinating--bless the incense in one of the side temples and then pray to the Buddha with the incense burning. The Buddhas in the Lama temple were amazing, but one in particular has figured in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest Buddha carved out of a single piece of wood. The 55-foot statue is made from sandalwood and is quite unique and so large that I assume the building was created around the Buddha. Whilst we were there, one of the many monks paraded around the temple chanting prayers as he went. The atmosphere in this temple was humbling, as pilgrims knelt before the statue and gazed in awe at its magnificence.

To the rear of the Buddha was a large-relief mini-sculpture depicting Tibetan country scenes with people engaged in "meaningful tasks". It’s incredibly intricate but, amazingly, is not given a high profile. Indeed, many people who had not explored the temple in detail would have missed this masterpiece.

There was a great museum of religious artefacts with photographic and pictorial representations of all the Dali Lamas. A sombre life-size golden effigy looked down on us from a central stage, and high in the eaves sat a couple of elf-like figures, apparently looking out for the central figure.

Although we’d seen dozens of temples, we were thoroughly enchanted by this one. There is some amazing workmanship on show here, and the bright colours of the rooftops and decorated ceilings just scream for your attention. We saw Buddhas surrounded by lotus flowers, swathed in extravagant fabric, and dwarfed by fan-shaped costumes. There is simply loads to feast your eyes on and a constant reminder that this is a dynamic and active religious place. An uplifting experience, and surprises in every crevice of every building!

Tibetan Buddhist Temple
Yonghe Gong
Beijing, China

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