Historic sites in the Chinese capital
by TianjinPaul on April 4, 2010
When I first arrived in China, I was, above all else, keen to see the Great Wall. As Chairman Mao reportedly said, "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man". As the Wall is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world, my emotions were certainly not misplaced. However, my idea of going to see 'the' Great Wall certainly was. Even as it was constructed, the Wall was never really one giant long construction - it was in several places interrupted by rivers and mountains. And, with time taking its toll on many of the more distant sections, the Wall is, in actuality, more like several separate sections. However, when I first arrived in China, I was not 100% aware of this. I had in my mind the picture postcard image of the wall stretching away into the distance. The majority of such pictures are taken at Badaling, which is the most accessible and the most heavily restored part of the wall. Because of these two factors it is also by far the most frequented by tourists – possibly the most famous of which was Richard Nixon who visited in 1974. In fact, the place is so overwhelmed by tourists, locals joke that it is possible to go there in the summer and be unable to see the ramparts on either side as there are too many people.With Badaling appearing as such hellish proposition, I steered well clear. Instead, I preferred to 'rough it' a little more by taking on the Jinshaling to Simatai hike. Jinshaling and Simatai are two sections of the wall that meet at a small river about 65 kilometres outside Beijing. They are separated by about 15 kilometres of hilly terrain. The majority of hostels around Beijing organise a daily trip that drops intrepid hikers at Jinshaling and picks them up four hours later at Simatai. The hike is perfect for taking pictures and seeing the Wall without hundreds of tourists or souvenir sellers getting in the way. The trip normally starts early, very early. We are talking 6.30 in the morning. On my first trip, we were lucky with traffic and reached Jinshaling before nine. I needed to hike up a small dirt track to the wall, where a chain smoking gate-keeper pointed me in the direction of Simatai. From there, it was open wall for almost 15 kilometres. And, it was stunning. The first eight kilometres are uphill, and it feels as though the guard towers are genuinely going to disappear into the clouds. This served to offer some of the greatest photos my camera has ever taken and will ever take. It also served to leave my calf muscles aching like nothing on earth.Thankfully, once over the hump, the terrain is predominantly downhill. And, this is by far the most pleasant part of the trip. The scenery is still beautiful, but the physical toll it takes is far less than before – you are able to stroll along and really enjoy the view without worrying if your legs are about to give way beneath you.The Jinshaling to Simatai hike is one of the best ways to see a far less commercialized version of the Great Wall. Most hostels and even many big hotels run trips there most days of the week. In total, this usually costs around 200rmb. It is certainly worth it. However, I was 25 when I did the hike for the first time and could certainly feel it in my legs afterwards. So, I would not recommend it for everyone.
by TianjinPaul on April 2, 2010
The Temple of Heaven is one of Beijng's most truly stunning sights. A clear reflection of this was the fact that, in 2008, as the country's marketing machine geared up for its Olympic extravaganza, it was not the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square that was the image most widely used to attract visitors, it was the Temple of Heaven. And, when you come face-to-face with the Temple, this becomes less than surprising. The Main Hall is a truly stunning affair. As soon as you enter the temple's grounds, you cannot help but be transfixed by the circular hall's stunning blue roof. The shade of the tiles couples with the magnificent glaze give it in an almost hypnotic feel. On a summer's day with the sun shining down on the tiles, the light that reflects is of a truly unique quality. As you get closer and inspect the details, the picture becomes even more impressive. Not only are the roofs of the hall circular, they are also corrugated. This works to create a bizarre feeling of staring into the sea.The Main Hall alone would be reason enough to visit the Forbidden City. However, there are plenty of other reasons. The grounds are also truly beautiful. Even in the driest of summers they are kept well-watered, giving them a wonderfully lush quality. A fantastic reflection of this is the amount of locals you see enjoying them. In a morning you can often see joggers getting in shape as they wind between the trees and in the afternoon, there are plenty of old people enjoying a cup of tea and flying kites. I must have visited the Temple of Heaven six or seven times. The first time was when I was simply a tourist visiting Beijing. Then, during the four years I lived in China, I took several friends and family members who came to visit. Alas, despite these many visits, I never managed to develop any true affinity with the temple and failed to develop the type of intimacy I felt with the Summer Palace. Much of this stems from my first three visits. All of these were pre-Olympics as Beijing was 'enjoying' dome pretty dramatic cosmetic surgery. Because of this, on each occasion, the main hall was closed and cloaked in scaffolding, which took away a major part of the visit. Another major reason was the crowding. Whilst the temple has large grounds its main areas are clustered together. On a warm summer's day, the crowding can get decidedly claustrophobic - far more so than the much more spread out Summer Palace or Temple of Heaven.The Temple of Heaven is located in the south of Beijing, around 200m from stations on subway line 5. However, it is not too far from the center of the city, so I cab would be less than 20rmb from most places. Admission is around 35rmb and is certainly worth the price. I would, however, recommending avoiding holidays and weekends as it can get uncomfortably crowded.
by TianjinPaul on March 9, 2010
In terms of fame and the volume of visitors it receives, this particular attraction is dramatically overshadowed by its next door neighbour, the Forbidden City. Were it in any other city in the world, Beihai Park would surely be one the biggest attractions on show. However, in Beijing, it is often relegated to little more than an afterthought. For many, it is the place tagged on to the tour of the Forbidden City. This truly is a shame as Beihai is one of Beijing's greatest treasures, and, was also the site of one of the funniest accidents I have ever seen.Most trips to Beihai begin at the southern gate, which is just 200m from the northern gate of the Forbidden City. As soon as you pass into the park, you are greeted by a spectacular view of the central Dagoba, a giant white creation over 20m tall. However, depending on the season, the actual contents of this view can change dramatically. In winter, the Dagoba towers over the naked branches of the surrounding trees and the frozen waters of the lake. In spring, things are far more picturesque as many of the trees shed a wonderfully delicate pink blossom around the whole area. And, in summer, you are greeted by an explosion of colour as the lilies in the lake burst into bloom.Also, close to the southern gate of the park, stands one of the few remaining traces of the Yuan dynasty. The Yuan dynasty sprang from the exploits of Chinggis Khan, who first conquered China, before his descendants assimilated into the pre-existing culture. Because of the nomadic nature of its funders, the Yuan dynasty failed to put down any significant roots. Therefore, by the time it was overthrown by the Ming less than two centuries later, little remained. One of the few things that we can still see today is a giant goblet built for Kublai Khan that sits in a glass case close to the southern entrance.Aside from the last remnants of the Yuan Dynasty, there are some other fantastic sites in Beihai. Of course, the Dagoba is spectacular from almost every angle in the park, and the lake is a picture of loveliness in summer. However, probably the most striking of all is the Nine Dragon Screen to the rear of the park, near the north entrance. As you might imagine, the screen contains nine dragons. Each of these are created from glazed ceramic tiles and come in fantastically striking colours. One is a stunning shade of cobalt blue another the finest of golds.So, this brings me to the accident. It was 2006. Two of my friends were visiting from the UK and we were taking a boat ride. We were in a plastic pedal boat, expending huge amounts of effort and making very limited progress across the lake. In front of use were two electric motor boats, doing their top speed of 3kph. The two were on a head to head collision course. However, things looked pretty safe as there was 30m between them and they were moving at slower than walking pace. Sadly, things began to go wrong, badly wrong. Both boats were occupied by families with mother and child in charge of the steering. As they saw each other, both mothers began to panic and both children began to cry. The gap began to close … slowly. Thirty meters gradually became twenty-five. Twenty-five agonisingly became twenty. All the while, the people on the boats were screaming and completely ignoring the possibility of simply turning the steering wheel. Eventually, in slow motion, the two boats hit. It was possibly the most anti-climactic moment in Chinese history. As the boat were going so slow, there was just a slight bump and everyone stopped. The whaling gave way and the boatrs eventually went their separate ways.Beihai Park is just next to the Forbidden City and is certainly worth the visit. Most people tag it on to a trip to the famous neighbour, but it is certainly worth an afternoon in its won right. Entrance is a very reasonable 30rmn.
I must admit, of all Beijing's ancient treasures, the Summer Palace is by far my favourite. There is no single clear tangible reason for this. Instead, it is for a whole host of small reasons that I love it more than the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven or even the Great Wall. I think the first reason I love it so much is that I can identify with the ancient emperors who thought it would be the perfect place in which to escape from Beijing's oppressive summer heat. As beautiful as the Forbidden City is, one thing that is clear to see for any visitor is the lack of greenery and the rather dry atmosphere. The Summer Palace in contrast is steeped in lush trees and bushes, and, really gives the visitor the impression of being outside the big city. This is in spite of it being just a handful of kilometres from downtown Beijing. In the height of summer, when the trees and plants are in full bloom, the main buildings rise out of the greenery like a mountain emerging from dense forest. The best view of this is from out on the lake, from where it is very easy to see what the emperors had in mind when they built the place as their summer retreat.The second reason is because of the Long Corridor. As the name suggests, this is a corridor that is very very long. However, its relevance lies not in its size, but in its beauty and the story behind it. The first reason I love it is that it runs parallel to the lake, allowing it to benefit from a gentle breeze and stunning view. The second is the story that accompanies it. Each of the beams that support the roof – of which there are hundreds – is delicately painted with a different picture. The story goes that each of those pictures represents a tale, and, that the imperial courtiers would tell one of these stories to the princess as she walked to her bed chamber.The third reason I love the Summer Palace so much is the opera stage and its overt extravagance. Opposite the Empress Dowager's bed chambers is a huge three tiered opera stage constructed specifically for her pleasure. She could sit or recline in her bed and watch opera performed on the stage. If she tired of the show, she could simply tell the performers to cease or to change the production. It struck me as being a particularly outlandish pre-cursor to television.There are so many reasons to love the Summer Palace. Getting there, though, can be rather tricky. It is a 40 or 50rmb taxi ride from central Beijing. Alternatively, you can take the subway to Xiximen and take a taxi from there, which is about 20rmb. Entrance is around 60rmb.
Familiarity breeds contempt. This may be something of a cliché, but my experiences with Beijing's Forbidden City proved that it can most certainly be the case, even with the most awe-inspiring of sights. To begin this review, I would like to re-wind to the balmy September of 2005. I had been working in Korea for a year when a friend of mine and I decided to take the boat to China for a two-week vacation. During that period, I fell deeply and madly in love with the Middle Kingdom and decided that instead of finding a job back in England, I should live in China for a while. A while turned out to be four fabulous years, during which my love for the country grew and grew. However, at the same time a sense of indifference and even of animosity began to grow towards the Forbidden City. The reason behind this was simple. Every time any of my friends or family came to China, the first thing they wanted to see was … the Forbidden City. By the time my father and his new partner arrived in the Spring of 2009 I was on visit number eight, and was truly sick of the place.Naturally, my rather cynical attitude towards the Forbidden City is nothing to do with the beauty of the place. It is without doubt, one of the most stunning man-made creations in the whole world. Therefore, to give a more accurate, less negative review, I need to think back to 2005 and my initial impressions of the City.Any trip to the Forbidden City should begin in Tiananmen Square – you can also enter through the North Gate, but this is pointless as it is far less impressive. The front gate to the city is large and overpowering, painted in bright red paint and crowned with a picture of Mao Zedong. To get inside, you have to pass through three such gates. At first, this confused my friend Alana and I as these were so impressive in themselves that we wondered if we had somehow slipped inside without paying the entrance fee. However, these thoughts were soon dispelled when we arrived at an even larger gate at the foot of which were a series of ticket booths.To get through the Forbidden City, visitors must walk in a straight line South to North. In a bizarre way, much of this process, almost reminded me of a Babushka doll in reverse. Whereas the doll gets smaller with every layer, the Forbidden City seemed to get more dramatic with every gate or building we passed. This had already been the case with the entrance. Then, as we passed through the imposing main gate, we were greeted by the first of the main palace buildings. These buildings themselves got more dramatic and more ornate, until we reached the highpoint. The main palace building, which was truly awe-inspiring.On my first trip, this was enough for me. The shock and awe of the main buildings left me open mouthed. However, on trips two, three and four, I was able to spend some time exploring the smaller out-buildings to the side of the main structure, which were equally beautiful, only far more small and delicate. It seemed as though only after two or three trips had I actually managed to see everything. Sadly, then I went into overkill. By trip eight there was nothing new for me to see and the city had lost its magic.Despite my cynical outlook, the Forbidden City is certainly worth the visit. In fact, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Entrance in the summer is around 75rmb, but is cheaper in the winter. It is easy to find as every hotel and hostel runs an excursion and is right next to the subway.
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