holiday in Beijing?
For centuries this huge and historic
city has been the centre of the Chinese state and was 'different from any western capital because it expressed its culture in spatial harmony and stone' (Michael Sheridan), with gracious courtyards, narrow streets, grand temples and curious artefacts scattered here and there.
Unfortunately ever since Chairman Mao's great leap
backward in the 60's, Chinese leaders have focused on eliminating old city harmony and replacing it with style-free concrete apartments and broad, blank slabs of asphalt, none more so than in the few years since Beijing was chosen to host the Olympic Games.
A million people were moved out of their homes to accomplish the 'modernisation' of the city and now just 5% of old Beijing is intact, while extraordinary structures such as the National Theatre are admired (and designed by) by foreigners, but locals dislike them; they derisively call the theatre 'the big turd'.
There's still much to see and do for tourists in this new millennium Beijing, but it's sadly not so much about mooching around medieval monuments in splendid isolation, it's more about a quick, noisy and jostled look at a tarted up Forbidden City (along with 15,000 Chinese tourists a day), then off for some shopping, eating, drinking and dancing - just like a dozen other world capitals redesigned by aesthetically blind bureaucrats.
• The city pollution can be breathtaking, literally, due to overwhelming traffic, under-controlled factory emissions and dust storms. See Chinese urban pollution.
• Ubiquitous construction sites are rampant.
• Major sights are overrun with tourists, Chinese tourists.
• Much of modern Beijing consists of a dull grey lattice of eight-lane ring roads.
• Don't be surprised to see wild western consumerism at work,
this is not old China.
April - May (tho' dusty), September, October
OK: June-August (hot, up to 35C (95F+), wet and crowded)
Worst: Any national holidays such as the 1st week of May and the Chinese New Year. Also December, January due to extreme cold, down to -20C (-4F).
Current time and temperature in Beijing.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: at least four days to
see some of Beijing and take a trot along the Great Wall. Recommended: One week plus.
Dawn is a great time to start sightseeing with just about any park
hosting groups of t'ai
chi devotees; or wander the few remaining streets of old Beijing in search of Chinese
oddities such as little old men with their caged birds. Naturally the Great Wall of China is a monster attraction but it's near Beijing, not in it.
15thC Forbidden City (also known as the Palace Museum)
and possibly Mao's Mausoleum (Great
Hall of the People) in Tiananmen Square.
A natural starting point for any Beijing tourist is Tiananmen
from where Mao launched the the 60's revolution and confirmed China's
full- throttle communism.
The 800 building Palace Museum is a must and requires at least a
day of attention as it was home to 24 Ming and Qing emperors and
China's imperial core for 500 years so it's stuffed with treasures.
Buy the full-complex ticket if possible to get complete access,
you don't have to visit every place!
A shuffling glance at Mao's embalmed body is a definite maybe too.
The city's new architecture is as eye-popping (and that's not necessarily a good thing) as the old stuff, led by the
National Opera House and the latticed National
is oriented on a 'Dragon's Vein' north to south axis, so
following this line is a natural tourist route.
Hill Park. Just north of the Forbidden City is this peaceful park where the
last Ming emperor hanged himself as Manchus successfully invaded
Lake. Bordered by ancient alleyways (hutongs) and village-style suburbs
that are sadly being overrun by Beijing's building boom, the lakeshore
is the place to get an idea of old Peking's community lifestyle.
Wander alone or easily find a pedicab driver to give you a tour
in some kind of English, including home visits.
Two other highlights of Shichai Lake are the magnificent Drum
and Bell Towers, visible from all around the area and Lotus
Lane's cluster of watering holes for parched tourist throats.
Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, is another fascinating little labyrinth
of hutongs crammed with odd little shops, traditional eateries
and most bizarrely a bomb-proof underground city.
The Temple of Heaven, 2km south of Tiananmen, is one of Beijing's greatest hits, a stunning
piece of multi-coloured Ming design and wood workmanship finished
in 1420 AD, the temple sits on the spot where Heaven meets Earth
and the emperor (aka the Son of Heaven) consequently conducted
The main building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests,
is built entirely of wood without use of nails and is the structure
that appears in most pictures.
The Baiyun Guan or White Cloud Temple is
a tranquil, non-touristy and fully functioning Taoist temple west
The nearby 400m high TV Tower offers
an incredible view over Beijing at a high price.
a Tibetan Lama temple (Buddhist) built in the 17thC is popular with
tourists and contains many gorgeous mandalas, statues and gardens,
though the temple's authenticity as a real place of worship is questionable
- it makes a convenient political statement.
It's conveniently located next to the Yonghe Gong metro stop.
100m away down the street west of Yonghe Gong is the cool but somewhat
confused Kong Miao Confucius Temple and museum.
A taste of the old life:
Take a tour, walk or even better cycle around the old hutongs (traditional little streets) of Houhai, Nan Luo Gu Xiang, Dong Cheng, Qianliang, Bao Chao, Beiluo and Wudaoying.
Also visit Donghuamen Food Market to see or eat edible oddities such as scorpions on skewers and stroll Liulichang area for the antiques.
Great photographic sites:
The Great Wall of China; China World Summit (the tallest building in Beijing); Houhai Lake; the pagoda on top of the hill in Jingshan Park looking over the Forbidden City.
Taxis are well metered and not expensive, including the airport
run, while most drivers have heeded the authorities' demands to
learn some English. Pedicabs are more amusing but less price
For a look at how the other half lives ride the metro out to Pinguoyuan
and take a walk.
In spite of the criss-crossing freeways and dirty air biking is
still big here, particularly as a way to explore the remaining warren
of alleyways. Rentals are easy to find.
Trips out of the city
18thC Summer Palace, aka Yiheyuan,
across a huge lake from Beijing's centre, is a wonderfully classic
piece of royal Chinese architecture and park with fantastically
ornate roofs, colourful temples, dragon tiles and splendid gardens.
The Summer Palace is where emperors and their courts retreated for almost
1,000 years (this palace is relatively new) when summer oppression
kicked in and consequently it's where any sane tourist should
go when the metropolis gets too much.
Boat rental is available and lake skating in winter. The lake is huge so don't rent a paddle boat!
Other than taking taxis or buses you can now get to the
dramatically by ferry from behind the Exhibition Centre.
Great Wall of China.
A simply staggering sight an hour or so out of the city, Badaling
is the traditional target for a half day trip (70km/ 45 miles NW
of the city), offering a picture of the Chinese countryside as well
as being en route for the Ming Tombs,
otherwise known as Shisanling (40km NW), a group of
resting places for 13 emperors, though this the tombs get the thumbs down from many tourists.
The Great Wall Museum is educational.
However, Badaling is unfortunately a favoured destination for zillions
of Chinese tourists too, so if you have more time and prefer a spectacular
and slightly less peopled view of the wall head for Mutianyu,
take the cable car halfway up and start walking.
Alternatively for the adventurous head out to the wild wall sections at Gubeikou, Huanghuachang, Simatai or Jinshanling sections. Good walking shoes and a pack lunch are essential and get a driver for the day. You don't need a guide.
The easiest way is to book a car ahead of time to avoid any sort of problems, or a taxi can take you there for a set price.
Getting to Badalang/Ming Tombs: avoid
tours which tend to arrive at the busiest times and not stay long
enough. The tombs are a long way out and are not enjoyed by many visitors, so be warned.
Public buses known as tourist buses with numbers written
in green are low cost and run regularly on this route. e.g. #1,
#2, #4, #5.
Pleasant little hotels and B&Bs in the city centre with good atmosphere can be found for
less than $100 per night for a double, especially the Chinese-run hotels. Depending on the season 'walk-ins' (i.e. not booked in advance) can get good deals though the best places may be booked in advance at peak times. Check here for a wide range of Beijing Hotels from 2 star to luxury, business to family vacationers.
Try to stay centrally, of course, to save time, though both metros and taxis are easy enough for non-Chinese speakers, but beware prices of taxis that are waiting nearby or called by the doorman! It's easy to find a cruising cab.
Some of the city's best food can be found in little local restaurants
or street stalls so don't hesitate to dive in where other tourists
fear to tread but locals are scoffing and slurping.
The day and night Wangfujing Food Market, for example, offers haut
cuisine at low prices.
Roast (Peking) duck is a speciality of course, though touristy
offerings are often poor quality so get a local recommendation before
splurging. The Duck Restaurant and Duck de Chine are two recommendations in 2013.
A terrific north China speciality is Hotpot, often including
lamb, tofu and cabbage among other ingredients.
For the adventurous eater there are lightly barbequed scorpions,
sea cucumber, silk worm kebabs, snake bladders, cockroach a la king
and more exotica available from market stalls.
Chinese wines can be excellent, especially the yellow wine (huang
jiu) and rice wine (mi jiu).
And for those dependant on western food, no problem, KFC rules Beijing.
You can tip in Beijing depending on how you felt the service was but it's not necessary or common. If someone really impresses you give 10% as an absolute maximum.
Try Sanlitun Village for a selection of good restaurants and bars and Houhai for some interesting bars.
Apothecary is a place for classic cocktails or The Glamour Bar at Capital M for the view of city gates.
Traditional tourist entertainments such as the Beijing Opera and
Chinese acrobats are still popular and recommended but live music
bars patronised by locals are the new wave, offering everything
from heavy metal to zither music.
Wild nightclub scenes, often DJ'd by foreigners, are commonplace.
That's Beijing ex pat listings paper is the best source of
what's on information.
January/February, New Year Parade with many dragons and much dancing.
Feb/March, the Lantern Festival, lighting and carrying paper lamps,
some of strange design.
district is Beijing's art area and packed with all sorts of creations,
old, new, cheap and priceless.
Curio City or the Friendship Store
for odd little goodies and gifts.
is a lively place for visitors looking for cheap and cheerful
arts and crafts souvenirs.
The Red Gate gallery in Jianguomen Beidajie features brilliant avant-garde
art while the Wan Fung Art Gallery in a part of the imperial palace
offers less dramatic but still contemporary work, Nanchizi Dajie. The National Art Museum runs excellent shows from both international and local artists.
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