Beijing Guide, China

Wangjing SOHO, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

And another extraordinary piece of architecture arrives in Beijing 2015, Wangjing SOHO, between the city centre and the airport. Photo by Jinrong.

Beijing Guide Overview

Forbidden Palace, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The view of the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) of the Forbidden City from the Golden Water Bridges. Photo by Jim.

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 since Chairman Mao’s great leap backward in the 60’s, Chinese leaders 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’.

The stunning National Theatre 'the Egg', Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The National Theatre  known by some locals as The Egg and others as The Big Turd. Photo by Francisco Diez.

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.

Downsides

• 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 black lattice of eight-lane ring roads.
• Don’t be surprised to see wild western consumerism at work, this is not old China.

Beijing weather

Best weather: April – May (tho’ dusty), September, October
OK: March, 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. Avoid the weekend if possible. Also December, January due to extreme cold, down to -20C (-4F).

Length of stay:
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.

Main attractions

Canal ride, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

A canal ride through Yindingqiao hutong, old Beijing.

Beijing is oriented on a ‘Dragon’s Vein‘ north to south axis, so following this line is a natural tourist route.

• 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.

Great Wall crowds, Badalang, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

This is a monster must-see but it’s near Beijing (around 70kms/44miles away depending on the gate), not in the city. Try to make it a full day trip at least, 2 hours there (start early! ), 4 hours walking at least, 2 hours back. And stay away from Badaling!

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The Tiananmen or Gate of Heavenly Peace on the north side of Tiananmen Square, heralding the start of the Forbidden City. Not very peaceful these days. . . Photo by charlie fong.

This is where Mao launched the the 60’s revolution and confirmed China’s full-throttle communism and one brave man with a shopping bag challenged a tank for right of way.

Now Tiananmen Square is more like an F1 straight but it’s a natural starting point for any Beijing tourist.

– A shuffling glance at Mao’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in the middle of the square is a definite maybe.
– The Great Hall of the People, Chinese parliament, squats on the western edge of the Square along with one of the city’s new architectural wonders, the eye-popping (and that’s not necessarily a good thing) National Centre for the Performing Arts, also known as ‘the Giant Egg’.
– The Forbidden City is the biggest traditional Beijing Sight and .

The Forbidden City

The 15th century Forbidden City (a former palace) occupies a huge space on the north side of Tiananmen Square and includes the Palace Museum.

This is China’s best preserved imperial palace, the world’s largest ancient palace, and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Finally it is one of top 20 most visited tourist attractions in the world, with annual visitors of over 15 million.

The Palace covers a vast area and contains 980 buildings with more than 8, 700 rooms. Most tourists will need at least a day to visit it as it was home to 24 Ming and Qing emperors and China’s imperial core for 500 years, so it’s stuffed with treasures.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. Photo by Jim.

Forbidden City/Palace Museum

The premium buildings are the Meridian Gate (the tourist entrance), Tiananmen Gate, Gate of Supreme Harmony, Gate of Divine Might, Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) and Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Palace).

Also some buildings exhibit permanent galleries such as the Ceramics Gallery in Hall of Literary Glory; The Treasure Gallery in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity; Painting and Calligraphy in the Hall of Military Eminence; and Gold and Silver artefacts in the Palace of Great Brilliance. Rest up in the Imperial Garden and admire the imposing wall and wide moat after intensive viewing.

A Map of the Palace Museum is essential. Buy the full-complex ticket if possible to get full access, tho’ you don’t have to visit every place! Go early! The Museum has just started a new policy of allowing only 80, 000 visitors a day.

North of Tiananmen

Jingshan Park

Located in just north of the Forbidden City, Jingshan (Prospect Hill) Park is well worth the climb for great views of the Forbidden City and Beijing. The hill with five peaks was made with the earth removed to create the city moat; the best view of Beijing is from the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring (Wanchun-ting) on the middle peak.
This peaceful park was where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself as the Manchus successfully invaded the city in 1644.

Beihai Park

Northwest of the Forbidden City is Beihai Park. Bordered by ancient alleyways (hutongs) and village-style suburbs that are sadly being overrun by Beijing’s building boom, Shichai 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.
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.

South of Tiananmen

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The Temple of Heaven or Altar of Heaven in Tiantan Park. Photo by Jim.

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 many ceremonies.
The main building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is the largest religious building in China and constructed entirely of wood without use of nails and is the structure that appears in most pictures.

Beijing Temples

– The Baiyun Guan or White Cloud Temple is a tranquil, non-touristy and fully functioning Taoist temple west of Tiananmen.

– The nearby 400m high TV Tower offers an incredible view over Beijing at a high price.

– Yonghe Gong, 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 and is 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

Mianhua Hutong in Old Beijing, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

Mianhua Hutong, aka Cotton Lane, in Old Beijing where the textile mills were located during Ming Dynasty. Photo by hermann luyken.

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.

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.

Art Galleries

The 798 Art Zone, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

The 798 Art Zone. Photo by Ostill.

The 798 Art Zone or Dashanzi Art District is a number of old factory buildings repurposed as an art community. It all started in 1995 when Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts needed cheap workshop space and set up in the area, followed by a Texan publisher in 2001, some fashion designers, performance artists, a Japanese gallery owner set up Beijing Tokyo Art Projects and soon this industrial, Mao-slogan decorated area became the place for free-thinking creatives.

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.

Summer Palace

Beijing's Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

An overview of Beijing’s Summer Palace and Kunming Lake with Nanhu Island, seen from Longevity Hill. Photo by Uwe Aranas.

The 18thC Summer Palace, aka Yiheyuan, is located on a huge lake northwest of Beijing’s centre. It’s a wonderfully classic piece of royal Chinese architecture and park with fantastically ornate roofs, colourful temples, dragon tiles and splendid landscaped gardens.

It makes a brilliant place for a relaxing stroll, picnic, drinkies, but is not a sight-intensive experience, more of a lovely escape-the-city ambience (which was exactly the design requirement).

The Summer Palace is where emperors and their courts retreated for almost 1, 000 years (tho’ 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.

The Palace grounds basically make a pleasant recreational park but without the rides. It spreads over 2. 2 sqkm with the 60m-high Longevity Hill behind home to marvelous halls and pavilions overlooking Kunming Lake.

Boat rental is available and lake skating in winter. The lake is huge so don’t rent a paddle boat unless you really want a workout!
Other than taking taxis or buses you can now get to the Summer Palace more dramatically by ferry from behind the Exhibition Centre.

Accommodation

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.
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.

Food

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 haute 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.

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.

Tipping 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.

Nightlife

'Bird's Nest', the spectacular Beijing National Stadium, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

‘Bird’s Nest’, the spectacular Beijing National Stadium located in the Chaoyang District and built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. At present it is mostly used for football matches. Photo by Peter23.

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.
The Legend of Kung Fu is one of many purpose-built theaters in Beijing.
Wild nightclub scenes, often DJ’d by foreigners, are commonplace.
That’s Beijing ex pat listings paper is a good source of what’s on information.

Kung-Fu theatre, Beijing Travel Pictures, China

Beijing’s Kung-Fu theatre. Photo by Jim

Getting Around Beijing

Walking

Beijing is huge and not pedestrian-friendly so generally it’s better to get to an interesting area by another form of transport – subway or taxi – and then start your walk. Acquire a good map before you leave your hotel/hostel and ask the receptionist to write down the names of your target destinations on a piece of paper in Chinese characters for you to show taxi drivers or passers-by.
Road users have no respect for pedestrians nor road regulations so take great care when crossing roads.

Bicycle

Beijing is no longer the world’s cycling capital but they still have an excellent network of bike lanes and roads are flat throughout the city. However, as with pedestrians, motorized road users pay little heed to cyclists so constant attention is required; hope for the best but expect the worst.
Bike rentals are readily available from shops and hotels while small cycle tour groups are popular.

Subway

Beijing subway system (look for a small B within a large blue G) is efficient, fast, new, cheap and usually has English language signs for foreign travelers so this should be default transport mode, but avoid rush hour trains.
The first train runs about 5am and the last train 10pm to 11pm depending on the station. Getting to/from the airport is fine by subway.
Pre-paid cards (Yikatong) are no cheaper than one-offs but are convenient as you just swipe them on entry/exit; there is a small refundable deposit and no expiry date.

Bus

Beijing’s bus system is cheap and ubiquitous but very difficult for travelers who don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. The bus staff speak little English and very few buses broadcast stop names in English. Bus stop signs/information are entirely in Chinese.

Taxi

Beijing taxis, official ones anyway (look for official license plates beginning with the letter B), are convenient and inexpensive though getting one is not easy at times, many drivers don’t speak English and at other times you may get stuck in lengthy traffic jams.
If the taxi is not official it’s vital to negotiate the cost of the journey in advance or expect a ridiculous charge and an unpleasant argument at the end of the journey.

Car

This is not worthwhile because a) you’re not allowed to drive on a foreign licence b) traffic jams are frequent c) making quick direction decisions in a complex sign environment surrounded by hundreds of manic Chinese drivers is not a relaxing or safe way to spend your time on holiday.