Beijing was the entrance to our small trip in China, with only time to see its most remarkable points. A couple of days was used to travel around the city, where we concentrated in Tiananmen square and the Forbidden city, visiting also the zoo, and the temple of Heaven.
The nights were used to attend a performance in Beijing opera, and to have a glimpse of life in town.
Not much, but interesting!
For practical reasons I have divided the travel notes into two texts: this one, “Visiting Beijing” contains the notes about the city itself. In “Around Beijing” I register all visits in the periphery or proximity.
The centre of the square is dominated by a high monument, always with a honor guard. It is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, commemorating the martyrs who devoted their lives to the Chinese people.
With almost 38 meters, it is the biggest monument in Chinese history.
I noticed that the young guards’ uniform changed a lot, which means that they are several youth organizations paying tribute to their heroes.
Great Hall of the People
Tiananmen square is so big that all the surrounding elements seem… small! However, that is not exactly the case of this palace, used by the Chinese congress.
Built by volunteers in 1959, it is a good example of the revolution’s chinese architecture.
The square is so big, that even the important buildings at each side seem irrelevant.
I was expecting the long lines that we heard about, but… China is changing. Austere, discreet, it only deserved a quick look before heading to “the main course”.
The signs that things are quickly changing in China are the absence of the usual long reverential lines.
We didn’t see many people entering it, and we didn’t, either. Visiting Beijing without visiting Mao is not exactly the same as visiting Rome without seeing the Pope.
Access to Forbidden City
Entering the forbidden city is a sensation of “dèjá vu”.
The long wall with Meridian door, and Mao’s picture is in everybody’s memories. People flows inside as a river, only the immensity of Tiananmen square allowing the spreading of the crowds that, once inside, will fill all the staircases, doors and windows of the palace.
Tickets cost 40 yuan, and if you have no guide, you may get an audio guide. Some galleries demand an extra ticket.
Located at the center of Beijing, to the north of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, called Gu Gong in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rectangular in shape, it is the world’s largest palace complex and covers 74 hectares.
Surrounded by a six-meter-deep moat and a ten-meter-high wall are 9,999 buildings. The wall has a gate on each side. Opposite the Tiananmen Gate, to the north is the Gate of Divine Might (Shenwumen), which faces Jingshan Park.
The distance between these two gates is 960 meters, while the distance between the gates in the east and west walls is 750 meters. There are unique and delicately structured towers on each of the four corners of the curtain wall. These afford views over both the palace and the city outside.
The Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The southern section, or the Outer Court was where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation. The northern section, or the Inner Court was where he lived with his royal family. Until 1924 when the last emperor of China was driven from the Inner Court, fourteen emperors of the Ming dynasty and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty had reigned here. Having been the imperial palace for some five centuries, it houses numerous rare treasures and curiosities. Listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987, the Palace Museum is now one of the most popular tourist attractions world-wide
The entrance to the Forbidden City is one of the two best known images of China – the big red wall with Mao’s picture (the other is the wall, of course!). That image makes part of Tiananmen square, and it is not followed inside.
It’s a strange sensation crossing that door – we feel like crossing history, like really entering a forbidden world, still in our days.
The Strong Wall
“Take the grand red city wall for example. It has an 8.6 meters wide base reducing to 6.66 meters wide at the top. The angular shape of the wall totally frustrates attempts to climb it. The bricks were made from white lime and glutinous rice while the cement is made from glutinous rice and egg whites. These incredible materials make the wall extraordinarily strong.” I read this in Travelchinaguide. Would you imagine? Rice and eggs! And, with so many people visiting Beijing, no one tried to bite the wall!
Website: Strong wall
Harmony” is the common word in the description of the several spaces of the Forbidden City. The smallest one is “complete”. Why?
Don’t ask – I didn’t read that much. It was used by the emperor to rest, in his way to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, more than 15 meters distant.
Harmony is the general word to qualify buildings and yards inside the Forbidden City.
Supreme, Central, Complete, Preserving, whatsoever, as a matter of fact, they all seem alike to me, in what I prefer to describe as “Immense harmony” (with the Emperor’s excuses)
Hall of Preserved Harmony
Smaller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but very similar to it, this hall was used as the place for “Palace Examinations” the top of the national evaluation system, before the creation of the university in 1898.
Palace of Heavenly Purity
After so many closed and empty rooms, it was interesting to look inside this large room. It is not too different from the other, but much more composed.
With the imperial throne in place, surrounded by a few decoration, this palace built in 1792 to replace the burnt construction from 1420, this palace was the imperial residence of the Ming and early Qing dynasties, and the place of Puyi’s marriage (“The Last Emperor”, do you remember?)
Because yellow is the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant color in the Forbidden City. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace are painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground are made yellow by a special process.
However, there is one exception. Wenyuange, the royal library, has a black roof. The reason is that it was believed black represented water then and could extinguish fire.
“Poverty” in the Forbidden City
One thing that disappointed me in the Forbidden City, was the emptiness of most of the visited rooms.
I don’t know if it is consequence of the cultural revolution, or if the furniture is hidden in the closed areas, preserved from the crowds, but the only rooms where we could observe something (from the door, never entering them!) had always so many people discussing each centimeter of door, that we could only have a glimpse of them.
In the back of Forbidden City
Mountains have a special importance in Chinese religion. That’s why, in the flat Forbidden city, a pile of rocks simulates a mountain near the north exit.
Looking further, we may see a real mount out of the city, with dense trees and a pagoda on the top. Was it connected with the palace? We had no time to explore it.
In the rush for entering the city, we had no time to see the walls and their defensive condition.
Arriving to the north door, the exit is more calm, and it’s possible to see the large ditch that surrounds all the city, with the defensive towers in each corner.
Temple of Heaven
Hall of Prayer
The main area of this temple is called the Hall of Prayer for good harvest.
Dominated by a high building atop a round staircase, this wide temple was built in the 15th century and carefully restored for the Olympic games.
All in wood (except the marble staircase), and 38 meters high, no nail was used in its construction.
In the large complex of the Temple of Heaven, all the eyes go to the Hall of Prayer, but facing it, there’s a smaller structure with similar architecture, and where the crowds are not so dense, allowing more time to see the details.
Travelchinaguide (who took me there) writes:
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a round pavilion with a double-eave roof sitting on a two-meter-tall white marble platform. If you look at it from far away, you will find that the vault is like a blue umbrella with gold head. Stone fences enclose the platform. 19 meters (62 feet) in height and 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter, the hall is a finely interlaced wooden structure with a blue tile roof crowned with a gilded sphere.
It has a coffered ceiling with a bluish green design of a gilded coiling dragon playing with a pearl at the center, and another 360 small dragons around. In the middle of the hall stands a circular stone seat carved with patterns, on which the Heavenly Great Tablet is placed. Many imperial ancestral tablets sit on both sides.
A large (and discreet) platform was, in the old days, considered the center of the world.
There is a long story about stones in circle, multiples of nine, and so on, but you will have to listen to it in location, to check by yourself.
I couldn’t memorize it.
This temple is a complex construction, where we start to be dominated by its main and central building, and keep on discovering new strange details, whose purpose it’s impossible to understand without a professional explanation.
That’s the case of this wall, topped with ceramics. Echo Wall is a beautiful construction, surrounding the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is about 3.72 meters high, 90 centimeters thick and 65.1 meters in diameter.
Eaves of the wall and the bricks of the wall, which have been laid hermetically, makes wireless communication between two people possible at this famous Echo Wall.
Its shape has those acoustical effects, that we couldn’t test because…
See what they say about the how to:
“To make the communication most effective three conditions have to be met. The first condition required for the purpose is that the courtyard should not be too noisy. Secondly…”
Who cares about the second and third? The crowds… you know? Visiting Beijing without crowds is a dream…
China has the exclusive of the remaining animals of this nice species, and that’s reason enough to include a visit to the zoo in all packages.
Be prepared to see more heads and backs than pandas, and, while waiting your turn, think awhile about our role in this world, as the only creature able to think, plan, organize or… destroy.
I was expecting to see a very carefully recreated environment, with small, planted and protected bamboo forests, where the pandas could live in a half free but controlled condition.
It was frustrating to see the pandas through a window cage. When we go around, the back of the cages show a small open space, but the sensation remains.
Liyuan Theatre: Beijing Opera
Visiting Beijing without Opera? No way!
I knew that this kind of opera is very hermetic for an European. I was afraid that the jet-lag could interfere but it didn’t, and they were clever enough to make the show as detailed as possible to be understood, and as brief as needed to do not become boring.
I had a big guy in front of me all the time, so the only decent picture I could make was our table, but Burak was there, and, with his permission, my tip will not be plain text (with tea – another difference to our conventional opera – and nice company!).
Phone: 86 10 83157297
A funny and original idea: Some actors prepare the opera in a public corridor, allowing the audience to watch their work of characterization.
Thus, the show starts immediately as you enter the building, even before sitting.
Beijing was the entrance to our small trip in China, with only time to see its most remarkable points. A couple of days was used to travel around, visiting the great wall, the Summer Palace and the Ming tombs.
For practical reasons I have divided the travel notes into two texts: “Visiting Beijing” contains the notes about the city itself. In this, “Around Beijing”, one I register all visits in the periphery or proximity.
The sixth of seven
The great wall was the 6th of the 7 wonders of the world that I saw (I miss Machu Picchu… yet). For itself, it is a good reason to go to Beijing. But there’s a lot more to see there, and Beijing is not the only interesting city of China. Progress is noticeable everywhere, and the obsession of the Olympic Games dominates everything in town, accelerating investments and organization. I think it was the perfect time to go there!
The most visited – Badaling
With the thousands of people coming each day, soon they will have to open other segments to the public. But this small part of the whole is perfect to give us a correct idea of the complexity of the construction, and the hard job it was to spread it upon those
mountains and valleys.
In our way to Badaling we passed in another segment of the wall, with an interesting look – I think it was Nankou.
Our guide took us further, to Badaling, I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because the walls were not so steep (I noticed it), maybe because parking should be easier (didn’t seem so), maybe because the sight of the wall is wider (it was), maybe because the commercial structures are more developed.
We were approached by lots of vendors, but being in a group allowed me to escape “harmless”. Well, almost – a couple of tee-shirts, and… i don’t remember – the walls were waiting us!
Watch your physical condition
Walking on the walls is mandatory, but harder than it seems: they are very steep and… long. If it happens under a strong sun things will get worse, and the risk of dehydration must be seriously considered.
Of course, you may go back whenever you want, but… even down it is hard to walk. So, be prepared, and… enjoy!
Street vendors in Badalin
Some people condemn the stalls by the monuments, and their oppression on the tourists. Some times they are right – it becomes uncomfortable – but not always.
In an isolated place, where thousands of people merge each day, a basic structure of support is fundamental. If they don’t force you, (and here they don’t), if they are just there, hopping that you will need something they sell, they are useful. And we felt it in Badaling.
Parking by the Great Wall
I was about to write “parking is a nightmare” but it was a lie: not even that, only… impossible. Our only chance to access the wall in Badaling was to leave the bus more than 2 km before it, and walk along the desperate row of jammed cars.
No problem… it’s China.
A Rule in China
Everywhere, and every time.
The great wall follows the rules, and it is a long stripe of people slowly gliding upon a rocky construction. No matter where you look, there is people.
Try to make a picture, and, even being selective, it will be filled with strangers. So, give up! People is life, and China is… millions of people.
Travelling around Beijing, we find about 5o km distant, the Ming tombs.
At the entrance of the tombs there’s a small museum displaying some artifacts collected in the tombs, and description of their conception. The collection is not very rich, but some pieces are really interesting and the explanation of construction rather interesting.
A few kilometers out of the city, this is a burial complex combining many elements and details, according to Feng Shui principles. The sacred way, described in other tips lead to the burial area, where we visited Dingling, one of the imperial tombs.
Well, the tomb was perfect when found, but piled for years, and restricted by the Cultural Revolution, it suffered a lot, however, the remains still justify the half day visit.
The rear hall is the main and biggest part of the Palace. The coffins of Emperor Zhu Yijun and his two empresses are in this palace.
There are also some precious items displayed with these coffins, including the gold imperial crown, but pressed to rush by the crowds we could only have a glance of them.
Before each of them, there are glazed ‘Five Offerings’ and a blue china jar that would have been filled with sesame oil to be used for lamps.
Expecting for great sensations at the end everything is seen as common stuff.
Dingling is under ground and about 27 meters deep. It is the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun, the thirteenth emperor who occupied the throne the longest time during the Ming Dynasty, and his two empresses.
The main features are the Stone Bridge, Soul Tower, Baocheng and the Underground Place, which was unearthed between 1956 and 1958. The entire palace is made of stone. The Soul Tower is symbolic of the whole of Dingling and it forms the entrance to the underground chambers.
The Sacred Way
One of the most remarkable aspects of the burial sites is the Sacred Way, a long, straight road, that was supposed to be used by the Emperor, in his way back to Heaven. Common in most Imperial graveyards, the Ming Tomb is the best preserved, standing about 50 Km from Beijing. After the entrance, the road is lined with statues, all of them with a special meaning. First we pass by a set of 24 animals (lion, camel, elephant, unicorn, qilin and horse – 4 of each).
At the end of the road 12 human figures (generals and nobles) and… it should be the Emperor’s tomb, but there was a break due to posterior construction, and it will take 10 minutes to go around and to cover the distance by bus.
Website: Ming tombs
Entrance to Sacred Way
Among the many Sacred Ways, the one of Ming Tombs is best preserved and most complete. The Sacred Way starts with a huge stone memorial archway lying at the front of the area.
Constructed in 1540, during the Ming Dynasty, this archway is the earliest and biggest stone archway existing in China today
The Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion shows inside a 50-ton tortoise. A white marble pillar is placed at each corner with, in the top, a mythical beast facing either inward or outward. I read that they “express hope that the emperor will neither cling to the palace nor forget to return to the Palace to handle state affairs”. Ok, I believe it!
Website: Ming tombs
Another highlight not to be missed travelling around Beijing is the Summer Palace.
After the small disappointment of the Forbidden City, this visit was a pleasant surprise.
All the complex is harmonious and varied, with the lake enhancing the beauty of each spot, and inviting for a trip in one of those characteristic dragon boats.
We had no time (the visit was focused in the highlights), but we enjoyed the scenery as well.
I don’t know if that is correct, but I know that it is that long, and carefully painted in detail. Scene after scene, you walk along it like in a museum, and may “read” a sort of comic book revealing many aspects of the royal and Chinese life, registered in about 14000 pictures.
A very beautiful detail of the complex!
Even with the strength of an exterior door or the glittering colors of the decorative doors, doors are a detail where Chinese art is always in evidence.
Any cultural reason? Maybe!
I didn’t heard or read anything specific about it.
The complex of gardens and palaces was protected by a moat opposite to the lake. Several bridges with beautiful architecture give volume and expression to an area away from the beauty of the lake and buildings.
The madness of excessive power
The boat is beautiful, but, looking at it, I wonder: using that money, how big would the fleet be? Maybe so small that it would fatally end in the bottom of the sea.
Well, that’s Cixi’s only excuse!
Another tourist (lozolo) corrected me, explaining that the spent budget was used to build the whole garden and not only the marble boat. It makes sense, but the mistake is already generalized in guides and many sites in internet. Anyway, it’s just an economic difference, the insanity remains…
Contrasting with the beautiful richness of the outdoors, the buildings of summer palace seem modest, but fit well in the whole, discreetly integrated in the complex.
Also contrasting with the Forbidden City, many of them are not empty, showing (to those happy guys that can look inside over dozens of heads) some precious details of the used furniture and goods.
The big lake by the summer palace, is really very beautiful – nature and men combine well with temples and boats surrounded by flowers, inviting to a trip.
We didn’t do it, but most people couldn’t skip it.
The lake is the central motif of Summer palace, and the lilacs give life and expression to it.
If you’re a photo maniac be prepared to spend a reasonable time around them.
You won’t regret!
Tower of Buddhist Incense
Being in a package has a few advantages but many inconveniences!
I loved the visit of Summer Palace, but the couple of hours that we had were not enough. I’m not the kind of tourist that needs to know in place the detailed history of each piece and figure, or to have a picture of everything in all angles, but, being in place and skipping lots of interesting points is disgusting.
I saw this tower from distance and wished to go there, but… no time. In my trip, it only played the role of a nice image composing the scene. A pity.
Reading about it I found that behind it there was the “Sea of Wisdom” with about 1000 Buddhist sculptures. Damn! Couldn’t we have just one more hour?
After the disappointment of a quite empty Forbidden City (at least in the visited pavilions), this palace showed us a little more of the old furniture and crafts, allowing a better idea of Chinese arts and traditions.
Holiday Inn Central Plaza
Excellent hotel. Excellent rooms, excellent service. Rated four stars, it was better than many five stars.
The only negative point was its location. It was announced as located in the centre, and, indeed, that’s not a lie, but Beijing is so big that the centre is also a very wide area, and, there, the hotel is placed in a residential quarter.
Going out means to stroll in empty (dark) streets or… to take a taxi.
Unique Qualities: Very good buffet for breakfast or dinner.
Address: No 1 Caiyuanjie Xuanwuqu Beijing 100053
A very serious advice:
Pay attention to every detail of the explanation done by your guide (person or book), during the visit: that way you will find out that “peace and harmony” is the dominant concept all across the place. You will visit doors, palaces and halls of all kinds of peace and harmony: Supreme harmony, preserving harmony, Heavenly peace, terrestrial peace, central harmony…
Take a lot of pictures to document, all the differences (?) among them.
Back home sort them carefully, and find out that… you are lost. For us, western people, everything is so similar that all the descriptions become… words. So, mix your pictures, and find the harmony resulting from that mess.
That’s the Forbidden city: a beautiful big old city (with harmony) whose details are only for expert’s eyes.
Heads over heads
Be prepared to share your space with lots of people.
The Forbidden City is huge, but we hardly imagine how could have lived there about 8000 people.
I think that the simultaneous visitors will be less than that, but we are always surrounded by a crowd, and all the places where we may peep must be seen behind a wall of heads or… cameras.
Fortunately, the most interesting things are outdoors.
Good Fortune Superstitions
Now is time to use your imagination:
When the “river” of people flowing across the Forbidden City arrives to a place where, touching a small screen promises “good fortune” what happens?
Memories of Beijing – Wangfujing Street
The missed street
The liveliest street of Beijing is also the most commercial one. This means that, instead of one hour we would need… one week (or several…).
In its beginning there are looooooooots of shops.
Well… maybe not lots of them, but biiiiiiiiiiig shops anyway.
All right, they were not so big, but they were veeeeeeeeeeery interesting.
OK, OK! They may not be so interesting, but they were there, you know!
– Please, Fernanda, let me have at least a glance of the street.
– Wait! I still miss 5 blouses, two pants, 3 pairs of shoes, 2 bracelets… I think I’m missing something, I’d better start over again!
I try not to worry. In Portugal I will see the details in Banu’s photos.
Directions: City Center near Tiananmen Square
When we went there, it was already visible in Beijing the importance of the games for the country. Everything was being carefully prepared, and the huge volume of construction, is mostly directed to them. Roads, bridges, buildings, everything growing with the ease of a country where the state owes… everything.
There are no complicated dealings with private owners, no complicated formalism to respect. If the government decides to build, the local inhabitants receive order to move away, the old buildings are demolished, and construction begins.
It’s noticeable the systematic replacement of the old quarters by new and bigger skyscrapers. I got the idea that the city is loosing its character (I never had been there, didn’t see the old Beijing). Hidden among the “monsters” under construction, the Olympic Stadium was getting shape, and revealing its destiny: to become one more monument in town, celebrating… modernity.
Yes! The games were the expected success, and the stadium now remains as a monument to modernity.
t was easy to notice the deep changes that the city was suffering, with the Olympic games boosting the fever of construction. We didn’t stop near the stadium and Olympic village, but, from the road, we could easily see some strange buildings, sharing the challenge made by the stadium.
The “party” is over, and it would be interesting to see what did the games leave in Beijing. Another visit would be nice, but, being so far…
Being in a package has its advantages but also some inconveniences. From Tiananmen square I noticed an interesting building maybe a church, maybe Russian, eventually Byzantine, that I would visit if we weren’t “pushed” towards the Forbidden City.
Once back home I tried to read about it, but till now I couldn’t identify it, but Cal6060 wrote a comment in my VT profile page that clarifies everything:
” Nice Beijing page! Humm.. ” The Church” actually is the China Railway Museum. It was Beijing train station. Anyway , good guessing. “
The trips to the Great Wall and tombs always include a stop in a jade factory (I read it in VT prior to go, and… got it there).
The usual quick look at some people working (nothing new, I had already seen it, in Thailand, or India, or… both), and a technical explanation about the process and the different qualities of jade. That’s serious and useful!
Then… it’s up to you, to buy or not. The prices are high (shh… I escaped… and Fernanda didn’t notice yet that there was no jade in our containers back home… shh!) and the display very appealing.
If you don’t have my luck (this time… only this time!), why not to use the good technical information in a cheaper place?
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