Beijing is the capital of the PRC with the second largest urban population in China (after Shanghai). The city forms its own municipality and it is known for its long history, its politics and its air pollution. It comprises four inner-city districts: (i) Dǒngchéng has most of the sites; (ii) Cháoyáng is home to a large expat population; Xichéng has a number of lakes and (iv) Hǎidiàn is the university district. Given the size of Beijing, I was impressed by how easy it was to travel in and around the city centre. The roads are congested, for sure. But the buses still move quickly (unlike in WuHan) and the subway network is modern and extensive.
I travelled to Beijing from XiangYang, Hubei province (i.e. roughly in the middle of China). From there, it took 19-hours on a slow, hard-sleeper train that ran through the night. My train arrived at Beijing West (in Xichéng), close to my hostel. I stayed at Red Lantern House, which was small, quaint and affordable.
I visited the following sites over the course of my stay
1. The Great Wall
The Great Wall is actually a series of walls that were built over course of a number of dynasties. The best place to see the wall is in Beijing and there are a number of sites, the most famous of which is Badaling. This was the first section of the wall to be opened to the public and it is one of the safer areas to explore. You will need good walking shoes because the steps are uneven and the slopes are slippery. The climb is tedious; the sun is oppressive and in some places there are so many people jostling for space that it gets a bit dangerous. But the views from the top are awesome.
2. Tiān’ānmén Square
Tiān’ānmén Square is the world’s largest public square – grey, empty and foreboding. The place is under CCTV surveillance and security is tight, probably in response to the student demonstrations of 1989. There are imposing, Communist-era buildings on all sides of the square, as well as the Gate of Heavenly Peace (adorned with Mao Zedong’s portrait) nearby. It felt strange to be standing where so much history had taken place. Tiān’ānmén Square is the entry-point for another of Beijing’s main attractions: The Forbidden City.
3. The Forbidden City
This is a large arrangement of ancient buildings that once served as the palace complex for two successive dynasties. There are halls for banquets and for receiving foreign dignitaries. There is also the looming Meridian Gate, from which the emperor would oversee his armies and judge his prisoners. Today, The Forbidden City is an overpriced ghost town. There are no shrines or temples here; instead, you can just make out traditional living quarters through the grubby glass of the near-empty buildings.
4. Summer Palace
The Summer Palace was the highlight of my trip to Beijing. It includes a large expanse of parkland and gardens, which makes for a welcome change in pace. Gone are the oppressive heat of the Wall and the granite-grey of the Forbidden City. Here in the Summer Palace you are free to soak up the beautiful scenery at your leisure. There is still a fair bit to see. The gardens and stonework around the many traditional buildings are impressive, too.
Beijing is famous for its hútòng, which are small alleyways that crisscross the city centre. They represent a slice of traditional Beijing, giving you an idea of what the city was like before all of the anonymous high-rises. Hidden among the hútòng of Xichéng district is the beautiful lakeside neighbourhood of Hòuhǎi. Over the last decade, many of the residences have been turned into bars and the area is now a popular nightlife destination for tourists and expats. Live music blares out of many of the bars, which makes for a buzzing atmosphere.
(This is a photo of the Temple of Heaven – not Houhai)
It was a great feeling to be in one of the world’s most important cities. Getting around is relatively straightforward and the people were confident talking to me in their broken English. It is very expensive, though. It is likely that your entrance tickets will not cover the cost of all the attractions in a given location. And the tight security may come as a surprise. Take all this in your stride, though, and you’ll have a great time. I didn’t quite get around all of the sights during my three-day trip, but I think if you’re quick you’ll only need another full day.