Exploring Beijing and its many attractions
If you’ve never been to China, maybe it’s time. First-time travelers will be intrigued by the ancient culture interspersed with an enormous landscape, where modern and ancient mix.
Of course, to really see China, you’ll need a lot of time or more than one trip. But if you think you’re only going to travel to the ancient land once, plan carefully so you get the most out of your travels.
If you have enough time and resources, consider including Shanghai, China’s largest city and its financial center, in your itinerary. You can take one of China’s high-speed trains, the Jinghu High Speed Railway, between Beijing and Shanghai. You’ll need just five hours to make the 800-mile journey!
In my case, I visited only Beijing, and due to business considerations did not extend my trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong. Certainly, if you can take the time to see all three in one trip, that would be appealing.
But even on a trip limited to Beijing and its immediate environs, you’ll find plenty to do and see. Here are among the best ways to experience Beijing.
Wandering on your own
If your time is limited, do what I and my 14-year-old traveling companion — a friend’s daughter — did. Take to the streets of Beijing to soak up the atmosphere. Though we booked a tour with car, driver and guide for two, we had some pre-tour time on our arrival day.
Based at a hotel in the Chaoyang District, we visited a nearby outdoor market where we browsed for souvenir gifts for friends back home. Among the items we saw was a little book with a red plastic cover, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, ready for purchase.
At more than 10 acres sprawling along streets and in pavilions, the Panjiayuan Market is the largest in China, selling secondhand goods as well an array of curios. Jade jewelry, ceramics, calligraphy, teapots, Buddha statues, paper lanterns, Cultural Revolution memorabilia, Ming- and Qing-style furniture — and even opium scales — are laid out on blankets on the ground. Be prepared to do a lot of crouching if you want to examine goods up close.
Hundreds of bicycles crammed the bike “parking” area near the outdoor market. Local residents made their way on foot amid colorful banners donning Chinese characters, which lined a plaza. Tourists and locals alike swarmed the market.
The July sun basked the streets the next morning as we headed to Tiananmen Square, the first stop of the day.
The well-known 109-acre square in the center of Beijing is named for the Tiananmen, which means “Gate of Heavenly Peace” in Chinese. Ironically, we are reminded of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 at this site. Student-led demonstrations propelled the government to declare martial law, and government soldiers killed hundreds and possibly thousands of demonstrators. The exact number was never released by Chinese authorities.
The day we were there, we watched kites soaring in the sky. Kite making and flying are among the oldest traditions in China, going back thousands of years. Nearby, a young boy carried the same little book of Mao’s quotations with the red plastic cover we’d seen at the outdoor market.
Chairman Mao, who ruled until he passed away in 1976, is buried in a mausoleum located in the middle of Tiananmen Square, which draws crowds. Inside of the memorial hall, visitors can observe a large marble statue of Mao, and beautifully carved clay figures, murals and engravings.
Halls on the second floor of the mausoleum house memorial rooms for six leaders from the Communist era, as well as a movie room where guests can view a documentary film called Huainian, which loosely translates “to cherish the memory of.”
If you’re an early bird, don’t miss the flag-raising ceremony, in which a group of soldiers march through Tiananmen Tower to the Chinese national anthem. The flag-raising is timed to be at the precise moment of sunrise. There is also a flag-lowering ceremony towards sunset.
The Forbidden City
There’s a lot to see nearby, and we visited the Forbidden City next, the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. With 980 buildings and total of 9,999 rooms, it is one of the largest, if not the largest, palace complexes in the world. The seat of imperial power for five centuries, it was home to the royal family.
One of the most prominent buildings is the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Built as a symbol of imperial power in 1406, it was the highest building in the empire. No other structure was allowed to be higher than its 88 feet, including the decorative roof elements.
The poetically named Palace of Earthly Tranquility housed most of the empresses of the Ming dynasty through 1644.
Chairman Mao’s portrait hangs at the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City, a reminder of more recent times past.
Allow at least three to four hours for a visit to the Forbidden City, and it probably goes without saying that comfortable walking shoes are a must.
One of the most beautiful places I saw in my short time in China was the Summer Palace. No wonder the imperial family retreated here from the summer heat, which can soar into the middle to upper 90s in July and August. Just six miles northwest of the city, it’s worth a visit.
The palace is right on the water and is painted in vibrant shades of red and yellow. There, one can see the beautiful palace gardens, take a boat ride to view an island temple, go into the palace’s theater to witness traditional performances, or wander through the recreated shops lining the river’s edge.
Incorporating both manmade structures and natural elements, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site is considered a “masterpiece of Chinese landscape design,” according to UNESCO. Natural hills and open water combine with pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges “to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value,” according to UNESCO.
While there, my traveling companion and I rode one of the dragon boats across Kunming Lake, watching the 17-Arch Bridge on the horizon. The striking vista left an indelible impression.
The dragon boats themselves are intriguing, with a dragon tail at the back and a dragon head at the front. Painted in hues of cantaloupe, green and terra cotta, they whisk travelers across the lake. Another option is to stroll around the lake, luxuriating under the weeping willow trees.
Be sure to see the Marble Boat. Situated in the northwest corner of Kunming Lake, it dates to 1755. Eighty-feet long and two-stories high, it was destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860. Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt it in approximately1886 with diverted funds intended to build a modern Chinese Navy.
Scaling the Great Wall
Don’t miss a visit to the Great Wall of China. Some of the best and most-restored sections are just north of Beijing, within a one- to two-hour drive.
On a July day when the mercury hit at least 90 degrees, we drove with our tour guide to the Great Wall at Badaling, one of the most visited sections of the wall, about 50 miles from the center of Beijing.
This is the section of the wall that Richard and Pat Nixon visited on their historic visit to China in 1972. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev have also walked along this 500-year-old section of the wall. Cyclists in the 2008 Olympics passed through its gates.
Our visit there was one of the highlights of our trip. The sheer size of this portion of the wall — wide enough for five or six horses to be ridden across it — stuns travelers.
Winding up and down the Jundu Mountains, it was a sight to behold against the blue sky with scattered cumulus clouds. Climbing to the top was my traveling companion’s goal, and I wasn’t going to be left behind.
As we wound to the top, we took periodic stops where artists painted, and watched other travelers who climbed carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the unrelenting sun. I wondered if I was going to make it.
At the top, there were certificates that read, “I have ascended the Badaling Great Wall.” We each bought one, of course, and I have kept mine as a reminder of how perseverance pays — or at least rewards with the satisfaction of knowing you can finish what you start!
I was intent on seeing the Chinese opera, which we did. But I was prevailed upon to consider an acrobatics show as well. I never would have thought of that myself, but I listened to my traveling companion.
We headed on our own to the Acrobatics Macrocosm for what turned out to be one of the treats of the trip. Located in the Chaoyang District at 36 North East Third Ring Road, near our hotel, the Chaoyang Theater seats approximately 1,400 spectators. It’s located near the Hujialou station of the Beijing Subway. Colorful costumes and athletic moves characterized the performances.
Acrobatic performances are among the oldest Chinese arts, dating back at least 2,000 years. They performed in the Imperial court. In later periods, opera replaced acrobatic shows as the preferred form of entertainment for royalty.
If you have the time and interest, visit one of the pearl markets, a jade factory, and tour a hutong, where networks of courtyards and narrow streets and alleys in the Xuanwu District date back at least 700 years.
A visit to Beijing immerses you in the history and culture of this giant land. Even for a short visit, it’s worth the journey.
But beware of the intense heat in summer and, if time is limited, consider a tour that will ensure your trip captures the highlights of China’s capital city.
If you go
July is typically the warmest month in Beijing with January the coldest. September to October is considered the best time to travel to Beijing, with sunshine and cooler temperatures than summer. According to weather.com, temperatures range from approximately 58 degrees Fahrenheit to 78 degrees in September and 45 degrees Fahrenheit to 66 degrees in October.
We had a package very similar to the current United Airlines’ Hello Beijing package — a five day/four night trip that costs $449 per person double occupancy at a five-star hotel. The package includes an English-speaking tour guide, four breakfasts and three lunches. See http://unitedvacationsasia.com/tour2017/cn01.html.
United Airlines offers the lowest roundtrip fares to Beijing in mid October, starting at about $750 from BWI Airport.
Get more information about travel to China from the China National Tourism Office at www.cnto.org or call (212) 760-8218.