So many people, a constant noisy bustle of every sort of traffic on the roads and the ever present haze in the air. For many visitors that describes Beijing in one sentence. A city of this magnitude and with such a long history boasts a number of places worth seeing. We have listed a few that can be seen in a day. Day tours in Beijing are generally quite reasonably priced, at around $40 US for a trip that usually takes in the Great Wall and includes lunch.
The wall of China is without a doubt a Great wall. It is justifiably a source of national pride in Chinese citizens. If you want to be able to tell your grandchildren that you have seen one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering then you must clearly visit the wall. Plus, you must get grandchildren. Borrow some if necessary!
Standing on so much history – literally, gives one a feeling of awe. Many of us suppose the wall to be one continuous wall across China. This is not the case. Different sections of the wall and different walls were built at various points in history and in some instances old walls were given a new look and reinforced. The sections are not joined up. The Great Wall is made up of many walls. In Beijing, there are six sections that can be visited, the most popular being Badaling.
My surprise was how steep the stepped sections are, and how dizzyingly tall the wall is. When you have climbed the wall you can pose for a commemorative photograph and get a certificate indicating you have ascended the wall. If you are a Westerner you may likely be badgered to be photographed along with locals. There is nothing ominous about it – they just welcome strangers.
The Forbidden City
At the heart of Beijing is an ancient walled city consisting of 980 wooden buildings, showcasing Chinese architecture that has influenced many other Asian countries. The complex boasts 600 years of Chinese Imperial history as the political seat of the country. The Forbidden City continued in this role until 1912 with the abdication of the last Chinese emperor, Puyi. If you visit the City as part of a guided tour, you will find it to be quite rushed and you will get through the main parts in about an hour. Should you wish to read the stories of each artefact up on display and wander around at leisure, you will need half a day at the least and do it as an independent traveller. This is a definite must-see.
It is easy to imagine oneself in a different era when wandering through the Forbidden City and indeed a friend of mine doctored a photo that I took to make it look like it had been taken a century ago.
The man-made Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake make for a tranquil setting. Except that is, if you happen to be visiting on a national holiday as we did. Then it is a colourful chaos: very busy with little children running amuck, hawkers trying their best to sell postcards at inflated prices, tour guides waving their coloured flags in the air to keep their groups together and a general babble of lots of people talking at once. Amongst the hubbub you may find it interesting to wander down the Long Corridor or take a scenic ride on one of the dragon boats that operates on the Lake. The marble boat, the zenith of ostentation can also be visited.
The above three well-known sights can be done on a tour that almost always includes a visit to the ‘Jade Factory’. The reason for our quotes is that this is really a small tour of a jade factory rather than the jade factory. Obviously the intention is to get you to buy the jade goods on sale, including jewellery and sculptures. Another frequent inclusion is the ‘Silk Factory’. Same story as the jade factory. In saying that, we did buy a fabulous silk cushion that folds out to serve as a blanket. It has a beautiful Chinese design on it.
Beijing is a good value-for-money city with lots of clean and affordable accommodation. Getting around the city is fairly easy, although we strongly suggest you carry a English-Chinese phrase book. This proved invaluable in aiding communication when our toilet flooded the first night. (Some of the toilet designs are predisposed to overflowing and even upmarket accommodation does not necessarily have western-style plumbing fixtures.)
As far as language is concerned, you will find that (despite the efforts made to train people in the service industries around the time of the Beijing Olympics) only the rudiments of English are spoken, and by few people . That said, the official signage in English is generally quite good.
Look out for our upcoming article on Guangzhou, gateway to China’s pearl delta.