Travel to Beijing - Chinq's ancient and modern capital

  • On arrival in Beijing, some travellers can be intimidated by the sheer size of the city, the vast expanses of concrete buildings and eight-lane motorways, and the seeming anonymity of finding yourself in such a place. With its history as the political centre during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Beijing has more cultural and historical sites of importance - such as the Forbidden City and the Old Summer ...
    © Nathaporn Tunthong / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination China

On arrival in Beijing, some travellers can be intimidated by the sheer size of the city, the vast expanses of concrete buildings and eight-lane motorways, and the seeming anonymity of finding yourself in such a place. With its history as the political centre during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Beijing has more cultural and historical sites of importance - such as the Forbidden City and the Old Summer Palace - than other large cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Despite being the capital, Beijing still manages to maintain a sense of order and calm, with locals finding time for a chess game with friends in a café, or a pot of tea in the rapidly re-emerging tea houses.

Before embarking on your trip to Beijing, it is worth reading up on the etiquette as it is very different to that of the west. For example, whilst in the western world we use our finger to point at someone or something, this would be considered extremely rude in China. If you need to point something out, try to use the whole of your hand or your palm if you can. Also bear in mind that China is still technically under 'Communist Rule' and therefore any political conversations are not a great idea as criticising the government is taken very seriously and can even be punishable by imprisonment. Punctuality is very important so make sure you are always early or at least on time - especially if you are someone's guest. Do not worry too much as in most cases the Chinese will recognize the fact that you are a foreigner and will make exceptions. However, the more you try to respect their culture, the more you will be accepted and the more enjoyable your trip will be!

Every day tourists rush in their thousands to visit the Forbidden City, the symbolic place of the eternal China, though the tourists are 99% Chinese so you will not feel like you are in an excessively touristic place.

A city built in the 14th century, it is an incredible maze of palace (9,000 rooms!) and small pagodas covered with yellow tiles (yellow being the colour of the emperor, exclusively).

It is impressive to go to the top of the Tiananmen Gate to the place where Mao proclaimed the Chinese Republic and made so many appearances, surrounded by his faithful followers; access costs around Ł7.00. Mao's mausoleum in itself is worth a visit to observe the devotion of the crowd, who come every morning (8:30 - 11:30 am) to pay him silent homage in his crystal casket. The Museum of History and Revolution is just next to it. The Qianmen Front (or southern) Gate of the City is, in fact, a double defensive gate that previously marked the limit between the Tartar town and the Chinese town. It dominates Tiananmen Square. You have a unique view over the whole of the Forbidden City from the top of Coal Hill (Meishan). It is best to go from 6 am or at sunset: in the morning, the alleys and summit pagoda are the favourite meeting place for the old Pekinese who come and do their tai-chi-chuan exercises there and, for the old opera singers, their vocals. Fantastic!

The eastern moats of the Forbidden City partially run alongside well-restored traditional working-class houses. You should go to the superb park around the North Lake (Beihai), used for boating, and its "Peppermint Bottle" (nickname of the white pagoda of Mongol inspiration overhanging it), particularly on a Sunday, to see the Pekinese stroll with their families or in couples. The Fangshan is a very famous imperial restaurant. You should also see the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), located to the south of the old Chinese town. The very famous temple with blue roofs, built without one single nail, was built during the reign of the Ming dynasty to stay in touch with heaven. The emperors came here twice a year to celebrate the harvests. It is open from 5am, and devotees of tai-chi-chuan also get together there. Not far from the Temple of Heaven, in the Muslim district and inspired by Ming Chinese architecture, the Niojie mosque was built in 1442. There is a warm welcome in all the small streets, particularly for Muslim visitors. Beijing has around forty mosques; however, that of Niujie (the street of the cow) is the most famous.

There are two cathedrals in the capital. The South Cathedral opened officially at the time of Mao, however, the religious offices were only used by courageous Christians and diplomats, to command respect. The North Cathedral was transformed into a factory. Both have been restored now and are open for visits. There is also a Protestant church dating from 1925. Three traditional Pekinese houses, the residences of artists with interior courts, are also worth a visit. Make a particular effort to see the one where the famous contemporary writer and thinker Lu Xun (the Chinese Victor Hugo) lived in 1924. Also see the residence where the biggest opera singer in Beijing, Mei Lan Fang, spent the last years of his life, and, finally, that of Lao She, a martyr of the cultural Revolution and author of "Tea House" and "Rickshaw".

Around the Drum Tower (Gulou) which was beaten on the hour every hour, a working-class district with an open-air market and hutongs (small streets) of long ago. This should be discovered quickly, before it all disappears, even if preserving the unhealthiness of the rooms for the satisfaction of the tourists is not really a solution.

Half a century of communism and the absence of any concern for maintenance have not improved day-to-day life; however, the old Pekinese prefer to continue this way of life rather than being re-housed in anonymous buildings in the suburbs.

All the tour operators present the Temple of the Llamas, which is rather over-restored and shiny, as a real place of prayer for the current "monks". The Temple of Confucius is more authentic, and very close by, surrounded by big trees and pillars. There are not many visitors in this atmosphere recalling the charm of Old Beijing which can also be said for the Temple of the Five Pagodas, behind the zoo which is of Indian inspiration and dating back from 1473. Calm and serenity are guaranteed.

Beijing: what to do?

Whilst in Beijing, you should try and walk a section of the Great Wall. There are various sections open to the public - the closest to Beijing being at Badaling. It will take you about an hour to get here in a rental car or on a tour bus and upon arrival you can take a cable car to the higher sections of the wall or you can climb the many steep steps. If you hate large crowds of tourists, it is worth travelling a little further out of Beijing to Mutianyu where you will find another section of the Great Wall that has been restored and where you can enjoy the spectacular views a little more peacefully. Whichever location you choose, you are sure to be awe-struck by the views and the realisation that this monument is still standing despite being built over a thousand years ago on such uneven terrain.

It may seem obvious, but you really can't go to Beijing without seeing the Forbidden City. This vast expanse (961 x 753 metres) of imperial buildings was home to 24 Emperors of China from the Ming to the Qing dynasties. The 980 buildings and 8,700 rooms are open to the public to explore, but it is impossible to see the whole of the palace in one day. The city comprises an outer and an inner court, and some of the larger halls within the palace have been transformed into exhibition spaces so there is plenty to see. The impressive gold roofs and red walls create a feeling of luxury throughout the whole place, making it easy to see how the Emperors of China called this their home.

  • Great food with a good choice of different eateries.
  • Being the capital, Beijing has great nightlife and bars.
  • Many cultural and historical sites to visit.
  • Living costs upon arrival (food, drinks and hotels) are relatively cheap.
  • As with most large cities in China, there is heavy pollution in Beijing.
  • The traffic and seemingly constant construction means you may struggle to find peace and quiet unless you travel out of the city.
  • Not many people speak English, making Beijing a little hard to navigate at times.
  • Crazy drivers make car rental a difficult option.

Beijing: what to visit?

Reminders

You will need a tourist visa to travel to China for a holiday. These can be obtained from Chinese Consulates or Embassies in Britain and will usually be valid for two months. These visas can also be extended for an extra month in the Foreigners Section of the Public Security Bureau in most large cities once you have arrived in China. Be sure not to outstay your welcome by sneaking in a few more days of travelling after your visa has expired as there is a charge of Ł47 for every day you stay in the country after the expiration date.

To avoid

The Silk Market in the Chaoyang district is often made out to be an unmissable and authentic Beijing shopping experience. However, do not be fooled, this market is crowded, hectic, stressful and expensive by local standards. The silk here is actually of fairly low quality compared to certain other markets in Beijing, and the vendors often refuse to bargain with you on the price - meaning you will pay a lot more than you need to.

Beijing: what to eat?

Beijing really is a city of street food. Whilst you are also sure to find nice restaurants if you search for them, there is little point in spending extra money when the best food to be had is sold in local markets and stalls for less than half the price. Savory pancakes are a favourite for tourists wanting a quick snack on the move, whilst kebabs provide a more substantial meal and are sold by street vendors all over the city. To try a Beijing speciality, order Roast Duck, which is often served whole with pancakes and plum sauce, leaving you to make your pancakes as you like. Visit Wangfujing Street for the best selection of food stands offering local and Chinese cuisine. Be warned however, this street gets extremely busy at night and at on the weekends so try to go on a weekday before 7:00pm if possible.

Beijing: what to buy?

Chinese freshwater pearls account for almost 90% of the world's freshwater pearls. As such, you will find them almost everywhere in Beijing - from small family-owned stores to large jewellery shops similar to those you would find in the UK. If you are looking for a slightly cheaper souvenir or gift, a Chinese tea set always makes a nice present. In the teahouses or markets of Beijing (such as Maliandao Cha Cheng in the Xuanwu District) you will find a wide choice of tea sets, which usually include at least two different sizes of cup, a teapot, a saucer and a sieve-like lid to stop you accidentally drinking the leaves.

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