Before 1979, Beijing was known as Peking (hence Peking Duck, the very popular dish!), but the City’s name never actually changed, it’s down to the use of the Pinyin method of translating Mandarin (Beijing’s official language) to the International standard.
We visited Beijing for three days as part of a bigger tour throughout China. It was August, a time of year when it’s hot, humid and busy!
We loved our time in Beijing, we always felt safe, found the people friendly and despite hardly any of them speaking a word of English, they still tried to help us. We certainly packed a lot in on our short visit!
No visit to Beijing would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall of China and there are various sections to choose from. We were visiting the Mutianyu section which took around 1½ hours. The Great Wall is at the top of a hill so upon arrival, we had an option to either walk up which would take around 30-40 minutes but, as we didn’t have a lot of spare time (and it was hot!) we paid a nominal fee to take the cable car ... except I am a very uneasy passenger in cable cars so the only way I could get through the short 5 minute journey to the top was shut my eyes! If you are a person of a nervous disposition, I suggest you do the same!
As we stepped out of the cable car, there in front of us was the iconic great wall snaking up the mountainside as far as the eye could see. We spent the next hour and a half walking up and down and exploring this magnificent wonder of the world which, for me, exceeded any expectations. There is so much to say about this bucket list experience, so find out more, please quickly read my blog “The Great Wall of China – more than just bricks”
2. Tiananmen Square
At 44,000sq ft this is one of the world’s largest public squares named after the Tiananmen ("Gate of Heavenly Peace") which separates it from the Forbidden City. As square’s go, it’s rather pretty due to the range of different sized shrubs all around.
At the north end is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall which is his final resting place and at the south, the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
It’s actually ironic that its name means “peace”, because the square was the scene of a massacre which took place on 4 June 1989. A student-led demonstration ended in the death of thousands of unarmed civilians at the hands of the Chinese Army. 25 years on and the true events of what happened are still censored inside China by the Government.
There isn’t anything to actually “do” in the square other than just “be” here, unless you want to fly a kite or buy a multitude of Mao memorabilia – then there is plenty to do
3. The Forbidden City also known as “The Palace Museum”
The world's largest palace complex is situated across the road from Tiananmen Square. It covers 74 hectares, is surrounded by a 52-meter-wide moat, and its name derives from the fact it was off limits for 500 years. Be warned, it is HUGE and there is a lot to take in. This complex highlights the development of the Chinese culture created by the different dynasties throughout its history, so it is a wonderful display of quintessentially Chinese architecture.
There are many, many sections to view so by the time you had seen the 5th building of the inner inner square, everything does start to look the same, therefore, do a bit of research prior to a visit to find out specifically what you would like to view. After a couple of hours walking around, we really started to feel the sweltering 30°c heat and humidity.
Walking from the temple to our lunch stop we passed a couple posing for wedding pictures. The bride was dressed in a red silk traditional outfit and the groom in matching gold, they looked so happy and in love with the beautiful backdrop of the moat and temple behind them.
4. Temple of Heaven
I really enjoyed visiting this 267-hectare medieval complex of religious buildings. It’s set in a tranquil park and at the centre of the complex is a triple-gabled circular building known as “The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”.
When strolling around this peaceful area, we observed many people playing cards and just being sociable, but a highlight was yet another bride wearing a stunning red silk dress that splayed beautifully on the floor in front of one of the temples. The setting, the bride, the groom, - it was all so glamorous this may have actually been a model photo shoot, but who knows?!
5. Birds Nest Stadium
The 2008 Beijing Olympics were held here, a huge complex which was wonderful to stroll around but there isn’t actually a lot to look at when you think about it, just the main stadium and the Water Cube where the swimming events were held.
Admittedly, we did have had a lovely time wandering around the square and, whilst taking photos, found it most amusing that the locals would ask if they could have their picture taken with us, sometimes with whole families! They absolutely love it if you pose with the “V” peace sign!
6. Red Theatre for a “Legend of Kung Fu” show
We purchased seated tickets “up in the gods” for the Red Theatre through our tour company at £40 per person and in hindsight, we should have bought tickets from a cheaper source (maybe direct with the theatre) and we may have been closer to the stage!
During the 1 hour 40 minute performance, we really enjoyed watching artists smashing metal strips on their head and swinging nunchucks around their bodies at a speed faster-than-the-eye-can-see! It was a wonderful mix of martial arts and modern theatre and the visual display is lovely!
7. Summer Palace
As we walked into the entrance we were met with a lovely sight of seeing a group of people carrying out their morning Tai-Chi – their gentle movements were reminiscent of a traditional dance, they were so graceful and used what looked like a tennis racket and ball to keep their poise whilst their bodies twisted and turned.
We strolled through elaborately painted open corridors next to the picturesque Kunming Lake and, despite us being part of the tourist attraction for locals who would stare at us rather than the beautiful surroundings; the leisurely pace towards the lake was peaceful and rather lovely!
We had a 5-10 minute dragon boat trip across the lake which we found relaxing and loved looking at the colourful pagoda looming in the distance on a hill, this journey helped slow down the fast-paced Beijing experience.
8. Traditional Chinese family lunch
Lunch one day was at a traditional Chinese family home in the Hutong area of the city. We can honestly say we enjoyed this lunch better than any of the restaurants we have been in so far! It wasn’t just down to the excellent food, it was because the family were so warm and welcoming, we felt we were a part of “real” China and not in just another tourist spot with hundreds of people. To eat our food which consisted of home-made dumplings, we started to master the art of chopsticks and felt very proud of ourselves!
After lunch, our host showed us how to make these dumplings and gave us the opportunity to try a few ourselves – how nice! She then gave us a lucky charm, which warmed us so much it was touching.
9. Rickshaw ride
We took a rickshaw (or a pedicab as they are also known) around the streets of Hutong and it was just lovely! It is basically a bicycle that pulls a cart for two people – a relaxing way of seeing a place without having to walk! We could give our feet a bit of a rest! We now truly felt as though we were in “true” China and were experiencing what it would feel like to be part of their daily life. We were taken through narrow lanes and past the old town, and saw old building's where people still live. This felt much nicer than the obligatory tourist trips we had encountered so far although, of course, we still loved seeing the famous sights!
As part of a tour we were taken to a pearl shop and I was adamant I wouldn’t buy anything, but I did think it would be interesting to hear more about them.
96% of the world’s pearls come from China. Saltwater pearls have only one pearl in each oyster which makes them more expensive. The freshwater pearls have quite a few so are obviously cheaper but the way to tell the difference between real and fake, is to simply rub them together. The real pearls produce a chalky residue and feel rough against each other but the fake ones don’t even make a scratch and are smooth so they slide against each other.
I was still adamant I wasn’t going to buy anything and I was about to leave ... until I saw a counter with some pretty hearts consisting of a single pearl in the middle. They were only 200RMB (£22), so I bought myself an early birthday present! So much for me being adamant!
Silk Street is a giant mall catering for everyone! They sell belts, leather, silk, sunglasses, clothes, electronics, souvenirs etc etc. We had to have our best haggling heads on and sometimes shops wanted our business so badly, the ladies would pull on our wrists to drag us back into the shop whilst another lady stood in the doorway to stop us leaving! It was an over-whelming and uncomfortable experience at times and overall we were glad to get out of this complex.
Just one final thing ... dinner and drinks in and around our hotel
One of our day’s sight-seeing finished at 3pm so we found a roof-top terrace bar a few doors down from our hotel. We whiled away a few hours drinking beer and cocktails in the sun whilst I wrote in my journal – it’s always good to put your feet up and reflect on a day’s activities!
For dinner one night, we thought we would sample the hotel’s cuisine and we were ushered into a small private room for just the two of us. We sampled a delightful selection of traditional Beijing style dishes including a gorgeous Peking Duck! Now that is something any foodie should add to their bucket list – Peking Duck in Peking!
Overall, I personally feel that Beijing is one of the world’s capital cities that should be experienced and I know I am not alone! The fascinating history it has to offer versus the modern buildings such as 7 Star hotels that are constantly popping up, mean that this ever-changing City will never be boring!!
If you are travelling around China and Asia, we recommend you check bus, boat and train schedules ahead of time with 12Go Asia website. You can also book your tickets in advance online (as we did) to save time and hassle.
Have you been to Beijing or is it somewhere you would like to visit? Was your experience the same or did it differ? Please share your thoughts with us.
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