There are so many incredible things to see near Beijing, due to it being the capital of the last two empires, that it is hard to wrap up the city in just three posts! Time to hit the highlights though, then share a little of Xi’an and Shanghai next week, before heading back to France!
The Forbidden Palace and the Temple of Heaven were built in 1420 by a Ming Emperor (this guy):
One thing that you quickly learn about the various temples and palaces is that they were made of wood, which burns easily. You also learn that the British and French burnt many of the original structures to the ground during the Opium Wars. They’re often still a hundred years old (or more) and just stunning! My opening view of the Forbidden Palace reflected in water was certainly promising.
The Forbidden City is massive! You begin to feel sorry for the people who were allowed to enter, but forbidden from using the toilet while inside (this is one part of the name). Of course, all of the common people were forbidden from entering at all (the other part of the name). Check out all of that intricate (and flammable) wood!
My first tip for visiting is to come alone or on a private tour. There was a clear path (primarily to the throne) where the large groups were herded like cattle, but the rest of the grounds were comfortable to wander around. Just be warned that the place is huge, so going alone could mean difficulty finding the most interesting sites! Several parts of the city have been turned into various museums, including a fascinating display of artifacts that were saved from Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. The display is on rotation throughout the world until it is safe for them to return home. In particular, this came from a cache that belonged to a trader, likely headed for the Silk Road. There’s no indication of why the owner never returned for his/her goods.
Really, I think these two photos give a good idea of the difference between the areas that the big tours visit versus the other areas though. Guess which photo is taken in the area of the massive tour migration? The first is one of the main administration buildings of the emperor. The second is the opera stage, where the emperor would have been entertained by music and plays.
If you’re interested in seeing more of the lovely items kept in the museums, here’s a slideshow sampling: furniture with painted panels, an intricate clock, a tri-color camel (from 618-907 – really incredible that trade had introduced the Chinese to camels that long ago!), throne room, banquet hall, a giant wooden clock (note the guy in the upper right corner for a sense of the size), an incredible jade carving and a peak at the thick ceramic roof that these wooden structures had to support.
I finally learned why there are lions everywhere too – they are set to guard any doors that face a street directly. I thought it would be fun to buy a small set for my door until I learned that all of the females are portrayed playing with a baby lion and the males all have a giant ball that represents power . . . I decided to take home a slightly less sexist souvenir, even if it won’t properly guard my house from evil spirits!
The current Temple of Heaven has stood for 200 years. There is a lovely covered area, where many locals hang out and socialize, that you later learn was the path of the sacrificial animals. This was a place where I wished I’d had more time because there was ample green space where you could sit, relax and soak of the energy of the trees. Unfortunately, the bullet train waits for no one, so I spent a lot of my time here at the the temple, the sacrificial area and near where the emperor fasted . . . all of which feel like the surface of the sun on a hot, sunny day in May! You begin to understand why the later emperors all left the city between May and October!
My final empire stop was at the Summer Palace, which was originally built in 1750, but ALSO burnt to the ground by the British and the French in 1840 and again in 1860. I didn’t quite catch if it was burnt to the ground a third time (I think the answer is yes), but the current version is ~100 years old. One of the emperors kept traveling quite some distance to escape the heat, so he decided to make a closer retreat. The Summer Palace is a little outside of the city and has a good breeze, usually staying several degrees cooler; however, it is still hot. Best time to visit Beijing? I’d say October or April if you want moderate weather. High 80s to low 90s with strong UV isn’t the greatest weather to be outside and active all day (especially if pollution is up). I was actually quite lucky that only the first day I arrived had bad pollution in Beijing. For the rest of my trip, the pollution stayed in the moderate range nearly all day! Here’s a little slideshow from the Summer Palace:
Aside from all of the historical sites that I visited, Beijing was shockingly modern. I believe that China is still considered a developing nation and, having traveled to other “developing nations,” I’m not sure that the description fits anymore for China. I realize that major cities are not indicative of rural areas, but that is true in the US as well. Here are a few things that surprised me the most:
- The major cities that I saw in China had large 4-8 lane roads and highways that were well-signed, including indicating speeds for the various lanes (like the German autobahn). Of course, people then drive on them without really following the rules (basically at all), which is more characteristic of a developing nation.
- China has bullet trains capable of traveling in excess of 300 kph. I traveled on one and the comfort was better than I’m accustomed to on European trains – the amount of space between the rows of seats exceeded even the first class space in Europe. An outlet was provided that accepted the two most common plugs in China, including one that is compatible with European chargers. It also had much cleaner (and less smelly) bathrooms than most European trains I’ve been on (especially French trains) with both a local “squatty potty” and Western toilet offered. No smoking is enforced via fines, so you’re safe here! I wouldn’t hesitate to travel by bullet train in China again – they are at least on par with Western Europe and superior to the American trains I’ve been on.
- The electricity supply seems very stable. There were no brown outs, black outs, flickers, etc. during my whole trip.
- Entire new cities appear to be under construction. I was told that the Chinese government has decided to deal with the problem of high property costs, bad traffic and pollution in Beijing by forcing newer arrivals to relocate to newly built cities. I suppose that’s one advantage of being a Communist country – you can simply order people to move if the population size is creating problems. This “move order” is enforced when the government tears down the temporary housing that was being used and bricks up shopfronts.
- Things are not quite as “communist” as one might expect. Fewer people are working for the government now because it only offers a “middle class” lifestyle. More and more Chinese are choosing to work for private companies or to start their own business so they can become wealthy. There is also not a true “equal distribution” of wealth. When the terracotta warriors were discovered, there were poor farmers living in that area. The families now benefit from the proceeds and their children can be employed as guides, so they are doing quite well and living in very nice, new government-built housing. My tour guide told me that the local farmers went from being undesirable potential mates to being highly desirable now.
- I knew that China did not enforce intellectual property rights; however, I was shocked to learn that the Chinese are ENCOURAGED to copy foreign goods and to sell their own version. This is perceived as a completely normal thing and not as any sort of “theft.” One of my guides was surprised to learn that Americans can get in trouble for bringing counterfeit items back into the US and that France will fine you and confiscate them.
- The metro system was on par with the better systems in the US and Europe as well. The trains ran often, were clean, had safety barriers and even air conditioning. The only unusual thing was that the people literally push their way onto the train and it is every man for himself when it comes to getting a seat! People didn’t seem to really respect the idea of letting the elderly, children, etc. have a seat, even the seats designated for that purpose. Given how respectful the Chinese I met were in regards to their parents, I was a little surprised to see that this doesn’t appear to extend beyond the family.
Outside of the fact that Chinese people will push in lines, on the metro, etc. and that they don’t feel obliged to follow rules about smoking, driving . . . my experience continued to be largely positive. Most of the people were very polite, helpful (when needed) and patient about my attempts at communication via pointing at pictures or words on the print-outs my tour company provided.
In short, I will certainly be back to visit more of the lesser-known sites of China, albeit with more attention paid to finding TRULY smoke-free accommodations!