The Chinese government recently instituted a 72-hour transit visa option for people making international connections through several of their major airports. It allows three full days (and not a second more) to see as much as possible. On my way back from Thailand, I took advantage of their largesse and enjoyed a brief but memorable visit to Beijing, China’s capital and largest city. As the center of government, it is grand and striking metropolis that is among the largest cities on earth, with anywhere from 20-25,000,000 inhabitants.
There are a handful of “must see” attractions while visiting Beijing and I was blessed to see three of them during my stay. Tiananmen Square has been in existence for centuries, but enlarged significantly following the 1949 revolution and Communist takeover led by Mao Zedong. In fact much of the modern Beijing was redesigned and constructed since that time, as much of the old city (Hutong) was torn down to achieve Mao’s vision of a grand, modern showcase for the new government.
The Square serves as home to Mao’s mausoleum, where hundreds of thousands of (primarily) Chinese citizens from all over the country line up to view his embalmed remains. The People’s Congress building also faces the square, as does The National Museum of China, containing many of the artifacts, both historical and cultural from this ancient nation. The square derives its name from the Tiananmen Gate, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, an entrance to The Forbidden City (more on that to come!).
I was joined by tour guide William on my sightseeing foray. His knowledge and ability to share in excellent English made the trip so much more interesting and valuable. To be honest, tour guides are a hit or miss proposition, as I’ve found on my many side trips while in Asia. You have to do your homework and read as many reviews as you can to find the good one. But then you do, it’s worth every yuan (….banknotes of the Chinese currency).
There is so much more information about the square available, so check out this link to start: Facts – Tiananmen Square. I also mentioned the hutongs, the historic alleyways that still make up much of the city and are consideration an important part of the city’s cultural and family life for centuries: Facts – Hutongs.
Next up was the sprawling, colorful, almost indescribable edifice known as the Forbidden City. Up until the end of the Chinese Imperial Dynasties in 1912, this palace (“forbidden” to the general public) served as home Chinese emperors, their families, concubines, servants, advisors, and (often) dozens and dozens of offspring. It is located next to Tiananmen Square, on 180 acres of land surrounded by a moat. It is, by any description, a mammoth complex comprising 0ver 900 building and an estimated 9,000 rooms. Many of the ephemera and antiquities within the structure have been stolen, plundered or removed, but many artifacts are display at museums in Beijing, Taipei and London, among others.
This map gives a clear view of the route we took (starting at the bottom and walking through the complex, exiting at the top gate) and the enormity of the compound.
I visited in February during the Spring Festival and Chinese New Year holidays. The weather was crystal clear, but in the brisk high 30’s. Crowds were heavy, however, even during what most would consider a non-tourist season. The new year is a huge travel time for the Chinese, who often migrate annually over thousands of miles to visit family throughout Asia and beyond. Two areas of the palace and museum that drew packed throngs for challenging photo ops were the throne rooms, matrimonial chambers and bedrooms of the imperial family. The bedroom were behind thick, dirty, shaded glass but gave a clear view of the intricate, hand-sewn Chinese silk embroidery used for decor and bedding. Until this past century, silk was available only to the highest echelon of Chinese society and leadership, with special silk worms kept in abeyance exclusively for their needs.
I love to capture some of the architectural details of historic buildings, as well as the charming, quirky, beautiful and moving decor and creative touches used in their design and construction. Anything from the painting to the hardware to the mosaics to the building design are of interest and can be captured in all their exotic detail by the camera lens.
It can be hard to capture true grandeur, however, whether it’s man made or natural, in writing or photographs. Such is the case with much of what I saw while in Beijing. The last part of the visit to the Forbidden City included additional structures, both ceremonial and residential, as well as the imperial garden and exit across the frozen moat.
There is so much online about the Forbidden City that I urge you to read more as your time permits. Here’s a link to wet your appetite: Facts – The Forbidden City.
After a long morning of sightseeing within the city itself, it was time to head out to the final spectacular highlight of my visit, the Great Wall! I had requested that I not be steered to one of the unpleasant and gluttonous buffets that exist to feed the busloads of tourists who frequent this area, so William suggested a small, lovely restaurant in a village on our way. Zhang, our driver, William and I shared a memorable feast of delicious entrees in this sunny and welcoming spot. As we left, I asked William if I should leave a tip. He responded, “No, I told her she could have the leftover dumplings and she was happy.” I had to giggle thinking of how that tactic would go over at an American restaurant anywhere in the U.S. Somehow, I doubt the server would find that an acceptable alternative.
Forgive me, but I was compelled to capture what is commonly referred to as a “squat toilet”. These facilities have been the standard in much of Asian for over a century and only recently are being replaced in the major cities by what we would term “Western style” designs. Those of you who may have a lurid interest in such things can read more about them here: Facts – Squat Toilets.
After an incredible lunch and non-squatting toilet break, off we went to The Great Wall of China!
One of the world’s most identifiable structures, indeed one that can be seen from space, is what is commonly known as The Great Wall of China. The wall spans over 5,000 miles in several sections, with some portions preceding the birth of Christ. It was built to keep people in, as well as out, and proved quite successful in deterring invasions from nomadic and mongol hordes and invaders from Euro-Asia intent on disrupting or usurping the highly prized trade along the Silk Road.
I visited The Mutianyu section, which lies 45 miles outside of Beijing and is among the most visited and best preserved (and restored) of the entire wall. You enter through a touristy “village” of shops to catch the chairlift to the base of the wall itself.
Once we arrived, hopped off and maneuvered a few flights of steep stairs, I found myself on top of the world…or at least it felt that way! The views are stark, yet familiar, most likely due to the thousands of photos, films and documentaries that have been done about one of the world’s great wonders. William insisted I get a couple shots of me on the wall and I’m glad he did. The experience was unforgettable!
Watch towers dot the wall along the way, allowing originally for both housing and positioning for guards and warriors to utilize. They proved great “photo ops” and interesting vantage points for the surrounding mountainous area. I was also interested to see how physically challenging it is to transverse the wall, as it has steep stairs and angled walkways to navigate. No rest for the weary tourist!
As we returned to the exit for the base site, I heard a lone bird chirping rhythmically in a winter bare tree alongside the wall. He (or she!) poised elegantly for me while a cold breeze kept the branches swaying.
As is often the case, one wonders how things like the Great Wall were build in the first place. I’ll leave that up to your own research and the deductions of historians to edify, but the effort is not easily missed. Like the pyramids, thousands of workers must have been employed to complete the task and myriads of lives lost along the way. The impact is staggering, though, so you may want to read more about it here: Facts – The Great Wall.
If getting up the side of the mountain via chair lift was fun, going down the mountain via toboggan was, well, interesting. Upon entry to the loading area, one is greeted by a poster of Michelle Obama who visited the wall a few years ago and afforded herself of this unique “return trip” option. How hard could it be, right?
William went in front of me and within seconds was out of sight halfway down the hillside. My ride started off OK, using judiciously the handle that allowed either freefall or braking to avoid flying off the track into the mountainside. A family visiting from Canada followed me, all Albertans feeling totally comfortable in this snowless yet wintertime mode of transport. At some point, while heading downward, my toboggan simply slowed and stopped. No toggling with the brake stick could get that thing going. Nothing. Screams were heard as I felt at least three major thuds from those following me down the mountainside as their toboggans crashed into mine. From the top, the Chinese staffer was screaming, “Go, Go, GO!” repeatedly as I frantically pulled myself forward using the metal sides of the track. I was mortified, of course and panic started to swell in direct proportion to my reddening, embarrassed face. Finally, in complete desperation, I reached underneath and started scooping out balled up piles of gooey leaves stuck to the apparatus beneath my unit apparently restricting its ability to slide down the run. After several handfuls were removed, while being screamed at (maddeningly!) from above and after turning around to see six very frustrated Canadians, stacked up end to end, staring at me with a look that said, “Idiot, do you think you can get your lame-ass moving so we can get off this freezing mountainside?”, I was able to break free myself and continue, at Mister Magoo pace, to the bottom of the hill. As I arrived, William had vanished. I told the Lady behind me, “That’s just great, my guide is so humiliated he’s left without me”. In actuality, he was humiliated, but waited for me down the stairs so that he didn’t have to be too closely associated with my epic tobogganing fail. Losing face is a big deal in Asia, and I think I had just experienced it both first hand – and via poor William’s reaction!
72 hours in Beijing, by any estimation, is hardly enough to capture the atmosphere or spirit of one of the world’s great cities. It was but a brief taste of a history that predates European culture and has has been, until my own lifetime, an enigmatic and closed world. I felt honored to have seen it first hand and to have it serve as a grand finale to my many months living and learning in Asia. It just wets the appetite for my next adventure and foray into the unknown. After all, isn’t that what this journey is all about…?