City of Contrasts
As much as I like to day dream about my future destinations I wasn’t prepared for Beijing. Unlike Shanghai, which feels very international, Beijing seems to me more Chinese. The city is monstruously big and yet lovely and innocent. Its most important jewel, the giant Forbidden City (Palace Museum), is a testament of China’s imperial grandeur, while ‘charming’ Hutongs* showcase the not so glamorous history of ordinary people. Virtually everywhere, these neighborhoods, haven’t changed so much since royal times. For the emperor: 72 Hectares with 980 palaces and buildings; for common people: unsanitary narrow streets and shared bathrooms.
Beijing is the only mayor Chinese city where low rise housing still exists, and guess where? In the very center of the city. Fortunately, Chinese authorities don’t want tall buildings overshadowing the palace. The area surrounding the palace is full of tall trees and multicolored flowers. Lush green gardens, lakes and canals are a sharp contrast to the dry grounds of the palace itself. Several rings of trees decorate every street near the palace. There are trees and parks a plenty in Beijing. I was there during spring, enjoying the privilege of blooming flowers all about this imposing city.
Where is Beijing’s center?
When researching for my trip to China, I couldn’t find the proper city center. Sure, the Forbidden City is the city’s geographical and historical center, but where is Beijing’s city center? There is no easy answer to that question. Many consider Wangfujing pedestrian street as the place where locals and visitors gather. Though conveniently located near the Palace, it lacks content (mostly shopping malls), and activity, especially in the evenings. The area around Quianmen Street is lively but resembles a village not worthy of a modern capital. Nanluoguxiang Street is too local and the Guomao area lacks personality. Access to the famous Tiananmen Square is limited, only open for sightseeing.
I don’t know if this has something to do with politics but I got the impression that there is no real center where people gather, exchange experiences, shop, dine and have fun. Instead I found several world class historical complexes, large beautiful parks, pedestrian areas, shopping centres, and an Art Zone each attracting people for different reasons. A highly decentralized city with extraordinary sites. Since public demonstrations are prohibited in China, I kept wondering if that’s why the authorities didn’t create a centre, or if Beijing’s layout is merely the result of historical circumstances?
Where to stay in Beijing
Considering the lack of a clearly defined centre, we chose two locations for our stay. First near Wangfujing street, within walking distance to the Forbidden City, then in the modern commercial hub of Guomao. The first area was great for walking but it didn’t have many decent restaurants with most closing pretty early at night. The second area had good infrastructure but seemed a bit far from important sites.
The first hotel we chose in Beijing was our only mistake in our 2 month trip around China. Chinese owned, and supposedly 5 stars, it had a privileged location but terrible service. Though we explicitly mentioned we didn’t want a smoking room, they sent us to one. Upon complaining, they gave us a de Luxe room on the same side of the building. I kindly asked for a room on the Northern side since it offers views of the Forbidden City, they insisted it wasn’t true (pictures online prove they were lying). Anyhow, the worst was yet to come. The hotel was building its own underground parking! Massive trucks and noise working at our doorstep 24/7. Thanks to hotels.com (they are really cool when you have golden status!) we were able to move to the Crowne Plaza nearby where we had a wonderful time.
Our second hotel was the recently opened Wanda Sofitel. Fantastic luxurious place, and service to match. We changed rooms so we could enjoy two different views. The hotel is next to the famous CCTV pants building and China Zun, Beijing’s tallest tower currently under construction and our second room overlooked both. The lavishly designed hotel lobby impressed us greatly and so did the extra long swimming pool. It turned out the location wasn’t bad at all. The efficient historic metro line no. 1 connects it to the Forbidden City in just 15 minutes.
Beijing has some of the worlds most impressive historical sites. The Forbidden City encompasses the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings on earth. It was the home of the Ming and Qing Royal Families for almost 500 years, and now serves as the Palace Museum. Each year emperors from both dynasties would cross 3 km in order to reach the Temple of Heaven where they would pray for a good harvest. Just imagine the bunch of slaves carrying royalty all the way to the temple year after year. No wonder the Empire collapsed!
The place is extremely crowded. While I followed the central path, Eitan (he really has a problem with crowds) walked almost entirely alone following the perimeter, under the arches and joining me at every palace. He claims he could feel the majesty of the place. Don’t forget your passport, you need it to purchase the entrance ticket to the Palace Museum (I know, completely ridiculous).
The Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden located on the northwestern end of the city is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design. It beautifully combines hills, rivers and lakes with pavilions, palaces and temples. As the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven it is a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
Another highly interesting place is the beautiful Jonghe Temple (Lama Temple), a great combination of Han Chinese and Tibetan art. The same neighborhood hosts several other temples, and Bell and Drum Towers. They are tucked in the middle of a Dongcheng residential area filled with atmospheric Hutongs. The most famous of them is Nanluoguxiang Street.
Other points of Interest
Two other places that will awe you are the fantastic Sport Complex that housed the 2008 Olympic Games and the hip Art District 798. I saw some Olympic events on TV and I was familiar with the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, but I didn’t know much about the public space of the complex. Strolling down the immense promenade, walking about the beautiful little squares and killing time by the lake was awesome!
Everything is on on the right spot. The Olympic Torch looks like a spaceship, quite abstract and monumental. The large lake filled with plants gave a natural touch to the area and the openings that lead to the metro stations and underground shopping mall bring an additional dynamic to an already dynamic space. Every detail mattered: from benches, garbage bins, flower pots, stairs, fences and pergolas, everything looks cool. There are even contemporary interpretations of Bell and Drum Towers.
The Art Zone, on the other side, seemed completely improvised. A huge super block occupying the site of a former factory contains many small streets, each of them with a distinct character. The whole concept of an area filled with art sounds interesting, but unfortunately shops and restaurants occupy most spaces. Probably the best spot in the area is the large square in the middle of an industrial plant, next to a Volkswagen plant.
What is Volkswagen doing there, other than lying and cheating to pollute the world? It seems that the place was a military factory dating back to when Eastern Germany and China where friends. Come to think of it, the former German Social Republic provided the perfect bridge for capitalist Germany landing in China. Public art gives a coolness to the area but is not abundant. Though there are too many cars, noise and pollution the place deserves a visit; after all it is the best display of contemporary Chinese art.
Beyond Beijing – The Great Wall
You can’t travel to Beijing without paying a visit to the magnificent Great Wall. I am sure everybody knows it’s the only man made structure visible from the Moon (a complete fantastic lie). Haven’t we all seen it so many times? Well, the Wall is one of those places that surpass any TV or movie screen. We decided to spend two nights near the Wall. Online research pointed out that Badaling is too crowded, so we chose Mutianyu. Our little Hotel is located in a tiny village between the mountains so on our first night we climbed the closest hill, and alone we watched the sunset.
Mutianyu turned out to be a fantastic place! I can’t lie to you by saying there were no tourists there, but their number was reasonable. Even though you can climb the wall on foot, we decided to use the Cable Car. We walked for 4 hours up and down the Wall, entered many towers, and almost broke our knees climbing the steepest parts. But the place always rewarded us with spectacular views. The day began cloudy, but the sun later appeared allowing us to see Beijing in the distance. On our way back we skipped the Giant Slide and walked down the hill taking the stairs through the woods. Then we took a local bus to our Hotel and had another peaceful night in the mountain. Flower Yard is very comfortable, unique and hosted by a great Chinese couple, fun, clever and great to talk to.
There is nothing like Beijing
Nothing can prepare you for Beijing. This city is riddled with traffic jams, pollution, noise, too many tourists and the occasional sand storm (a major one hit the city the day following our departure, images on TV where shocking!). Nothing really matters, the place is just too beautiful and its historical sites have no world match. They are testaments of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. On the other side, it seems like that civilization is once again rising, with equally impressive contemporary architectural achievements.
As in the rest of China, people in Beijing are friendly, always willing to help, and fun. We felt safe, and could enjoy ourselves with no problem whatsoever. Food is worth mentioning too. Not only they have great Chinese food, but the City has numerous international restaurants and coffee shops. Another plus: you can find a couple of bookstores selling literature in English and other languages.**
* The best Hutongs are between the Lama Temple and Bell and Drum Towers (around Nanluoguxiang Street). The ones near the Quianmen Street are worth visiting too.
** If you have an extra day or two go to the Ancient City of Pingyao, four hours from Beijing on a fast train (the journey is comfortable and offers great views). The walled city is an outstanding example of traditional Chinese architecture. We spent 3 days at the City Wall Old House – Ji Residence and loved it.