Our time in Beijing was short, and I wish we could have spent much more time exploring this amazing city. But our third day there was my favorite–for reasons that will be clear shortly!
Also, be prepared: this is going to be far more image-heavy than my previous post (and probably every post after this will, too!) because I got really snap-happy and there are just so many incredible things we saw and did that I want to share!
We started the day off at Tiananmen Square. Aside from being known worldwide for the 1989 incident, Tiananmen Square is a massive city square, capable of holding 1 million people, and the place where Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Behind us here are the Arrow Tower (left) and the Archery Tower (right), which make up the south end of the square.
Walking north, we came across the mausoleum of Mao Zedong–a massive building in which Chairman Mao’s preserved remains are entombed in a crystal coffin. Or, at least, that’s what the guidebooks say–you can’t bring anything in (bags, cameras, phones–everything has to be checked in a locker) and it’s only open from 8 to 12 with long lines to get in, so we skipped it. North of that was the Monument to the People’s Heroes, an obelisk dedicated to those who died in the revolutionary struggles with England and Japan, as well as civil wars and rebellions. This was an interesting spot, because as you can see, there isn’t a soul on the steps of the monument. That’s because, since the 1989 protests, the area around the monument has been barricaded. In order to go up there to lay a wreath at the base, you have to apply and be approved days in advance. (I also just read somewhere that photography is not allowed–but this wasn’t expressed to us by Eva, and just about everyone in the square was photographing it with no problems.)
On the east side of the square is the massive National Museum of China, and on the west side, behind us in the photo above, the Great Hall of the People. This is kind of like half of Washington, D.C. bundled into one massive building–it’s the meeting place of the Chinese Parliament and National People’s Congress, legislative center for the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party of China, and the spot for ceremonies and international meetings. It does not, however, house the president, and the actual headquarters of the Communist Party of China and residence of president Xi Jinping is the secretive and ultra-private Zhongnanhai compound, just west of the Forbidden City.
Finally, on the north end of the square, is Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This was the entrance to the Imperial City, and now it’s famous for featuring the massive portrait of Mao Zedong.
A portrait of Chairman Mao has been hanging here since 1949–each year on National Day the portrait is replaced with a new, identical one to protect it from the effects of weather and pollution.
After passing through Tiananmen Gate and Meridian Gate, we were in the Forbidden City! During Ming and Qing rule of China, this was the imperial palace and home of the emperors for five centuries. It’s called the Forbidden City because it was just that–commoners were not allowed inside, and even high ranking government officials were only allowed in the Outer Court. Above is the Gate of Supreme Harmony, which overlooks a massive courtyard and the Golden River.
The Golden River was black–and partially frozen–when we visited, but the bridges that crossed it were covered in stunning marble carvings, many of which depicted dragons, a symbol of the emperor.
Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest wooden hall in China and home to the intimidating Dragon Throne.
I wish I had a better picture of the throne–but I also wish I could show you just how crowded the little space in front of the doorway where you could see the throne was! Yes, we went to China in its low season for international travel, which meant there weren’t a lot of Westerners visiting. But winter is the peak season for domestic travel within China, so there were still huge crowds in the Forbidden City. When you got to windows or doorways where you could look into the buildings, there were always hordes of people jostling to get a good spot to take a picture, and you kind of had to squeeze in, hold your camera up in hopes that you wouldn’t get the tops of peoples’ heads or their selfie sticks in the shot, and snap a photo.
All throughout the Forbidden City, especially in front of buildings, you can see this ornately carved line. This was the Meridian Line, which runs north-south through the center of Beijing. It was believed to be the center of the world, so many important landmarks from the imperial age were built along this line: the Temple of Heaven, the Tiananmen Gate, the major halls of the Forbidden City, and the Bell and Drum Tower. Even the modern Olympic Park was build on this line.
It was a sunny but super cold day–with highs in the low 40s and a bitter, chilly wind. And see those bright blue skies? One might think it was a lovely, clear day–but this was actually the smoggiest day we experienced in Beijing.
While we were exploring the Forbidden City, I found that I was coughing a lot. I had just gotten over a cold the day before we flew to China, and the air quality was really getting to me, so I donned my handy little mask. It felt weird for about three minutes, because even living in a polluted city, nobody wears face masks in the US. But tons of people wore them on a daily basis in China, so it was truly ordinary. Eva even said that she would wear hers on a cold day like that one because it kept her face warm! The moment I put my mask on, my breathing cleared up, and after about 20 minutes I was able to take it off and get through the rest of the day just fine.
Every building in the Forbidden City is ornately and meticulously detailed, and it’s truly stunning. I loved just wandering around and finding details like these dragons on the windows and doors. The entire city is nail-free, an amazing feat when you consider that many of these buildings are hundreds of years old and still standing.
The Forbidden City is made up of more than 800 buildings, with over half of these open to the public and many under renovation. By 2020, about 70% of the buildings are expected to be open to public. Yeah, we’re talking nearly 600 buildings to see–so there’s no way you’re going to see this place in a day. We spent about three hours in the city and saw all of the “major” halls and buildings, plus the stunning Imperial Gardens, but I think we could go back for a week and spend the entire day wandering and still not see everything. It’s truly amazing and lives up to the hype and then some. I can’t wait to go back!
After the Forbidden City, we went straight to the Great Wall–about an hour’s drive from the city. We had some delicious spicy noodle soup to warm our bones, then rode the ski lift up to the wall!
We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, which is the second most popular restored section in Beijing, after Badaling. All of the pre-travel research we did pointed us in the direction of Mutianyu over Badaling, as the latter is far more popular and can see big crowds, especially in the busy season. I’m so glad we visited Mutianyu, because in the two hours or so that we spent on the wall, we ran into only a handful of other people. We practically had the whole thing to ourselves!
Mutianyu is a stunning section when you consider the surrounding views: lush, tree-covered mountains as far as the eye can see. Whenever we stopped at watchtowers, I found myself gazing out the windows, where you can see the wall snaking over the mountaintops for miles.
Along with two other girls from our group, Eric and I hiked the wall from the top of the ski lift to the easternmost end of this section. And boy, let me tell you, that was a challenge! I run and hike and had spent the last 7 months getting into fairly good shape, and this hike had my heart racing. Some steps were no more than a couple inches high, while others were easily a foot high, and the inclines were steep.
The furthest tower to the east of the restored Mutianyu section is the Great Corner Tower, and if you look out the south you can see where the unrestored wall continues on. We got to this tower thinking that we would be able to climb to the top, like some of the other watchtowers in this section–but alas, there were no stairs. Little did I know, Eric was really expecting to be able to climb to the top here, so when we set out to explore more, he announced that he wanted to climb back to the top of the first watchtower we visited.
Up there, we had amazing 360-degree views. We took pictures and rested for a bit before continuing west along the wall.
Oh, except it turns out there was a reason why Eric wanted to climb back up to the top of this tower…
He asked me to marry him! Yep, remember how I said you’d soon see why this was my favorite day of the trip (and, let’s be honest, my life so far)? Well, now you know why!
Down by the visitor’s center, we had bought a couple beers to bring up to the top for a little toast on the Great Wall–Eric’s idea. So we had a little just-engaged Tsingtao toast on top of a watchtower on the Great Wall of China, and that’s just about the coolest sentence I’ve ever uttered.
So the Great Wall was incredible, and it’s a moment we won’t soon forget. Unless we get married at the Taj Mahal, I can’t foresee any of the other modern wonders of the world topping this one!
AND THEN WE RODE A TOBOGGAN DOWN FROM THE WALL. Yes, this is a real thing. Yes, it was amazing. I spent the entire ride down laughing hysterically, it was so much fun! We met up with the rest of our group and made the drive back into Beijing.
When we got back into the city, Eric and I went back to Wangfujing Snack Street, because I had promised a coworker that I would eat a scorpion, and I’m not one to back down from a challenge. We got three scorpions on a stick, each tried one, and…yeah, they were weird. I’m convinced that the people who say they taste like chicken are big fat liars, because they didn’t have any discernible flavor. The only thing I can say to describe them is “crunchy”…they were crunchy, flavorless, and we definitely had bits of scorpion exoskeleton stuck in our teeth for a little while. Classic.
Then we went out for an incredible peking duck dinner. Like, holy crap. This was possibly the best dinner I’ve had in my life. Now, we were also significantly underdressed for the restaurant we went to, but there was no helping that–we both packed only what would fit in our carry-ons for this trip, and there just wasn’t room for anything besides warm layers. So we went in our t-shirts and jeans and enjoyed the most delicious peking duck and beluga caviar.
We were seated next to the koi pond moat that surrounds the open kitchen, where we could look in and see the chefs hard at work. They presented our duck to us, then carved it and brought it to our table. Thank goodness our waitress very kindly taught us how to stuff and wrap the thin pancakes, because we would have been at a complete loss without her!
After dinner, as we were walking back to the hotel, we came across a bar called Drunk–so obviously we had to stop and give this place a try. Downstairs was a small casual coffee shop/bar setting, but as we sat down to enjoy our first beer of the night, we heard a band warming up upstairs, so we went to explore. It turns out above the coffee shop they have a big bar/dining room. They brew beer on-site, so the big Drunk vats were behind the bar, and there was a really great band playing, so we stayed there for a few drinks. I think it was here that we both realized we loved Beijing–drunk on the excitement of being engaged, drunk on the beautiful city, and (let’s be honest) drunk on good Drunk beer.
The next morning was our last in Beijing, and we really weren’t ready to say goodbye. We paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven park before heading to the airport to fly on to our next destination. The Temple of Heaven is an imperial temple dedicated to the heavens, where the emperor would pray for a bountiful harvest. It’s surrounded by 600 acres of parkland, much of which is used by locals to do line-dancing, play Jianzi (kind of like hackysack, but better) or practice Che Ling (“Chinese yo-yo”).
This is Che ling–and there were tons of people gathered around practicing this hobby in which, essentially, you have to balance the…okay, no, there’s no way I’m going to be able to accurately describe this without knowing the terminology. I’d recommend watching this video to get a good idea of how it works!
After I took the first picture, the gentleman came up to me and essentially handed me the sticks and helped me keep it going. It actually worked! Somehow I kept that piece balanced on the string without dropping it, which is no small feat! But really, it was entirely thanks to him that I didn’t drop it.
Inside the temple complex we visited the sacrifice pavilion and the circular mound altar, where you can stand on the center stone (the Heart of Heaven) and stomp or clap, and it echoes off of the low round walls of the altar. Then we continued on to the Imperial Vault of Heaven (with the blue roof in the photo behind us.)
This hall was surrounded by a circular wall, and on a quiet day, you can stand on one side of the wall, whisper, and your words can be heard by someone standing on the opposite side as clear as if you were standing side-by-side. On top of that, there are three stones on the meridian line in front of the hall (where you see a gentleman standing in a brown jacket in this photo) that echo. If you stand on the first stone–closest to the hall–and clap, shout, or stomp, it will echo once. The second stone back echoes twice; the third, three times.
And finally, we reached the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This magnificent hall is made up entirely of wood, nail-free just like the Forbidden City. And it was gorgeous! It’s raised on three marble tiers and the building itself has three gables made up of vivid cobalt blue glazed tiles to represent the heavens. The emperor prayed in the shrine to the heavens inside this building for a good harvest.
As you can see, the sky was a stunning clear blue that day to match the tiles. In fact, despite being incredibly cold, this was the most beautiful weather day we experienced in Beijing. The wind blew the smog away, and we were left with crystal clear skies and views of the whole city around us.
But our time in Beijing had sadly come to an end. We parted with half of our group–three of the ladies were going to Xi’an, while Eric and I, and another couple, were flying to Chongqing to start our journey on the Yangtze River! We had to say goodbye to Beijing, but we were already talking about a return visit to see more of this amazing city.
If I start practicing ice skating now, maybe I can make it to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Hey, a girl can dream, right? (Just kidding–I’m more of a Curling champion.)
So up next, we’ll be cruising the Yangtze River, exploring ancient temples, and seeing some truly remarkable landscapes!