Editor’s note: like Sam, I tried to squeeze as much of Beijing as possible into just a couple days for the sake of the visa-free entry (which requires you to spend the whole time in a single city). You can read about my two days here. While I wouldn’t go to China now, part of my wanting to avoid places where I can be arrested for reporting on my experiences, I hope to return one day in a freer climate. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
Sometimes it is worth spending a bit extra. Admittedly, China had never been high on my travel list compared to Southeast Asia. I am not the biggest fan of Chinese food (as a Jew, I eat Chinese food two days a year, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, for cultural reasons), and it did not look as exciting as other parts of Asia. Yet, when I was going to Indonesia from Los Angeles, it seemed that the only practical way to do so was going through China, which led me to do something that I do not typically do: spend some extra money. I always pride myself on trying to find the best deals and traveling on the thinnest of shoestring budgets; I noticed that if I flew through Beijing as opposed to Guangzhou, it would be only $100 more, and I would get each way a 15-hour layover. No offense to Guangzhou, but this sounded worth it as Beijing is one of the great cities of the world. My second additional worthwhile expense that was not typical for me was that instead of navigating the city by myself, I spent $200 per day on a private guide and driver who picked me up and dropped me off at the airport and took me to the sights that I wanted to see. While again, this was atypical for me, I am thrilled that I did this as Beijing appeared to be a massive city, where few people who I encountered spoke English, and the attractions were fairly spread out. Even six years later, I still believe that I would be lost in Beijing had I not hired this guide.
With arriving in Beijing, it took quite some time to go through customs. While Americans generally need a tourist visa in advance to go to China, if you can show that you have a layover and a departing flight in less than three days, you can have a 72-hour visa free entry into China. My guide then picked me up and we headed straight for the spot that won the international voting for top Wonder of the World, the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall stretches a grand total of 13,170.7 miles and was used as fortification against invading armies. While some of the wall dates all the way back to the 7th century BCE, the best known parts are from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). What surprises many people is that there are people who tour different sections of the Great Wall because different parts tell different histories and have different landscapes and architecture. I decided that on this visit, I would go to the Mutianyu section of the wall. First built in the 6th century CE and rebuilt from 1569 to 1572, the Mutianyu section is only 43 miles outside of the city of Beijing, making it accessible for visitors to China’s capital, and is Beijing’s top tourist attraction. Built mainly from granite, snaking across the mountains and surrounded by forests and streams, the Mutianyu is not only one of the best preserved sections of the wall, but also among the most scenic and accessible. Upon arrival, I saw on the hillside in giant Chinese letters the words “We are loyal to Chairman Mao”.
To get to the Mutianyu section, visitors ride a chairlift up the mountain to the wall. The walkable section is 7,380 feet, and the wall reaches 23 to 28 feet in height and is between 13 and 16 feet in width. At times, the wall can be steep and have stairs, not making it the most handicap accessible. In Mutianyu, there are 22 watchtowers, which each have turret windows on the side to fire arrows at intruders. One of the most fun of visiting the Mutianyu Wall is leaving; when it is time to go, you can leave by taking a toboggan down the mountain, giving you the experience of a roller coaster while at the Great Wall. Being on the Great Wall of China and watching it twist and turn into the horizon as far as the eye can see is truly a bucket list item, and while I typically do not buy knickknack souvenirs, there was one that I could not resist here. There is a Chinese saying that “One who does not reach the Great Wall is not a hero”; for an overpriced cost, you can get on bamboo wood this saying with your name engraved on it and a depiction of the Great Wall. Though at the time I knew that one who pays $30 for this item is a sucker, I am happy to have it and see it on my wall and think of my journey to this destination of a lifetime.
From the Great Wall, we went down into Beijing and did a tour of the hutongs. Hutongs are narrow streets and alleyways that date from the Yuan through the Qing dynasties (1279-1911). These ancient homes are today valuable; however, most of them have been destroyed for more modern buildings in recent decades. With the grey sloping roofs, it is best to discover the alleyways through rickshaw, giving it all the more antiquated feel. The hutong tour took us into large, beautiful courtyards where several homes were connected and shared. On many of the walls was intricate calligraphy, and the hutongs also had many art shops inside them, making for great shopping. Some of the doors of the homes were colored bright red and the ones with blue knobs above signified that an important official lived inside this property, with more knobs indicating the higher rank of the official. The hutong neighborhood crosses over canals and past many great eateries; my guide excitedly pointed one out and told me that that restaurant served the best donkey burgers in Beijing. When I told her that we do not eat donkey in America, she responded, “Oh, well it tastes similar to horse.” While I did not try this local “delicacy”, I did have lunch in a local restaurant, whose food differed greatly from Chinese-American food, and was much better. Perhaps it is the culture of Communism, but we sat at a large table with strangers who, even with the language barrier, made me crack up throughout the meal with their jokes, friendly nature, and teaching me how to “cheers” in Chinese. Above the hutongs are two large towers, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower; before locals had watches, they would tell time from these 15th century towers by hearing them bang drums and bells. The views from these towers are incredible, and it is worth going up the Drum Tower, where you will not only see the large drums, but get an opportunity to hear a demonstration. While we were up there, a contortionist did a mindboggling show that included sword swallowing. This was the conclusion of my first day in Beijing, but upon being dropped off at the airport, I made my fantastic guide promise to pick me up again in eight days, which she happily obliged.
On my way back to Los Angeles, I had a second long layover in Beijing, and once again was picked up and driven straight to the Forbidden City. This legendary complex was built between 1406 and 1420, and then was the Imperial Palace during the winter until 1924. In 1925, it became a part of a museum. In total, the complex consists of 980 wooden buildings, nearly 9000 rooms, and covers an area of 178 acres. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the Forbidden City is one of the largest and best-preserved collection of wooden structures in the world, and valued at $70 billion, it is the most valuable palace and piece of real estate in the world. To get into the Forbidden City, it is best to first start in the world’s largest and most famous city square, Tiananmen Square. With the ability to hold over a million people, the square has many monuments, including the ten-story obelisk Monument of the People’s Hero with an honor guard beneath it. Customarily, foreign dignitaries will place flowers there upon visiting Beijing. Also in Tiananmen Square is a monument in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong signifying the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the square is home to the National Museum of China. Of course, the square is most famous outside of China for the protests and massacre that took place there in 1989, with the iconic image of a protestor staring down a tank. To get to the Forbidden City, tourists (though it seemed as though it was mostly locals) walk under the gate that has the infamous picture of Chairman Mao above it to get to the imposing red Meridian Gate. After crossing through the gate, there are a plethora of beautiful red buildings that look new even though they are over five hundred years old.
Of all the buildings, the best to check out is the Hall of Supreme Harmony; at 98 feet tall and 213 feet by 121 feet (it used to be even larger) it is the biggest of the buildings. Inside the hall are six pillars covered by gold made to look like dragons that surround an ornamental red sandalwood throne that the emperors used to sit on. The current hall was built in 1697 after the original burned down seven times. For this reason, the hall is flanked by bronze cauldrons that would hold water for quick access in case another fire broke out. Near the hall within the Forbidden City is an artificial creek called the Golden Water River surrounded by a white marble fence; the white marble is a common feature throughout the city. However, the main water feature of the Forbidden City is a large moat with guard towers. The most beautiful nature piece might be the stone garden, reminiscent of southern China’s Kunming region. Inside the various buildings are numerous art exhibits of priceless porcelain and paintings on canvas well worth visiting. While I hit the highlights in a morning, to see everything in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square would require several days.
In my jam-packed day, I went to another complex built the same years as the Forbidden City, which is the Temple of Heaven, taking up a full square mile of beautiful gardens and structures. One of four sacrificial temples in the town, the Temple of Heaven might be the most notable. The main building of the complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the emperor used to make offerings to the heavens for his empire to have a good harvest. The building is on top of a three-tiered white marble base and is 118 feet in diameter and 125 feet in height. The interior of the hall has beautiful red, blue, and green with golden vines and flowers painted on the ceiling and pillars. The gardens of the complex are serene and are worth spending time exploring too.
The final UNESCO World Heritage Site to see is the Summer Palace, spread out over a square mile and located on Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace contains 3,000 buildings and 40,000 artifacts and art pieces. The lake has beautiful willows on it, and you can travel by wooden dragon-shaped boats for tours around the lake. In the middle of the lake is a seventeen arch bridge connecting the land to an island, and visitors can go out to it in paddle boats. The most memorable part of the Summer Palace was walking the 2,388 foot 19th century Long Corridor, a covered walkway with more than 14,000 beautiful paintings depicting stories of Chinese folklore. Strolling this path alongside the north shore of the lake is peaceful and the best way to experience art on a spring Chinese day. Spring is a wonderful time to visit Beijing, as it is the only city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics, meaning that winters are cold, and summers can be sweltering.
My trip to Beijing ended with a special request to my guide, to take me to get the best Peking duck in the city. At the Bian Yi Fang restaurant, the favorite of NBA Hall of Fame star Yao Ming, patrons walk in past live fish that can be prepared fresh for lunch. However, I ordered the specialty, and a chef came and prepared an entire duck for two tableside, serving it with a wrap and sweet sauce. This delicacy fed two people and cost a total of about $30. The servers were amused and excited when they asked me if I wanted jasmine tea and rice, which would cost a total of $3 more, to which I exclaimed, “No problem.” Though I splurged in getting a guide, everything else in Beijing was low cost making it a fairly affordable couple days.
These two days and zero nights in Beijing completely changed my perception of China. While I feel that I have gotten a good taste of the historical attractions of Beijing, though I would love to return, it has sparked in me a desire to travel to the many other natural and historic wonders that this nation holds. If you have the chance to go to Beijing, do it, even if it is just for a long layover, it will be one of the more memorable days of your life.
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