Giant history lesson for first-time travelers to Beijing
PERHAPS there’s no other city in the world that makes you feel the weight of history quite like Beijing.
The Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and, of course, the Great Wall are famous attractions providing insight into different periods of Chinese history that have helped shape the country. Retracing the steps of ancient emperors, late Chairman Mao Zedong and the thousands of workers who built the world’s longest wall can make one feel rather small when looking at the grand picture of what they accomplished.
Travelers from 45 countries can now take advantage of a 72-hour, visa-free policy provided they have visas and flight tickets to a third country.
Three days isn’t enough time to see everything Beijing has to offer and this guide for first time visitors to the city omits major attractions like the Summer Palace. But read on for an action-packed schedule that gives a good idea of how much can be done in 72 hours.
The first stop is Tsinghua University. China’s top university attracts thousands of teenagers each summer with many dreaming of being admitted to this prestigious university in the future.
But for casual travelers, the university’s appeal is its beautiful mix of ancient and modern buildings and lush landscaping. In 2010, Forbes magazine called it one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world after interviewing a panel of architects.
The campus is part of what was once the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) royal garden and some ancient buildings remain today.
The ancient constructions, Chinese-style bonsai, pavilions and lush vegetation hark back to a bygone era when emperors consorted with various concubines in the garden.
Tsinghua also boasts a number of Western-style buildings that date to the early 1910s.
Tsinghua University is not far from the National Olympics Stadium and National Aquatics Center. Take bus No. 86 to pop over there.
Although the Beijing Olympics are a thing of the past, many tourists still flock to the stadiums to recall the historic event and check out these unique structures. The national stadium was quickly christened the Bird’s Nest due to its shape and the aquatic center became known as the Water Cube.
Both look more spectacular at night as they have a futuristic look that wouldn’t be out of place in the film “Blade Runner.”
The Forbidden City highlights day two. It features ancient ceremonial halls used by Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty emperors. It also housed the private residences of China’s royal family and the servants that catered to their every whim. Plan on spending half a day roaming around the grounds.
The Forbidden City consists of an impressive 980 buildings. Highlights include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The inner court was the home of the emperor and his family. During the Qing Dynasty, emperors lived and worked almost exclusively in the inner court with his wife and concubines.
Audio guides in 23 languages are available at the entrance and it’s well worth the price, which ranges from 20 yuan (US$3.2) to 40 yuan depending on the language. The audio guide brings the Forbidden City to life as you stroll around the grounds.
It’s closed on Mondays except during July and August and on statutory holidays. A ticket to the Forbidden City is 60 yuan and it opens from 8:30am to 5pm.
Download a palace map at http://www.dpm.org.cn/index1280800.html and plan your own route before you go.
After exiting the Forbidden City through the Gate of Divine Might, cross the street to enter Jingshan Park — tickets are 10 yuan. It boasts the best views of central Beijing.
It takes about 10 minutes to reach the top of the hill. Looking to the south provides a great view of the Forbidden City, which was designed in such a way that no one on the hill would be able to see any people within its walls.
To the west is Beijing’s central business district with clusters of skyscrapers. To the southwest lies the egg-shaped National Grand Theater.
Moving along, hop on bus No. 685 for the 30-minute trek to the Temple of Heaven.
The temple was a shrine where Ming and Qing emperors came to pray for good harvests. The temple’s layout and design had a profound influence on Chinese architecture over many centuries.
It is comprised of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a magnificent triple-gabled circular building; Imperial Vault of Heaven, a single-gabled circular building; and The Circular Mound Altar, an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones.
All of these buildings reflect the ancient Chinese philosophy that heaven was a circle, explaining why the buildings within the temple were circular. The dark blue roof tiles also represent heaven.
Tickets are 35 yuan each from April through October. The rest of the year it’s 30 yuan.
Walking most of the day definitely works up an appetite. Check out Wangfujing Night Market to fill up on a variety of local snacks and Cantonese dim sum.
Most travelers to Beijing will want to try Peking duck and luzhu huoshao, a combination of pig’s tripe, lung and intestine, tofu and a wheaten cake boiled in broth, added with garlic sauce, fermented tofu sauce, caraway, vinegar and chili oil.
Quan Ju De restaurant is known across China for its succulent and mellow Peking duck. For out-of-town tourists, eating duck in this restaurant often ranks high on their list of things to do in Beijing. The average price per person is 180 yuan at Quan Ju De.
Peking duck skin is crispy, making a nice contrast with the tender duck meat. Servers will slice the duck in front of diners. The duck meat, scallions, thin cucumber slices and sweet bean sauce are wrapped in a thin pancake.
Luzhu huoshao can be found at roadside food stalls at the night market.
The Temple of Heaven is only 30 minutes from the night market by Metro Line 5.
Next up is a short stroll to nearby St Joseph’s Church. Construction of the original church was completed in 1655. It features a Romanesque revival style with a mixture of European and Chinese elements. It was rebuilt in 1904.
An old Chinese saying goes, “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall is not a true man.”
It has inspired people from home and abroad to make the trek and walk atop the fabled wall. The Badaling section draws the most tourists. Family-run guesthouses and local restaurants provide travelers with a chance to spend more time on the wall if so desired, but for the sake of this quick trip, plan on half a day.
A cable car (80 yuan round-trip) brings visitors to the top faster, but it feels disingenuous. After coming this far, make the effort to hike up yourself. Audio guides in Mandarin, French and English are available.
From downtown Beijing, its costs more than 200 yuan to get there by taxi. Or save some cash by taking bus No. 877, available at Desheng Gate Bus Station. It takes 30 minutes and costs 12 yuan.
Returning downtown, head for Qianmen Pedestrian Street. Qianmen Gate is situated at the south side of Tiananmen Square. Although most of Beijing’s city walls have been demolished, Qianmen remains intact and serves as an important landmark on the central north-south axis.
The pedestrian street is dotted with local time-honored brands. Chinese tourists often stop here to buy local specialties and souvenirs, including Beijing-style cloth shoes and paper fans.
Alongside Qianmen Pedestrian Street is Da Shilanr, a commercial lane featuring Beijing traditional brands and olden wooden buildings. It’s also got a nice selection of restaurants serving authentic Beijing delicacies.
Give the famous Dong Lai Shun restaurant a try. Its signature dish is mutton hotpot. The mutton is sliced as thin as a piece of paper. Dip the slices into the boiling water for a few seconds and then top with your preferred sauce or seasonings.