Beijing is undeniably huge, and for many expats who have only been here for a year or two, their notion of the city might be limited to its skyscrapers, expressways, and communities. This infrastructure, and of course some tourist spots, represent a thriving part of the megacity that we and many outside China know. But there’s more to the city than that.
Try searching Google for “places to go in Beijing” and a wealth of websites will show you a very similar list containing the must-see tourist spots, including the Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square, and the Forbidden City. When you’re traveling the city for a short and limited time, say less than a week, it might be a good idea to join tour groups that will give specified itineraries and lists. But if you’re living and working here, why not give it a go and explore the city bit by bit? (Of course, do it when it’s not polluted or not a public holiday.)
When visiting a tourist area, it’s good to “internalize” and try to “travel back in time” to understand its beauty, despite the throngs of visitors or a bad air day. I also suggest to read a little bit about the area before going there, and prepare to compare what you saw and read on books to what will you experience.
Understanding and appreciating the majestic structures and magnificent artifacts requires knowing the history behind them. Many times during my museum travels I see centuries-old artifacts that look underwhelming, but “getting the feel” and “internalizing” by imagining how emperors and their household, or even commoners and peasants, used the relics give an otherworldly and exciting sense of history and time.
One particular journey that I really liked was that of Temple of Heaven. I wrote a travel blog about it, as hours after I enjoyed the site, the whole city was shrouded in one of the days that had worst blankets of choking air in December. However, during my walk I got so euphoric after seeing such a heavenly view, The Hall of the Prayer of Good Harvest against the deep blue sky. Leading to the massive hall was a long walk called the Red Step Bridge that has different levels. A site map explained the uppermost part of the bridge was reserved for the emperor, to give a “feel” of walking towards heaven, while the other lower sections were for ministers and dignitaries. Of course, the naughty boy in me walked on Red Step Bridge to feel that sense of being an emperor even for a while!
Another cool area that I explored was the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, also in December. The ruins of Western-style buildings that resemble much more of Greek and Roman buildings are a sight to behold, but there’s more to see as told by my colleague Andy Killeen on his recent journey there.
If you’re planning to see the wonders of these two historical sites in the city, Beijing By Foot is offering tour walks this week!
In the Footsteps of the Emperors: A Walk and Discussion at the Temple of Heaven, Mar 29
Adults and kids 10+ The walk is led by a native-English-speaking trained historian who has spent over a decade in Beijing teaching and researching Chinese history. The walk will last about two to three hours and the tour group will proceed at a leisurely pace with plenty of time for rest, refreshments, and conversation. 9-11.30am. Reservation required and meeting place to be emailed after registering. RMB 300 fee (RMB 260 for members of The Hutong) that includes guide fee, tips, and admission tickets to Temple of Heaven Park and all interior sites. (+86 138 1122 8460 / email@example.com) Temple of Heaven, No.1 Donglujia, Tiantan, Dongcheng District.
Imperialism, Opium, and Nationalism: A Walk and Discussion at the Old Summer Palace, Mar 31
Adults and kids 10+ The tour group will discuss the background to the Opium Wars and how the memories of the imperialist era are kept alive as part of China’s contemporary political culture. Along the way, the group will wander the ruins and explore the park. 10am-1pm. Reservation required and meeting place to be emailed after registering. RMB 300 fee (RMB 260 for members of The Hutong) that includes guide fee, tips, and admission tickets to Old Summer Palace and all interior sites. (+86 138 1122 8460 / firstname.lastname@example.org) The Old Summer Palace – No. 28 West Qinghua Road, Haidian District.
All photos courtesy of Andy Penafuerte
Last autumn (after I came back from a trip to the UK), I embarked on a journey to explore many areas in Beijing, mostly to experience its rich history through people, places, and events. I started my own travel blog to document my musings and experience, as well as to share what I believe are breathtaking views of these areas. And when I started working at beijingkids, I continued the Bucket List series by former editor Sijia Chen, checking out cool but cheap travel options in and out of the capital.