- We were here: 2 days at the end of October 2018, plus another day for the Great Wall.
- Number of days needed for the city (without the wall): 3.
- My score: 3/5, but because of the wall 4/5.
The Great Wall of China is one of the most extraordinary constructions that man has made. The vision of it winding over the mountains as if it was alive is hypnotizing, even more so if you realize that what you see is just a tiny part of its more than 12,000, I repeat, 12,000 km in length. A masterpiece, deserves being respected, admired and enjoyed, if possible in the quietest stretch we can find. Simply sublime and more than worthy of the title of wonder of the world. And it is also the best thing that could have happened to Beijing, because despite its attractions, its proximity to the wall makes it from an interesting city to a must.
Beijing as such is more recent than we imagine, and although it is paradoxical, its current origin and importance are not due to Chinese. Where it exists today, in its day there was a city before the times of the unifier of the country, the first emperor Qin Shi Huang back in 221 BC. This city changed its name several times over the years but its importance was maintained for the same reasons: to be close to the northern border of the empire and to be the northern end of another magnificent piece of Chinese engineering, the Grand Canal, which for almost 2,000 years connects it with Hangzhou, passing through many important cities along its 1776 km long; to this day it is the longest and oldest artificial canal in history.
Such an important place was condemned to suffer the ravages of war and political conflicts to gain control of it. The city suffered a lot until Genghis Khan put an end to its agony: he conquered the city in 1213, but as this man did not know much about strategy and did about razing, two years later he had turned it into a parking lot for Mongolian horses. Fortunately, his grandson Kublai Khan (yes, the dude in Marco Polo TV series) was more savvy for politics, and taking advantage of his grandfather had left that well flattened, built a great new city between 1264 and 1293 he called Khanbaliq (literally means “the city of the Khan”), from where he decided that he would rule the largest empire that ever existed in the face and history on Earth, his. After Mongols were expelled only a century later, Chinese realized the magnificence and power of the new city, so instead of destroying it, Emperor Yongle changed the name to Beiping, stayed there to live and introduced even more improvements, many of which persist today and are precisely its best historical tourist attractions, almost all UNESCO heritage:
- The Forbidden City, the largest group of palaces in the world that is preserved, served since its construction in the early fifteenth century as residence to all China emperors. In its current configuration it has 980 buildings, almost the same number of squares and streets, and huge parks / gardens inside and outside its boundaries. Although clearly made for own enjoyment and incidentally to impress the world, it is in a certain way monotonous, since all buildings are the same style.
- Tiananmen Square, important for recent history of the country, but visually a place to take a picture and get away. Immediately to the south of the Forbidden City and outside the wall was built a large open square (apart from some towers) that was enlarged for centuries until, copying the desires of greatness of the previous emperors, Mao Tse Tung converted it into the largest square in the world in its time, where 1 million people can stand. It houses the Monument to People’s Heroes, Mao’s Mausoleum and on the west side is the National Museum.
- The misnamed Temple of Heaven, since it is actually a large park, was also built in the 15th century by the same emperor as the Forbidden City. There is among others to the Hall for Prayers for the Good Harvest, a circular altar of exquisite architecture that has become a national symbol.
- The Summer Palace is another set of palaces, gardens and lakes that already existed for delight of the city’s high-ranking rulers in the 12th century. It is 18 km away from the city center and it is a pleasant escape from it.
But Beijing is more than palaces and more palaces and parks and more parks:
- Other points of historical-cultural interest are temples of Lama and Confucius, or the ancient Bell and Drum towers (but way uglier than those in Xi’an).
- 798 Art District. This area dedicated to contemporary art is a break from temples, gardens, palaces and walls. With many cafes, exhibition halls and outdoor sculptures it is a pleasant visit even for those not very fond of this type of art.
- Those who like glass and steel can entertain themselves by strolling through its financial zones, where skyscrapers are worthy of Dubai.
- The Hutongs or old neighborhoods, are another interesting visit. As small towns, all the houses are of a single floor of height, houses of a single room leading to a common patio, the majority of them without bathroom (which are public in the street). These residences of humble people who have disappeared from the majority of large and medium Chinese cities and that for decades are not seen in developed countries, are curiously what makes up almost the entire second ring of Beijing, which surrounds the Forbidden City. They were fenced during the Olympic Games so that tourists did not see the disadvantaged side of this city and are clearly endangered, since its location is precious as gold. Soon they will disappear under the pressures of real estate restructuring that is already beginning.
- Precisely some main avenues that separate some Hutongs are already a hotbed of cosmopolitan restaurants. This city full of qualified foreign workers has according restaurants, far beyond Beijing duck. It is one of the best and most varied places where to eat in the country.
- And then there is what many were waiting for: shopping. As a good international and business city, there are all western shops and brands. But there are many who are attracted by the siren song precisely of these fake products; it is said that they have diminished a lot in number and quantity, but they do still exist.
And also remember that there is the wall, do not miss the wall.
WHAT TO SEE
- THE FORBIDDEN CITY
- TIANANMEN SQUARE AND TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
- LAMA TEMPLE
- 798 ART DISTRICT
- THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
- WHEN TO GO
- GETTING THERE BY TRAIN OR BUS
- GETTING AROUND
- WHERE TO EAT AND TO SLEEP
- DANGERS AND PROBLEMS