Beijing Travel Guide


Forbidden City
The Forbidden City, off-limits to most of the world for 500 years, is the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. The old world of beautiful concubines and priapic emperors, ball-breaking (and broken) eunuchs and conspicuous wealth still hovers around the lush gardens, courtyards, pavilions and great halls of the palace.

Most of the buildings are post-18th century; there have been periodic losses due to an injudicious mix of lantern festivals and Gobi winds, invading Manchus and, in this century, pillaging and looting by both the Japanese forces and the Kuomintang. A permanent restoration squad takes about 10 years to renovate its 720,000 square metres, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms, by which time it's time to start all over again.

Lama Temple
Beijing's largest temple is an enlightening sight, ornamented with intriguing statuary, stunning frescoes, tapestries, incredible carpentry and a formidable pair of Chinese lions. Perhaps most impressive of all is an 18m (60ft)high sandalwood statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha in the Wanfu Pavilion, carved from a single tree.

The Lama (or Tibetan) Temple, with its beautifully landscaped gardens, is a temple to die for. The first thing you encounter is the holy shins - they're at eye level - and from there it's a head-tipper to the ceiling as the statue soars up and over the galleries. Flitting around the Buddha's head are what appear to be spinning prayer wheels, emitting a sweet, harmonious whine. Closer inspection reveals them to be pigeons with whistles attached. You can't help thinking the poor things are on one of the lower levels of samsara - it's a crappy job even for a pigeon.

The temple is a working lamasery so it's closed early in the mornings for prayer. Some have questioned whether the monks in the tennis shoes are real monks or government stooges. Most tour guides will answer that of course they are real Tibetan monks; that the alleged oppression of Tibet is propaganda put about by the Dalai Lama; that Tibetans love the Chinese; and that the existence of the temple is proof of China's good intentions. Take this with a grain of salt.

Summer Palace
Nowadays teeming with tour groups from all over China and beyond, this dominion of palace temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes and corridors was once a playground for the imperial court. Royalty came here to elude the insufferable summer heat that roasted the Forbidden City.

The Summer Palace with its cool features - water, gardens and hills - was the palace of choice for vacationing emperors and Dowager Empresses. It was badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War (1860) and its restoration became a pet project of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last of the Qing dynasty rulers. Money earmarked for a modern navy was used for the project but, in a bit of whimsical irony, the only thing that was completed was the restoration of a marble boat. The boat now sits at the edge of the lake in all its immobile and nonmilitary glory. The Palace's full restoration was hampered by the disintegration of the Qing dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion.

The place is packed to the gunwales in summer, with Beijing residents taking full advantage of Kunming Lake, which takes up three-quarters of the park. The main building is the lyrically named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, while along the north shore is the Long Corridor, so named because it's, well, long. There's over 700m (2300ft) of corridor, filled with mythical paintings and scenes. If some of the paintings have a newish patina, that's because many of the murals were painted over during the Cultural Revolution.

Temple of Heaven Park
Temple of Heaven Park is an icon of such enduring value that it shorthands the entire city. The park's classic Ming architecture gives it heaps of symbolic value and the name has been used to brand products from tiger balm to plumbing fixtures, as well as decorating a plethora of tourist literature.

The Temple of Heaven is set in a 267-hectare (660-acre) park, with four gates at the cardinal points, and walls to the north and east. It originally functioned as a vast stage for solemn rites and rituals. All of the buildings in the park, including the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, are tangible conversations between the gods and mortals. The buildings are carefully thought out paeans to ancient gods and beliefs; fengshui, numerology, cosmology and religion all played a part in their original construction, and the result is an awesome display of god in the architecture and the devil in the detail.

The park remains an important meeting place where many city dwellers start the day with a spot of t'ai chi, dancing or game-playing in the park. By 9am the park reverts to being just a park, so get there early if you want to see what Beijingers do before breakfast.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall, as a metaphor, has gone through a few restorations in its time. When it was originally built 2000 years ago by the Qing dynasty it was a sturdy 'No Trespassing' sign directed at neighbouring kingdoms. For centuries after that it remained neglected and forgotten until 18th-century Europeans, infatuated with progress and artifice, appended a 'Great' to it and sat back to marvel at man's prehensile capacity to build Bloody Big Things. Today it's a tourist attraction, half Wonder of the World and half Kitschville, but to many Chinese it's just a wall. They seem to reserve for it, and the foreigners who come to marvel, a kind of bemused tolerance. To peasants in rural areas the Great Wall is less majestically known as 'old frontier'.

The majority of visitors climb the wall at Badaling, along with the tourist packs, the touts, and the sellers of reclining buddhas with lightbulbs in their mouths. If you want to experience the wall far from this madding crowd, you'd do better to travel a little further afield and take a walk on the wilder side of the Huanghua (Yellow Flower Fortress) section, 60km (35mi) north of Beijing. It's a classic and well-preserved example of Ming defence, with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers.

Tiananmen Square
Forever sullied, Tiananmen Square lies at the heart of Beijing, and is a vast impressive desert of pavestones where people wander and fly kites. Though it was a gathering place in the imperial days, Tiananmen Square is Mao's creation. Major rallies took place here during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao reviewed parades of up to a million people.

In 1976 another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects to Mao. In 1989 PLA tanks and soldiers cut down pro-democracy demonstrators here. Today the square is a place for people to wander and fly kites or buy balloons for the kids. Surrounding the square is a mishmash of monuments, past and present: the Gate of Heavenly Peace; the Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution; the Great Hall of the People; the Front Gate; the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, where you can purchase Mao memorabilia and catch a glimpse of the man himself (when his mortuary make-up isn't being refreshed); and the Monument to the People's Heroes.

Off the Beaten Track

Beijing Underground City
In the late 1960s, with a Soviet invasion looming, Beijing's citizens started to go underground. The shadow city was constructed by volunteers and shop assistants. In 10 years about 2000 people with simple tools created this subterranean network, which has now been put to use as warehouses, hotels and restaurants.

There are roughly 90 entrances to the complex, all of which are hidden in shops along Qianmen's main streets. A fluorescent wall map reveals the routing of the entire tunnel system. You can visit a section of the tunnels, although there's not much to see.

Drum Tower
Originally built in 1273, marking the centre of the old Mongol capital Dàdu, the tower has been repeatedly destroyed and restored. Stagger up the incredibly steep steps for long views over Beijing's rooftops. The drums of this later Ming dynasty version were beaten to mark the hours of the day - in effect the Big Ben of Beijing.

The buildings came close to ruin during the Cultural Revolution, when they were reviled as artefacts from a feudal past. The Drum Tower has survived both Swiss engineering and Maoist scorn and are now protected treasures.

Simatai Great Wall
While the tourist masses tend to head for Badaling to grope the Great Wall, there are more challenging stretches of this historical and architectural marvel within an easy day trip from Beijing proper. One of the least developed (for now) is Simatai, and it's not for the faint-hearted. The 19km (12mi) section is very steep, with a few slopes built at a 70-degree incline, but it's worth it to see the Wall au naturel, in contrast to the heavily touristed Badaling and Mutianyu sections, which are so well restored they could have been built yesterday.

This fourth-largest city in China is Beijing's port. Officially a special municipality belonging to no province, Tianjin is nicknamed 'Shanghai of the North' because of its history as a foreign concession port, its Europeanised architecture and its impressive industrial output. Apart from wandering around imagining you're in Vienna, you should investigate Tianjin's antique market, a massive collection of junk and gems which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. Ancient Culture Street is an attempt to re-create an ancient Chinese street, complete with traditional-looking buildings and vendors flogging cultural goodies to the strains of Western music. Hai River Park is lined with photo booths, people fishing, early-morning t'ai chi exponents, outdoor opera singers and old men toting birdcages. The old part of town is stuffed full of lanes, traditional architecture and dilapidated temples.

Other China Attractions

Hong Kong
Hong Kong has the big city specials like smog, odour, 14 million elbows and an insane love of clatter. But it's also efficient, hushed and peaceful: the transport network is excellent, the shopping centres are sublime, and the temples and quiet corners of parks are contemplative oases.

Hong Kong has enough towering urbanity, electric streetscapes, enigmatic temples, commercial fervour and cultural idiosyncrasies to utterly swamp the senses of a visitor, and enough spontaneous, unexpected possibilities to make a complete mockery of any attempt at a strictly organised itinerary.

Macau may be firmly back in China's orbit, but the Portuguese patina on this Sino-Lusitanian Las Vegas makes it a most unusual Asian destination. It has always been overshadowed by its glitzy near-neighbour Hong Kong - which is precisely why it's so attractive.

Macau's dual cultural heritage is a boon for travellers, who can take their pick from traditional Chinese temples, a spectacular ruined cathedral, pastel villas, old forts and islands that once harboured pirates. A slew of musuems will tell you how it all came about.

Although the lights have been out for quite some time, Shanghai once beguiled foreigners with its seductive mix of tradition and sophistication. Now it is reawakening and dusting off its party shoes for another silken tango with the wider world.

In many ways, Shanghai is a Western invention. The Bund, its riverside area, and Frenchtown are the best places to see the remnants of its decadent colonial past. Move on to temples, gardens, bazaars and the striking architecture of the new Shanghai.

Xi'an was once a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and vied with Rome and later Constantinople for the title of greatest city in the world. Today Xi'an is one of China's major drawcards, largely because of the Army of Terracotta Warriors on the city's eastern outskirts. Uncovered in 1974, over 10,000 figures have been sorted to date. Soldiers, archers (armed with real weapons) and chariots stand in battle formation in underground vaults looking as fierce and war-like as pottery can. Xi'an's other attractions include the old city walls, the Muslim quarter and the Banpo Neolithic Village - a tacky re-creation of the Stone Age. By train, Xi'an is a 16 hour journey from Beijing. If you've got a bit of cash to spare, you can get a flight.

Karakoram Highway
This yak-nibbled highway over the Khunjerab Pass(4800m/15,740ft) is the gateway to Pakistan and was used for centuries by caravans plodding down the Silk Road. Khunjerab means 'valley of blood', a reference to local bandits who took advantage of the terrain to plunder caravans and slaughter the merchants.

Longgong Caves
Guizhou province's awesome Longgong caves form a network through some 20 mountains and can be reached by bus from the town of Anshun - about 23km (14mi) away. The caverns lie in Anshun county, at the Bouyi settlement of Shitou Zhai. Another scenic cave in the vicinity is Zhijin Cave. Anshun is two hours by minibus or regular bus from Guiyang. From there, it's a flight or a series of bus and train trips to Beijing, some 1750km (1085mi) away as the crow flies.

In a country where provincial capitals are rarely known for their beauty, Nanjing shines. The construction work that's churning up the face of China seems to have affected this city less than most and it remains a place of broad boulevards and shady trees. This is just as well considering the oppressive summer heat that grips Nanjing, which is known as one of China's 'three furnaces'. The city enjoyed its golden years under the Ming, and there are numerous reminders of the period to be found. One of the most impressive is the Ming city wall measuring over 33km - the longest city wall ever built in the world. About two-thirds of it still stands. On the slopes just east of Nanjing is the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum. Sun is recognised by the communists and the Kuomintang alike as the father of China. Nanjing is asscessible by rail, bus and air. It is roughly 1000km (620mi) from Beijing.

Qufu, near the sacred Taoist mountain Tai Shan, is the birthplace of Confucius (551-479 BC). Its massive Confucius Temple features a series of impressive gateways, clusters of twisted pines and cypresses, inscribed steles and tortoise tablets recording ancient events. One of the pavilions dates from 1190, while one of the junipers is said to have been planted by Confucius himself (though a Confucian aphorism about gullibility may descend on you if you believe this). The core of the complex is the yellow-tiled Dacheng Hall. The Confucius Mansions date from the 16th century and are the most sumptuous aristocratic lodgings in China, indicative of the former power of the Confucian descendants, the Kong family. The town itself grew up around these buildings, and was an autonomous estate administered by the Kongs. North of the mansions is the Confucian Forest, the largest artificial park and best preserved cemetery in China. The timeworn route features a 'spirit way' of ancient cypresses, passing through the Eternal Spring Archway before reaching the Tomb of the Great Sage. The nearby town of Tai'an is a 9-hour train ride from Beijing. Buses then run regularly to the mountain.

Turpan is 180km (112mi) southeast of Ürümqi and lies in a basin 154m (505ft) below sea level - the second-lowest depression in the world after Israel's Dead Sea. It's also the hottest spot in China: the mercury hovers around an egg-frying 50°C (122°F) in summer. Uyghur culture is still thriving here and it's one of the few quiet places in China. The living is cheap, the food is good, the people are friendly, the bazaar is fascinating, and there are interesting sights scattered around. Within easy reach are the Gaochang Ruins, once a major staging post on the Silk Road; the Flaming Mountains, which look like they're on fire in the midday sun; and a Sand Therapy Clinic where rheumatics come to get buried up to their necks in sand. To reach Turpan, you'll first have to find your way to Ürümqi by air or - if you're brave - by train. From there you catch a regular bus. The ride takes four hours.

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