There is so much to see in Beijing and the surroundings that you could just spend a week or two traipsing around this huge megacity, especially since some of the attractions can easily swallow up a day or more. I visited the Forbidden City twice, spending about a day in there each time and I am still not sure I that I have seen all of it. Similarly, in the National Museum of China, I spend a day staring at Shang Dynasty Bronze Vessels, Tang Dynasty camels, Song Dynasty ceramics and Ming Dynasty paintings and I would have gone back if I had the time. Outside of Beijing the Great Wall beckons with some amazing hikes one of the better ones being Jinshanglin – Simatai – Gubeikou of which I only managed to do half. But it was worth all the effort as on the short stretch there are about 30 watchtowers – all different – all having been adapted to the local topography.
In the evenings all the food-markets need to to be explored and there is an amazing variety of street-food to be sampled, ranging from the simple noodle-soup to more exotic snacks like starfish and scorpions. Thus if you have the time I would recommend spending a 5 to 7 days there, assuming it is your first visit.
In general, I used the subway and walked in order to avoid getting stuck in the horrendous traffic. The Beijing Metro might be overcrowded but it runs like a clockwork – I can’t remember a train running late. The same can actually be said of trains in China, they go nearly everywhere and are pretty much always on time.
The Drum and Bell Towers
Beijing’s Drum and Bell Towers were originally built during the Yuan dynasty when the city was called Dadu, the Mongol capital. The drum tower was built in 1272 and rebuilt in 1297. When the third Ming emperor, Yongle, moved the capital back to Beijing in 1420, both towers were rebuilt. Though it has gone through several rounds of restoration, the basic form dates from 1420. The drum tower is 46.7 meters tall and once held 25 different drums, though only one of these was actually beaten to tell the hours
Like its partner to the south, the bell tower was originally built in 1272 and rebuilt in 1420. However it burned during the 18th century and was rebuilt yet again in 1745. It is slightly taller than the drum tower at 47.9 meters and still holds the original bell, though this bell is not rung anymore.
The Bell and Drum Towers are open between 9:00 and 16:30 and can be reached via bus routes 5, 60, 107, 124, 734, 815 and 819. Ticket prices for the Drum and Bell Towers are 10 respectiverly 15 Yuan. Note that there is a Drumming Performance at the Drum Tower every our from 9:30 till 16.30 (except at 12:30).
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was built in the early Ming dynasty by the third emperor Zhu-Di. When the founder of the Ming dynasty died in 1398 after thirty-one years of rule, power passed to his grandson Jianwen. Jianwen was a studious Confucian and a man of integrity, but he was too much of an idealist to rule the Ming empire effectively. When he tried to centralize authority by limiting the power of the provincial nobles, they rebelled and rallied around General Yongle, the Emperor’s uncle and the commander of the powerful northern army. Yongle had designs on the throne and soon gathered a powerful force, marching south to the southern capital at Nanjing. Despite the numerical superiority of the government troops, Yongle carried the day and occupied the city. Jianwen’s body was never found, and many legends state that he either fled the city in disguise or became a Buddhist monk in exile.
Yongle ruled for twenty-one years. He was as ambitious as his grandfather, but he lacked his predecessor’s attachments to the Nanjing region. Yongle was much more comfortable with the plains of northern China, where his loyal forces were concentrated. He was also wary of relinquishing command of the northern army to a subordinate. Accordingly, he decided to move the capital close enough to the northern frontier so that he could simultaneously direct his armies and rule as emperor. His first act as Emperor was to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.
In 1406 Zhu-Di ordered the construction of an Imperial palace. He spared no expense. Construction took 14 years and up to a million labourers toiled in abysmal conditions to get if finished. The scale of the project taxed the technological know-how of the Chinese engineers. To move an enormous stone cylinder as long as an elephant and as tall as a man, twenty-thousand peasants in the dead of winter created a huge ice path by pouring liquid water on the frozen soil. Thousands of horses pulled the stone across the ice to the center of Beijing. Wood was even more difficult to move.Giant trees in Sichuan province were felled for the main halls, but it was found that they were too large to move. Workers had to wait until torrential rains washed the fallen logs into rivers, where boatmen steered the logs into the Grand Canal. From there they were floated north to Beijing and towed into the palace grounds.
Repeated fires plagued the construction effort, but Zhu-Di lived long enough to see the palace completed in 1420. The palace itself consisted of 70 compounds, 980 buildings and 8700 room. Its overall form was essentially the same as the palace of today–a quadrangle 900 x 750 meters (3000 by 2500 feet) surrounded by a wall and a moat. All of the buildings were roofed with yellow tiles to symbolize the dignity and solemnity of the emperor. Only the Imperial family was permitted to wear yellow clothes or use yellow tiles.
I visited the Forbidden City by myself without a tour-guide. This gave me the freedom to wonder around the various areas at my leisure and look at the bits I wanted to look at. Although the various palaces and temples appear quite similar as structures, they all differ in their decorations. The little details – colors, designs, vessels and symbolic whirls—make the Forbidden City truly worth a wander.
The Forbidden City is so popular that it might be a good idea to book your ticket in advance. Each day there are 80000 tickets available at the ticket office and they might sell out. It has not happened to me but I always visited in low season. Moreover, go as early as possible in order to avoid the tourists crowds that get disgorged here by the tour buses. The only places I have ever seen that get more crowded than the Forbidden City are the Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The Forbidden City opens at 08:30 and closes at 16:30 although ticket sales stop at 15.30. Note that it is closed on Mondays. Tickets will set you back between 40 and 60 Yuan depending on the season and you need ID (your passport is your best bet) to enter. It can easily be reached via metro (Line One).
The Temple of Heaven
Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, was established in 1420 during the reign of Ming Emperor Yongle (r. 1403-1424), who also founded the Forbidden City. The temple was originally established as the Temple of Heaven and Earth, but was given its current name during the reign of Ming Emperor Jiajing (r. 1522-1567), who built separate complexes for the earth, sun, and moon. The architecture and layout of the temple of Heaven is based on elaborate symbolism and numerology. In accordance with principles dating back to pre-Confucian times, the buildings in the Temple of Heaven are round, like the sky, while the foundations and axes of the complex are rectilinear, like the earth. The symbolism of the temple was necessary since the complex served as the setting in which the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, directly beseeched Heaven to provide good harvests throughout the land. This was important since agriculture was the foundation of China’s wealth in the imperial period. Since the ceremony at Tiantan was thought to directly affect the people’s livelihood, news of the ceremony each year was disseminated throughout China.
Three principle structures lie along the primary north-south axis of Tiantan. At the southern end sits the Altar of Heaven, an empty three-tiered plinth that rises from a square yard.Constructed in 1530 and rebuilt in 1740, it is built of white marble. The number of stones in the various tiers are all multiples of three–a prevailing numerological theme at Tiantan.
Next along the axis is the Echo Wall and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The echo wall, named for its acoustical properties, permits a whisper spoken at one end to be heard from the other. The Triple Echo Stones in the courtyard return various numbers of echos depending on the stone one stands on. The Imperial Vault of Heaven, which sits in the center of the plaza, is a round building that once contained memorial tablets of the Emperor’s ancestors.
At the north end of the compound is the hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an impressive three-tiered wooden structure that sits on a tri-level marble plinth. It was constructed in 1420 but burned in 1889. It was rebuilt soon after with some of the wood imported from the western United States. The hollow interior is magnificently decorated and contains a large ceremonial throne facing south.
The Temple of Heaven is open between 8:00 and 17:00 and costs about 15 yuan to enter. Subway line 5 takes you to the East Gate (Tiantan Dongmen) while line 7 takes you to Qiaowan. The South Gate and the West Gate can be reached by buses 36, 53, 122, 525, or 958 and 2, 17, 20, 36, 53, 71, 72, 93, 120, 622 respectively.
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is an excellent place to cool off during Beijing’s hot summer months since this is basically the purpose of this gigantic park which covers roughly 3 square kilometers. A hundred fifty years ago, the imperial family preferred the beautiful gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City during the hot summers. Dowager Empress Cixi took up permanent residence there for a time, giving rise to some wonderful tales of extravagance and excess and some nice kitsch to be marvelled at.
In 1998, the Summer Palace was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage as it is considered to be “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design”.
The Palace began to assume its present shape during the reign of Emperor Qianlong who ruled in the late 18th century. Using an army of 100,000 laborers, he enlarged and deepened the lake, creating a network of small islands connected by dikes doubling as bridges.
In 1860, most of complex was unfortunately razed to the ground by Anglo-French forces at the end of the Second Opium War. The destruction of th epalace was ordered by Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China in response to the troture and killing of two British envoys.
Reconstruction began between 1884–95, during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (r. 1875–1908). Empress Dowager Cixi used embezzled funds from the Imperial Navy for restoring and enlarging the Summer Palace to celebrate her 60th birthday.
Unfortunately, most of the complex was burned to the ground a second time by Anglo-French forces during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It was rebuild in 1912 duirng the death throes of the Qing Dynasty and in 1924 it became a public park.
The Summer Temple is open between 7:00 and 19:00 and an adult ticket will set you back about 30 to 60 yuan. The Palace can easily be reached by subway (Line 4 or 10) or by a myriad of buses (e.g 330, 331, 332, 346, 394, 712, 718, 726 , 732, 737, 801, 808, 817, 826).
The Yonghe Temple
Yonghe Gong is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the heart of Beijing that was first built in 1694 as the residence of Prince Yong of the Qing dynasty. He lived here until 1723 when he became Emperor and moved to the Forbidden City. Tradition dictated that his former home could only be converted to a temple, which was renamed Yonghe temple after the Emperor’s name Yong Zheng. As a former imperial residence, the green roof tiles in the compound were replaced with yellow ones. The transition from home to temple took a long time to complete, and it wasn’t until 1744 that the first Tibetan monks began moving in.
The temple assumed an important role after the 1792 uprisings in Tibet, when Emperor Qianlong dictated that a gold vase be kept at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and Yonghe temple in Beijing to determine the true reincarnations of the Dali Lama and the Mongolian Grand Living Buddha, respectively.
The temple suffered damage in the years of turmoil preceding the Communist takeover in 1949. It was not until 1961 that the government first listed Yonghe Gong as an important cultural property. During the chaos of the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976, the temple escaped damage with the assistance of Premier Zhou Enlai, who resisted the anti-historical sentiments of the Red Guards. After the cultural revolution active restoration began on the temple, and in 1981 it was opened to the public. A small staff of resident monks manages the temple and conducts services. The temple architecture is an amalgam of Tibetan, Mongolian, and native Chinese. The chief artistic attraction is an 18-meter tall wooden Buddha carved from a single sandalwood tree imported from Tibet, one of the largest wooden statues on earth.
The temple is open between 9:00 and 16:00 and can be reached easily by metro (lines 2 and 5) or by bus (13,116,117 and 684 and their might be others). The entrance fee is 25 yuan.
The National Museum of China
The National Museum of China is a great place to while away a couple of hours or days if you are into Chinese art. I was in there for nearly two days and only left because I got booted out by the museum staff at the end of day 2. The museum, covering Chinese history from the Yuanmou Man of 1.7 million years ago to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It has a permanent collection in excess of one milliom items, with many precious and rare artifacts not to be found in museums anywhere else in China or the rest of the world.
Be warned that you will probably have to queue to get in as it is aparently the third most visitide mueseum in the world wiyh more then 7 million visitors per yer. The queues are not helped by the fact that there are vigorous secrity checks at the museum entrance. You will have to pass through an airport style scanner, your bags will be checked and you will need your passport. In 2016 it was strictly forbidden to take any liquids into the museum. The good news is that it is free for foreign visitors.
1The museum is located on the east side of Tian’anmen Square and can be reached via the subway lines 1 and two. It is open between 9:00 and 17:00 with the last entry being at 16:00.
The Great Wall at Jinshanglin
The section of the Great Wall between Jinshanglin and Simatai is one of the best sections for hiking. This 11 km stretch winds its way over 5 passes and contains 31 watch towers and three beacon towers. It takes about 3 hours to walk one way. This part of the Great Wall was constructed under the direction of general Xu Da in 1368 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and renovated under the supervision of the general Qi Jiguang and the local governor Tan Lun in 1567. The section at Jinshanglin has not been repaired since and hence retains much of its original look. Moreover, since it is relatively remote it attracts less visitors than some of the other sections like Mutianyu or Badaling.
A direct bus departs from Beijing at 8am to Jinshanling’s Great Wall Ticket Gate, and returns at 3pm. Get on at Subway Wangjing West Stop (城铁望京西站). To get there by subway take Line 13 or 15 to Wanjjing West (望京西), use Exit B or D, and walk east 100 or 200 meters. The journey is about 2 hours, unless you meet a peak season traffic jam. The schedule may be adjusted, so confirm before departure. Alternatively you can catch a bus from the Dongzhimen long distance bus station to Miyun and then get a taxi from there. This is what I did but beware that your haggling skills are up to scratch as you are pretty much at the merci of the taxi drivers at Miyun. They have a pretty captive market there and individual taxi drivers all seemed to offer the same price. The admission fee for the Jinshangling Great Wall is about 60 Yuan.