We arrived late at night at Beijing Capital International Airport, but it was still heavily congested. Although airport statistics are somewhat rubbery, Beijing Capital is still ranked as the busiest in Asia on many sites and the second busiest in the world, handling more than 100 million passengers a year. It is situated 32 kilometres north-east of the city, which can be reached by express train, shuttle bus, taxi or private transfer.
Beijing, China’s ancient capital, had been the centre of traditional Chinese culture throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, until the period of political and social upheaval that began in the mid-19th century led to a cultural decline in China. This was exacerbated by the violent Cultural Revolution of the mid-20th century when many art forms were destroyed.
Since that time Chinese authorities have made a concerted effort to restore damaged treasures and to revive the work of traditional artists and scholars. The results of this effort are most prominent in Beijing and, accordingly, the capital has experienced a cultural renaissance and resumed its leading role in the country’s cultural life. Today, however, politics seem to dominate the capital as China seeks to exert its influence around the world.
We usually travel independently and we maintained this policy when visiting the more Western-friendly Shanghai, but Beijing can be a little overwhelming so we hired a tour guide to get us through the more crowded attractions a little faster. He met us at the airport and quickly whisked us away to our accommodation, the Jianguo Garden Hotel, centrally located just over two kilometres from Tiananmen Square.
And it was to Tiananmen Square that we set off the next day. Tian'anmen Square, as it is rendered in China, is named after the "Gate of Heavenly Peace” or Tiananmen Tower located to its north, which separates it from the Forbidden City.
It is impossible to write about Tiananmen Square without mentioning the deadly crackdown on protesters in 1989, known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The pro-democracy demonstrations were led by students, but eventually thousands of other protesters joined them in Tiananmen Square, with their numbers increasing to the tens of thousands by mid-May. On June 3-4 Chinese troops with tanks stormed the area and fired live rounds into the crowd, killing a large but unknown number of protesters. Worldwide condemnation followed.
It is a sensitive topic for tour guides as discussion of the incident is discouraged by Chinese authorities. Some guides quote the official line that much of the shooting took place not in the square itself but in the streets that surround it, as though that made it alright. Nevertheless, the guides deserve some sympathy as it must be awkward for them having this stain on their history dredged up day after day.
The square itself is vast, measuring 440,000 square metres and capable of holding one million people. Originally built during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Tiananmen Square was used for imperial celebrations and events such as the wedding of the emperor and the enthronement of a new emperor. The square contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
From Tiananmen Square you can simply walk across to the Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum. With a long history of over 600 years, the Forbidden City, was the home of China’s last 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from 1368 to 1912. It was called the Forbidden City because common people were forbidden to enter it. Today it contains numerous exquisite antiquities and cultural relics, with the Treasure Gallery and Clock and Watch Gallery among the most popular exhibitions.
The Temple of Heaven is a complex of imperial religious buildings situated in the south-eastern part of central Beijing. The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City.
The complex was visited by the emperors of both the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for a good harvest. The Temple of Heaven was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1998.
One place we really liked was the Summer Palace. Located 15 kilometres north-west from central Beijing and occupying an area of about 300 hectares, the Summer Palace features both grand historical palaces and peaceful natural scenery on the outskirts of the city. Also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the Summer Palace is famed the world over as a symbol of traditional imperial architecture and garden design.
The Summer Palace dates from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and is most famously associated with that dynasty's somewhat controversial Empress Dowager Cixi but has a history of more than 800 years as an imperial garden that dates back to the 1150s. The garden served as a suburban escape for the emperors, a peaceful retreat in the countryside that was still within easy access of the capital. The Summer Palace became a public park in 1924.
Linking the eastern edge of Kunming Lake with the Dragon King Temple on Nanhu (or Penglai) Islet, the 150-metre-long Seventeen Arch Bridge was built in 1750 by the Qing emperor Qianlong and is a prominent feature of the lake.
Surrounding Kunming Lake, there are several piers from which you can take a boat ride around the lake. Different kinds of boat are available at specific piers. The traditional dragon boats are docked at the pier closest to a large marble boat. They don’t always run, though, if there are strong winds or the weather is generally bad.
The palace grounds are huge and you need to allow at least two hours to see them properly. You don’t need to go hungry or thirsty as there are lots of food and beverage vendors inside the park.
Beijing has a very fast and efficient subway system that provides a good way to avoid the frequent traffic jams. The city has about 25 subway lines in operation, including two airport express lines and two tram lines. The subway makes it easy to get around when you want to travel independently, as we did for the following attractions.
Wangfujing Street in downtown Beijing, was just a couple of stops on the subway from our hotel. This bustling commercial street offers a heady mix of shops, boutiques and vibrant food markets, anchored by large upmarket shopping malls at each end of the pedestrian mall.
The street is a shopper's paradise, filled with shops selling paintings and traditional Chinese arts and crafts, trendy boutiques and well-known chain stores as well as restaurants serving everything from McDonald's to Peking Duck.
A highlight is Wangfujing Snack Street, located on the south side of the Haoyou buildings and the ultimate place for enjoying famous snacks from all over China. There are also many shops and booths in the street specialising in tourist souvenirs, folk crafts and so on.
We weren’t game to try the “delicacies” immediately above, but there were dozens of other food stands selling everything from fried scorpion and snake kebabs to the less exotic pork and chicken versions -– more to our taste -– as well as dumplings, fruit and congees. Exploring the shopfronts, you can put together an entire, inexpensive meal if you can find somewhere quiet to eat it.
The north end of the pedestrian mall gets busy in late afternoon and early evening, ready for the night food market.
One of our favourite sights was the hutongs. A hutong is a lane or alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds situated on both sides. The narrowest hutongs can be as little as 40 centimetres wide.
The compounds that line the lanes and alleys are called siheyuan, meaning old buildings arranged on four sides around a courtyard, with the whole lot enclosed by a wall.
The hutongs reflect the culture of the common people, while the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven are symbols of imperial culture.
When you throw demand for modern housing development into the cultural and political mix, it gives Beijing a further headache to deal with.
Originally formed in the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368), Hutongs saw their heyday during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the number increased to more than 2,000. This had risen to over 3,000 by 1949, but with the passage of time and the inevitable demands for city development, the number of them has fallen dramatically.
In 2003 only 1,500 were left and now no more than 1,000 remain. A majority of the existing ones have been transformed into tourist attractions associated with street food, shopping, and bars. Even Travel China Guide is despondent about their future. Its website implores visitors to “slow down and take more photos, because this is probably the last time you will see them and your pictures will become precious mementos.”
The guide says that more and more hutongs are being destroyed day by day and the old city is disappearing. Maybe in a few years you will only be able to see the old city in pictures, it says. What some see as shabby, narrow lanes holding back development, others view as historical treasures that must be protected. Time will tell if balance can be achieved.
On a final note visitors should be aware that the internet is censored in mainland China and the majority of Western social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are blocked in Beijing. All Google services are similarly blocked by the system dubbed “The Great Firewall of China”. The only way around it is to install a VPN, otherwise be prepared to forgo your usual internet indulgences.
Photos © Judy Barford
Next time: The Great Wall of China