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Review: Beijing


Beijing, China

Much more fun than we expected

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2344 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • May 2008
  • Husband

43 people found this review helpful

We liked Beijing more than we expected. There is a lot of very good modern architecture. Roads are wide and lined with trees. There were flowers planted down the central reservations – roses and petunias were the favourite choices.

It took us a long time to get used to the traffic, which comes at you from all directions. Life got a lot easier when we realised that traffic always goes round pedestrians and bikes.

Health and Safety awareness is non-existent. We saw workers hand sweeping the edges of busy motorways, people hand weeding the central reservations with traffic zooming past. We saw a family with pushchair, toddler with teddy and pet dog wandering across four lanes of traffic to look at the flowers growing on a roundabout. We were there just before the Olympics and everywhere was being repainted in preparation for this. A tremendous amount of money was being spent to make sure the city would be at its best.

We were stopping in LU SONG HOTEL, a small traditional hotel in the middle of the hutong area.

It is built around courtyards and the simple en suite rooms were traditionally furnished with tremendous character. The staff spoke reasonable English. There was a good buffet breakfast and evening meals were excellent with a reasonable choice of freshly cooked food and not expensive.

The hotel was conveniently placed for many of the attractions in Beijing and we were able to walk from the hotel and explore by ourselves.

We had two days with a guide and driver in Beijing and the equivalent of just over two full days to explore by ourselves. Another time we wouldn’t bother with a guide as there is plenty of information on the Internet. A driver is useful as it saves having to use taxis. Even though taxi drivers were supposed to be learning English for the Olympics we found their English was very basic.

We spent the first day with our guide doing the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. We weren’t interested in Tiananmen Square, although walked through it to the Forbidden City.

We had asked for an early start to be at the Forbidden City as soon as it opened. This is definitely a good idea as it got increasingly busy as the morning wore on. You can’t go into most of the palaces and there were long queues to look through the doorways.

The FORBIDDEN CITY is the largest and best preserved imperial residence in China. It was built between 1406-20. 23 emperors lived here until 1911. It was the ceremonial and political centre of government. Red (happiness, good fortune and wealth) and yellow (imperial colour) were used on palace walls and roofs.

In 1900, 10,000 people lived in palace. The servants were all eunuchs and these were the only people allowed to enter the place. Surgeons outside the gates performed castrations and sold the organs back as they had to be presented in a bottle for inspection. These were the only people allowed to enter city.

There is a wide moat round the palace which is surrounded by 10m high wall constructed with a rammed earth core and surfaced with three layers of specially baked bricks. There are towers at each of the corners and 4 gateways. Inside the buildings are arranged in a north south axis.

We entered through the Meridian Gate into the palace and crossed the Golden Stream, stopping to admire the beautifully carved marble dragon pavement. Only the emperor (in his sedan chair) was allowed to use this.

Ahead were the three main buildings of the Palace, with smaller buildings on either side. All the buildings are highly carved with brightly painted woodwork. Buildings have several roofs one on top of the other with decorative tile work. It is an amazing place.

The TEMPLE OF HEAVEN in the afternoon was very, very busy. It was also very hot. It is one of the largest temple complexes in China, built in 1420. It is enclosed by a long wall. The northern part is semicircular symbolising the heavens. The southern part square symbolising earth. The roofs of important structures are tiled in blue, symbolising heaven and sky.

Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties offered sacrifices at the winter solstice and prayed at the Altar of Heaven for good harvests. This is made up of three tiers of white marble. The centre of the top circle was considered the most holy place in the empire. An echo wall magnified the Emperor’s voice.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven contained memorial tablets of the emperor’s ancestors. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is a magnificent three storey round building containing the ceremonial throne. Inside were 28 huge pillars. The four posts of the inner circle represent the four seasons; 12 posts of the middle circle represent the 12 months; and 12 posts of the outer circle represent 12 Shichen (equal two hours).

The buildings were splendid but I would have liked more time to spend wandering round the gardens.

The second day with the guide we had a rickshaw ride around the hutongs (great fun) and visited the DRUM TOWER. This is a solid red painted building. With the adjacent Bell Tower played an important role in helping people live and work regularly when there was no other means to keep track of the time. The bells were rung at regular intervals at night and the drums beaten during the day. We climbed the steep stairs to the drum chamber where there were drums arranged along the wall. They looked a bit like huge casks of beer on a stand. The drums were being beaten during our visit – a tremendous and exhilarating noise.

There is also an exhibition of old clocks including a water clock which sounded cymbals every 15 minutes. We had lunch in a hutong which we enjoyed as it gave us chance to experience what they are like to live in as well as a chance to eat home cooked Chinese food. We went through the gateway into a large courtyard with pomegranate tree in the centre. Around the sides were the rooms belonging to the extended family. Furnishings were basic although there was a television set.

We finished up at the SUMMER PALACE in the afternoon – a mistake. It was a hot, humid afternoon and I think all of Beijing was there. We went in through the East Gate, which is the most heavily used. There were huge queues to look at all the buildings and you were constantly being jostled by the number of people. We decided we’d heard enough about the Dragon Lady and Boy King so gave these a miss. Time didn’t allow us to walk up Longevity Hill to the temples, which looked quieter, possibly as there is an extra charge to go up there. We felt the Marble Boat and Long Corridor were overrated. We found a quiet spot beside the lake and sat and enjoyed the sunshine. We finished off with a ride in a Dragon Boat across the lake to the 17 arch bridge and exit.

We felt this was a wasted afternoon and we didn’t enjoy the crowds. The Summer Palace really needs to be visited first thing in the morning and time allowed for Longevity Hill.

We visited BEIHEI PARK, near the Forbidden City by ourselves. This is the oldest, largest and best-preserved of the Imperial Gardens and very similar to the Summer Palace but without the crowds. The west side has traditional Chinese gardens with rocks, water, bridges with temples, palaces and pavilions. All are beautifully maintained and were freshly painted. There is also a tile Nine Dragon Screen. It was built in 1756 and the tiles are as bright as when first fired. The east side is grass and trees. Make sure you visit Jade Island with the White Dagoba and Temple of Reward with its beautiful tile thousand Buddha wall . Another time we would choose to go here rather than the Summer Palace.

We also enjoyed JINSHANG HILL (or Coal Hill) which is immediately north of the Forbidden City. It is an artificial hill constructed from the waste material from the moat and waterways in the Forbidden City. It has good views down on the Forbidden City and protects it from Evil Spirits (or dust storms from the north).

It was a royal hunting park and an Imperial Garden was laid out during the Ming Dynasty with palaces and pavilions. It now has well laid out gardens and is very popular with the locals. We visited first thing in the morning when they were out walking and doing their exercises. It is ignored by most of the tourists.

We walked from the hotel to the CONFUCIUS TEMPLE and the IMPERIAL COLLEGE. These are tucked away off a side street, in a lovely setting with grass and trees. Tourists don’t get here, so they were deserted.

The Confucius Temple was built in 1306 and is one of the largest in China. Entry off the street takes you into a large grassy courtyard containing large stone steles. Some have historical records carved on them, others record successes in civil service examinations. The more important are housed in brightly painted wooden pavilions. The splendid Da Cheng Gate (Gate of Great Success) is facing you with a carved statue of Confucius. There are carved dragon pavements leading to the doorway. Beyond is another courtyard with the Da Cheng Hall (Hall of Great Success), approached by steps and another dragon pavement. Emperors made sacrifices to Confucius here. There are symbolic sacrificial animals in front of the altar. This is a beautiful building with yellow tiled roof and every bit of wood is brightly painted. Students would come here to pray for success in exams.

There was an old monk looking after the temple who was very keen to practice his English and happy to spend time explaining about the temple and answering my many questions.

Through a beautiful glazed archway is the Imperial College. There are small Bell and Drum Towers. The bell was used in the morning, the drum in the afternoon, except when the emperor was lecturing when both were used together. This was the highest educational institute in imperial China where all the classical Chinese writings were taught.

In the centre surrounded by a moat and reached by marble bridges, is the Biyong Hall which contains the imperial throne where the emperor sat when he gave his lectures explaining the works of classical writers to an audience of civil and military dignitaries and students of the Imperial College. It is a splendid building with red and gold paint.

Nearby is the TIBETAN LAMA TEMPLE, which was very busy with tourists and worshipers. This was originally the private residence of Prince Yong and was turned into a temple when he became emperor. The building is late 17thC and surrounded by a wall. Inside there are five temple halls, each containing a statue of Buddha.

Not far to the north is the small and little visited TEMPLE OF THE EARTH in Ditan Park. This was built in 1530 and complemented the Temple of Heaven as a site for the emperor to make sacrifices for good harvests, but here they were made at the summer solstice. The site lacks the grandeur of the Temple of Heaven and is forgotten and ignored by the guide books.

The central altar is square and surrounded by a big wall with ceremonial gateways. Beyond is the small Temple of Heaven. This is now a ‘ museum’ where sacred tablets, musical instruments etc are stored. We were the only visitors that day although locals were out enjoying the gardens of Ditan Park.

Our pictures of Beijing can be found here

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Other Members' Thoughts - 6 Comment(s)

  • ESW
    almost 5 years ago
    We spent a day visiting the Great Wall. My review is here:
  • Kenbob
    over 6 years ago
    very informative, thank you. enjoyed reading your review.
  • ESW
    over 7 years ago
    I'm glassd you found the report helpful. This was part of a four week trip to china travelling from Beijing to Kashgar. I wrote a detailed report of the trip which can be read here:
  • mrsmisty
    about 8 years ago
    Wonderfully informative. first hand experience is worth just as much as travel books/guides. We are going in 2014 for 5 days, prior to sailing to Vancouver via Alaska. I almost feel, having read all the descriptions and looked at the most superb photos, that I've already visited! Thank you..
  • ESW
    about 8 years ago
    Thanks for the comments. Glad you found it useful.

    We have since moved our website and the index for the Beijing Galleries is now here:
  • bee82
    about 8 years ago
    This is a very informative and helpful review. Fantastic detail and I like all the suggestions for places to visit.