We took the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing. I much prefer riding the bullet trains because they are on-time, fast and comfortable. Not to mention you go through much less hassle at the station.
After we arrived to Beijing South station we took a 45-minute taxi ride to The Opposite House hotel. We really like the hotel’s modernist styling and personal service. The decor and artwork all around gives the hotel an interesting charm and didn’t feel sterile as often is the case with attempts at minimalist design. The staff and service were exceptional and they make you feel very welcome. The location is great too for going out for a bite to eat or shopping.
Beijing is massive. I thought Shanghai is big but wow, the urban sprawl around Beijing seems to go on forever. In large part the feeling is created from cold war era city planing with its grand avenues and airport size plazas. Also, it’s a very large and flat area where the city has grown into.
Tianamen Square is said to be the largest public plaza which seems like it may be true. The place is a huge, flat plaza that is just in front of the Forbidden City. About the middle is the Monument to the People’s Heroes and just beyond there is a big building where Chairman Mao’s body is on display.
In think the most interesting thing about the square is it’s recent history and all the security present there. Amazingly, the memory of the massacre that happened is still quite present. Not to mention, the area has become a symbolic place for political activism although nowadays you will not get far trying anything.
The Great Hall of the People on the west side of the Square is interesting to me as its likeness is on the 100 Yuan bill. This is the building where the party meets, and you see it often in the news like Parliament in London or the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
We strolled across Tiananmen Square, took a few photos, then headed to the Forbidden City entrance located on the north end of the square.
The entrance to the Forbidden City sits adjacent to a huge boulevard where they put on cold war style military parades. As you approach you can see all the stands where dignitaries sit and watch. Center stage is the grand portrait of Mao Zedong. Both the portrait and the building itself are iconic symbols of China.
Inside the Forbidden City is pretty damn impressive to say the least. It is massive. There are so many details which could easily be missed as you stand around gawking at how freaking huge the place is.
I enjoyed the story of how the ground stones are several layers deep of criss-crossing slabs to protect the city from outsiders trying to tunnel in. The time and unit measure standards are located outside of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The time standard, which is a sundial, is interestingly Beijing time everywhere in China. Even though China spans across four time zones, all are on the same “Beijing time.” Look on the rooftops to see neat little creatures and also learn that only in the Forbidden City can the roof tiles be yellow/gold colored.
The Forbidden City is one of those places where you need a guide unless you happen to be a scholar of Chinese history or spent the last two weeks reading about it all. There is so much going on and so deep is the history here that it can be overwhelming to take in even a small portion. Our guide, Martin, talked us through the city and shared explanations of what we were seeing and the history behind much of it. It was like walking through a story and trying to imagine that it all actually happened here.
The Temple of Heaven
Most interesting about the Temple of Heaven is its purely religious purpose; not a government building or anything. The Emperor would go here to hold ceremonies and animal sacrifices in order to make the gods happy, so that harvest and weather would be good.
The primary structure was constructed without use of any nails. It’s held together like a puzzle and gravity, which I thought was cool. Furthermore, the round tower is often used as an iconic symbol of Beijing, its silhouette eadult recognizable.
Peking Duck. Eat it.
Peking Duck is a famous dish from Beijing and seems everyone tell us we must try it. We ate at least two ducks during our visit and they were great. We tried a restaurant chain called Da Dong. Although a little ostentatious in setting, the duck was damn good. The food menu looked more like an art gallery catalogue. Every dish looked like delicate works of art, and I was stunned to find them brought out looking like in the menu. Da Dong was visually impressive, and the duck was amazingly delicious. I could probably mention the other dishes, although beautiful, were a little bland, but I’m not going to.
Another fabulous meal was lunch at one of the few family homes open to tourists in one of Beijing’s famous hutong neighborhoods. Navigating a maze of narrow streets filled with random and abandoned belongings, we were rewarded with a simple home-cooked meal.
The Great Wall of China
There is no way you cannot visit the Great Wall of China right? I figure anyone with the means to get to Beijing has to at least go see the wall and run around on it. There is even a saying in Chinese which goes, “不到长城非好汉 (bu dao chang cheng fei hao han).” Literally it means, “Not arriving to the wall, you are not a man,” or something like that. More broadly it means to not give up on your goals; to be a true hero you must not be discouraged nor give up in your efforts to achieve your goals. In other words, don’t be a schmuck and go visit the Great Wall of China.
We went to a segment of the wall called Mu Tian Yu, where you can opt to ride a chair lift up to the top, walk around, then take a toboggan slide back down. Yes, a slide. The kids loved taking the slide down the mountain and will probably remember it more than that old wall that was built centuries ago and survived so much history.