We were fortunate enough last Spring to visit one of the world’s oldest cities, Beijing. Now, we’re fortunate to have some time at home to write and share it with you. We visited Beijing last April as flowering trees provided fragrance and color to an already enchanting place. Our flight over departed on a Saturday and we returned the following Saturday. We found this to be the perfect amount of time to experience the history, art, food and, of course, the people in the world’s most populous capital city.
We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore (figuratively speaking) when we navigated the narrow, pedestrian, street-signless alleys of the hutongs to find our hotel! Kelly´s Courtyard Hotel was highly recommended by friends and we loved it! Our host, Dean, spoke great English and assisted us with everything that we needed. Each morning we started our day with a breakfast in their cozy, enclosed courtyard.
Although travel weary, we wanted to explore at least a little that first night. We only had to walk down a few alleys to find a small, neighborhood park. It was a welcoming first experience to see the neighbors meeting for weekly dance and karaoke sessions.
The following days we easily walked and used the metro to explore all corners of central Beijing. An early morning walk through Beihai Park led us to a large garden surrounding an urban lake. Here, we watched older Chinese move together in tai chi as well as others dancing in traditional clothing.
Beijing’s Drum Tower, built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan, houses 24 drums which were used for music and to announce the time. This continued to be the official timekeeping method until 1924 when the Qing Dynasty ended with Puyi, The Last Emperor (see footnote below!)
We were surrounded by school children on a field trip at The Temple of Heaven. Each student wore a light-blue uniform and assembling a wooden model of the temple. Emperors visited this temple each year to offer prayers for a good harvest.
Tiananmen Square, famous for the 1989 student protests, seemed quiet for its expansiveness and its importance. A few families were ordering food from a food truck parked in the plaza. On one side of the square stands the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
The Forbidden City is one of those places that takes you back to another world. One palace falls behind you to open up yet another and then another. Side courtyards beckon. You get butterflies in your stomach thinking about the events that have happened here and how those events changed the world.
Our first encounter with The Egg was at night after a long day of exploring. What an amazing view to end the day! The titanium and glass structure houses the National Centre for the Performing Arts. We were lucky enough to have an inside tour another day, entering via an underwater passageway that opens up into the cavernous lobby. The experience inside is as wondrous as from the outside.
A metro to the outskirts of Beijing took us to The Summer Palace. Architecturally reminiscent of the Forbidden City, it was (and is) a quiet retreat from the city. A large artificial lake anchors the buildings, some of which were like a backlot “Main Street” where the royals pretended with their courtiers to be normal citizens shopping in markets.
We wanted to avoid the heavy tourism of the closest segment of The Great Wall. So, along with others in our hotel, we hired a driver to take us for an all-day excursion to Jinshanling. Here, a gondola took us up to the wall. It’s a bit tricky to walk with uneven rocks and steep stairs, but it’s definitely an experience of a lifetime to take in the views and ponder the history of this country and its people.
A musical performance in the courtyard of the Beijing Confucius Temple was enlightening in its artistic commemoration of Confucius.
The prior year, we observed the holiday of Qīngmíng (Tomb Sweeping Day) in Hong Kong. It was interesting to observe the day again but this time in China. It’s a day of remembrance for ancestors similar to our Memorial Day. One tradition is to burn fake paper money and you can see huge bags of the colorful paper money for sale at the stores. Although we were told that it is forbidden to burn the money in the streets or parks now, we observed some older residents still lighting theirs on fire in the alleys of our hutong.
For a thoroughly modern artistic experience, we visited the 798 Art District. Similar to other art districts we’ve enjoyed, it’s housed in an old industrial complex. This destination attracts a younger crowd with its art galleries, murals, installations and coffee shops.
Amazingly incredible! That’s the only way to describe Beijing’s cuisine. From the street food (like scorpions on a stick) of Old Beijing Custom Street, to the terrific everywhere Kung Pao chicken, potstickers and noodle bowls… to the unforgetable Peking Duck experience, it was all so delicious!
With our current COVID19 quarantine situation, we are more content than ever that we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to travel. While at home, we are reliving amazing moments in places like Beijing and dreaming of the adventures that await us. Hope you’re planning your own explorations as well. Comment to let us know your recommendations for our post-quarantine travel!
For an at-home travel fix, we recommend that you watch The Last Emperor. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s still a great movie to transport you to another place. It was actually filmed in The Forbidden City.
Did we feel safe in China? Yes! The people are friendly and helpful and there are cameras literally everywhere! In the neighborhoods there are local police at intersections and lots of security in the metro and airports. Even though it’s a large city, driving is still somewhat of a free-for-all. So, that is definitely best left up to the locals and watch carefully before crossing any larger streets!