As the proud capital of modern China, Beijing is fast becoming a popular and fashionable tourist destination. And for good reason too. Beijing is not only the modern political, cultural and educational center of China, but holds the biggest collection of ancient sites and relics in the nation. Beijing has been at the center of China and the heart and soul of politics and society for over 5000 years. If the pace of change in the city today is anything to judge by, Beijing is determined to stay at the forefront of Chinese civilization.
As you fly into the city, the most famous site in all of China, the Great Wall, rises up beneath, slithering its way like a dragon along the tops of the surrounding mountains. Seen from above, other city sites gradually appear, well ordered and arranged in a grid, in keeping with the principles of Feng Shui.
| Forbidden City|
The Forbidden City (Zijincheng)(also known as the Imperial Palace (Gugong) and the Palace Museum) is the largest and best preserved collection of ancient buildings in China. This site is an image of China relayed throughout the world on national days and at public events. Today, the Palace is filled with tourists but under the emperors, these "commoners" would have been executed had they dared to enter the complex! Given the popularity of the site, the Chinese government have invested a lot of time and money in the Palace and it is now a fantastic place to wander and dream of times gone by.
The entrance to the Palace is through Tian'anmen gate and via a long walkway. Once you reach Wumen (Meridian Gate) you enter the heart of the Complex and this is the place to buy your tickets and the fantastic audio guide featuring the voice of smooth talking Roger Moore. This gate is the main gateway to the Forbidden City. Mr. Moore provides a fascinating insight not only into the palace buildings and constructions but relays anecdotes about the emperors themselves. All this and Roger Moore whispering in your ear, for only RMB25!
Meridian Gate is the main gateway into the Forbidden City. There are five further gateways set in Meridian Gate but in fact, only three of these are clearly visible- its quite a feat to try and find the remaining two but give it a go!
After passing through Meridian gate, you enter a huge Palace courtyard. Hereafter, the complex is divided into two sections: the Inner Court or the living quarters, and the working area also known as the Outer Court. The Palace courtyard itself contains the "stream of golden water" and five bridges, all decorated with carved torches, traditional symbols of masculinity. The Outer court is guarded by a row of lions protecting the Gate of Supreme Harmony.
The Outer Court starts at the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the greatest and largest of all the halls in the complex. This was the most important building for the emperor and the place where all official business was done. Ceremonies such as the enthronement of the Crown Prince, the Emperor's birthday, imperial marriage ceremonies, and the initiation of military expeditions all took place here. The Emperor would arrive at the Hall of Supreme Harmony amidst ceremonial music, drum-beating and firecrackers. He would them take his place on the throne and listen to a reading of congratulatory messages from his palace courtiers. Civil and military officials would all kneel before him proclaiming, "Long Live Your Majesty." The building itself is decorated with thousands of dragons, the traditional symbol of the Emperor?¡¥s power.
The Midway Hall of Harmony is a smaller hall where the emperor would prepare for the ceremonies to be held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Midway hall was also used by the Emperor to examine agricultural instruments and discuss techniques. This was an important duty as the responsibility for a poor harvest fell largely on his shoulders.
The Inner Court begins at the Hall of Celestial Purity. The inner court was where the emperor, his concubines and Eunuchs lived. Approximately half of the six thousand people at the Imperial court were Eunuchs. Eunuchs were seen to improve the emperors position and ensured that his children were just that, HIS own! There were similar numbers of Concubines in the Palace. In this way, any aspiring courtiers or women who fancied they may rise up the social ladder a little were taken care of! The Emperor was definitely THE BOSS.
The Gate of Celestial Purity was where the emperor attended to state affairs. The Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong attended to business here on a daily basis. After these three emperors died, standards fell and by the time the Qing dynasty came to power in 1644, corruption was rife.
During the Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty, the emperors lived in the Hall of Celestial Purity while the Empresses inhabited the Hall of Earthly Peace. The Hall of Union and Peace was the area where the emperor and empress could live together. In later periods, the Emperor and Empress moved to the Six West Palaces. The Emperor's choice of a son to succeed him is said to be kept in a secret box in the Hall of Celestial purity.
Legend has it that during the Ming Dynasty, two concubines tried to kill the Emperor with a rope. As they were very nervous, they accidentally tied a quick release knot. Another courtier watching brought help and the quick release knot was enough to save the Emperor from death. The women involved in the assassination plot were killed and their bodies dismembered and displayed as a lesson to any other would be troublemakers!
The Hall of Prolonged Happiness is known for the Western style crystal palace contained within the Hall. After the original Hall was destroyed by fire, the Emperor Xuntong began constructing a fireproof palace made from white marble and glass in its place. When the palace was half completed, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the project stopped.
South of here is the Yuqing Palace, the Palace for fasting. The Emperors were expected to fast the night before they offered sacrifices to Heaven. As a general rule, the emperors stayed here for the first two days of their fast and then moved to an imperial residence within the confines of the Temple of Heaven. During the fast the emperors abstained from wine, onions, garlic, chives, praying, involvement in petty affairs and making love. It must have been quite a task for them!
Emperor Qianlong built the Hall of Peaceful Longevity and made it into a Palace for the Emperor Dowager. Each year, on New Years day of the lunar calendar, the emperor would entertain ministers in this pavilion. Cups filled with wine would be placed on the water in the lake of the gardens. If the floating cup stopped in front of you, you were asked to drink the wine and make a poem!
The best way to approach a trip to the Forbidden City is to first examine it in detail, either with an audio tape or some reference and then to double back on yourself and just enjoy wandering and imagining what life must have been like there. In order to fully appreciate the majesty of the Forbidden City, try to allow at least half a day for the visit.
Open: daily 8.30am-4.30pm
| Tian'anmen Square|
At the very heart of Beijing, sits Tian'anmen Square, the largest urban square in the world. This vast space, measuring 40 hectares, has a historical significance to rival its size.
Enlarged in the 1960s, Tian'anmen Square now measures 880 meters from north to south, 500 meters from east to west and can accommodate up to one million people. Classical Beijing planning however, did not permit public squares. They were seen largely as dangerous places where crowds could gather and diverted attention and focus away from the Emperor. Tian'anmen Square is therefore, one of Beijing's most modern sites and largely Mao's concoction. The May 4th demonstrations in 1919 against the Treaty of Versailles took place here. So too did anti Japanese protests in 1935. Mao inspected his troops here during the Cultural revolution and in 1976, one million people gathered in the square to pay tribute to the Chairman. Today, visitors remember the square mostly for the images of the 1989 student demonstrations in this concrete mass which were relayed throughout the world.
The incredible size of the square, the gray colour of the surrounding buildings, the historical memories and the various monuments dotted about, leave some Western visitors unmoved by Tian'anmen. But the sheer wealth of historical sites and the political importance of the area make it a must- see for travelers to Beijing. This is not only the physical centre of China, but also the centre of power and politics. For Chinese visitors, the site is of utmost importance. Today, it's filled with tourists visiting Chairman Mao's tomb, or paying their respects at the monument to the heroes of the Revolution. In the evenings, after the ceremonial lowering of the flag, courting couples and families parade the heart of the city. The easiest approach to the square is from the south, where there's a bus terminus and a subway stop. The Chinese flag is raised at sunrise and lowered at sunset when PLA soldiers march up and down, drilled to perform at 108 paces per minute!
Tiananmen Gate sits in the north; Monument to the Peoples Heroes sits at the center; the Great Hall of the People sits opposite the Museum of Chinese Revolutionary History and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall on the east and west; and Qian Men stands at the southern end of the Square.
| The Summer Palace|
|Originally known as the "Garden of Clear Ripples", the Summer Palace(Yiheyuan) is a magnificent imperial garden located 12 km west of Beijing City. This is the largest ancient preserved garden in China and a former summer retreat for Emperors and the chosen few! The site includes more than 100 ancient style pavilions, mansions, towers, halls, temples, bridges and an enormous clear water lake. What is most enjoyable about the Summer Palace however, is that it is simply a gorgeous place to relax, escape the smoke and crowds of the city and spend an afternoon walking. That said however, one could just as easily spend one week out here as one afternoon! Given the sheer size of the place (occupying an area of 290 acres) the Summer Palace is as vast as it is spectacular. This is great though, as it means you get the rare chance in Beijing, to lose the crowds and clear the cobwebs from your mind! |
The original Palace and grounds were destroyed by the allied forces of Great Britain and France in 1860. However, the Empress Dowager Cixi liked the site so much that she used the funds for creating a modern navy, to reconstruct her favorite retreat! The Empress didn?¡¥t have much luck however, and the Palace and grounds were destroyed again in 1900. Two years later the palace was restored to the scale and design it is today. The Eastern Palace Gate is the main entrance to the Summer Palace and the arrival point where buses and taxis stop. The opening in the center used to be exclusively for the emperor and empress. Entrance today is RMB 45 and you can now walk through any of the openings in the gateway!
The Summer Palace includes many interesting and spectacular sites. For detailed information on what to see and do at the Palace, click below! It's best to spend at least an afternoon or morning here in order to really appreciate the beauty of the place and do it justice. There are also shops and various restaurants and tea-houses dotted about the Palace.
| The Temple of Heaven|
|On leaving the Forbidden City, follow in the footsteps of emperors, court ministers and eunuchs and head south to the magnificent and colorful Temple of Heaven (Tiantan). Although the bi-annual procession consisting of thousands of eunuchs and ministers no longer takes place, The Temple of Heaven and Tiantan park are still a delightful place to visit. |
The Temple was completed in 1420 and was originally a platform for the Son of Heaven (the emperor) to perform sacrifices and solemn rites. Among the gods worshiped were the god of earth, the god of water, the god of agriculture (who has his own hall in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests), the god of the military, the god of religion and the god of civilians. Offering sacrifices was a serious task, as was atoning the sins of the people. The entire empire relied on the emperor for good fortune and abundant harvests so he had quite a responsibility! The Temple was opened to the public in 1912 and commoners who had previously been banned from even watching the bizarre procession pass through the city to Tiantan, were now permitted to visit the Temple themselves.
The Temple buildings and the parklands reflect ancient Chinese religious beliefs that imagine heaven as round and earth as square. Thus, the buildings in the temple are constructed on a central axis. The temples themselves are round and the bases square. Similarly, the Northern part of the park is a semicircular shape and the south, a square. In the south of the Temple complex are the Altar of Heaven and the Echo Wall. The parklands and the Temple are an exquisite place to spend some time, especially in the early morning. Drag yourself out of bed at dawn and watch the Taiji experts, kite flyers and dance fans strut their stuff.
|Yuanmingyuan was Beijing's original Summer Palace for the Qing emperors and also known as "the Garden of Gardens", before it was destroyed in 1860 under the orders of the Earl of Elgin. When it was first built by a Qing emperor in the Eighteenth Century, the site consisted of three gardens: Yuanmingyuan, Changchunyuan and Wanchunyuan, covering 350 hectares. |
The southern part of Yuanmingyuan was where the emperor dealt with official business. Other areas were largely scenic sites, built for the emperors enjoyment and imitated scenic spots from throughout China and the West.
Many of the gardens were western in style and design , made up of fountains, mazes and European style palaces. Today, it's difficult to imagine the site as it once was. But, with a little imagination one can picture the emperor atop a hill gazing at the "mini Venice" once created for him! The wealth of treasures and art that was once here has also vanished and most are now housed in galleries throughout the West.
| Mutianyu Great Wall|
|Located in Huairou County in the suburbs of Beijing, the section of wall at Mutianyu Great Wall is 70 km from the center of Beijing. Connected with Juyong Pass in the west and Gubeikou in the east, it is one of the best preserved parts of the Great Wall and was originally set up to attract some of the crowds away from Badaling. However, today it is almost as busy as the first site but is very interesting. |
There are 22 watch towers in the 2250-meter-long Mu Tian Yu Great Wall, the highest one is 540 meters above sea level. Although you can take the cable car or walk up the stairs at the site, many people prefer to take the ancient path at the side of the steps. This is certainly a more authentic and satisfying way to appreciate the site, if a little more taxing on the legs!
It is about 2 km from Mutianyu Village to Mutianyu Gateway. The gateway consists of three exquisitely built hollow towers, which are different from those at Badaling Great Wall, Shanhaiguan Great Wall, and Yanmen Guan Great Wall. The gateway here is not built in the middle of the tower, but at the sides of it.
This section of the wall is also surrounded by woodland and streams. The Great Wall takes on different looks in different seasons. In spring, flowers are blooming. In summer, the Great Wall is lush and green. In winter, the Great Wall is covered with white snow. However, the Great Wall's most charming season is autumn, when fruits ripen and leaves of gorgeously diverse color fall at this photogenic spot.
| Baiyun Guan|
|The White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) has long been the most active Taoist temple in Beijing and remains this way today. The Temple was the First Taoist Monastery in the North when it was founded during the Tang Dynasty. The building was reconstructed during the Jin dynasty and renamed in 1209 and 1227 formally becoming ?¡ãBaiyun?¡À or The Temple of the White Clouds. |
The Temple is actually a series of different buildings including a bell and drum tower, a pagoda and a small garden. Nowadays it is still an important Taoist site and opened to the public in 1984. The Chinese Taoist Association and the Chinese Taoist College were all founded here. The annual Baiyunguan Temple Fair is one of the most famous temple fairs in all of China.
| Badaling Great Wall|
|The Great Wall (Changcheng), totaling more than 12,000 kilometers, is arguably the most famous image of China throughout the world. It is the only man made object visible from the moon, and as one of the Eight Wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China lives up to its reputation. |
As the closest section of the wall to Beijing, Badaling is by far the most popular part of the site to visit and, perhaps for this reason some find it the most disappointing. The best time to visit is early morning, before the tour buses arrive. If you make it past the hoards and hustlers and make the climb itself, the views are quite spectacular. The Great Wall is a symbol of Chinese traditional culture and the pride of the Chinese nation. Its worth taking a hike and reflecting on this incredible feat of mankind.
Of course, if we take a look at history, the wall did not succeed in its main function; to keep out foreign invaders. Those who wanted to break through the fortifications all those years ago, found an alternative method. The Chinese Empire did not allow for human weakness. Attackers bribed their way past the wall where they had failed to break through with physical force.