Beijing – The beating heart of China

See the full set of Beijing photos here

This travelling lark is not all beer and skittles. After an overnight bus from Manali to Delhi and a red-eye flight from Delhi to Hong Kong my body packed it in and gave me a fever, diarrhoea and vomiting for two days, although not before I had some delicious Cantonese food and a wander around the sleek and modern city of Hong Kong, as modern as India is chaotic.

We were in Hong Kong primarily to get a visa for China which for some reason is easier here. On the way through we ate some great food and checked out the temples filled with masses of coiled incense hanging like bells from the ceiling.

Coming off an illness wasn’t the best preparation for heading to the most populous country in the world, renowned for big crowds and lots of spitting. We had a gentle entry to the country by staying with Rich, a friend of Sarah’s, who has been living in Beijing for the past five years. He took us around his favourite restaurants in the hutong where he lives which gave us a taste not only of the wonderful food but the local flavour. China was much more modern and contemporary than we were expecting. New roads with matching new buildings and new shops with the latest trends. It felt as though we were wandering around any of the world’s great cities but with an additional layer of Chinese history sprinkled throughout.

Even though the communists ruined many of Beijing’s ancient treasures, such as the city gates and walls, they didn’t dare touch the Forbidden City, which remains the iconic heart of the city, just north of the expansive Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City is what you picture when thinking of ancient Chinese architecture: the gold glazed tile roof, the eaves turned up into dragon heads, giant drums, bronze dragon turtles, moats filled with goldfish, dragon thrones and bronze urns filled with water in case of fire. It feels endless as you march through the massive courtyards filled with tourists.  The Chinese tour group is especially loud, led as it is by a miked up person carrying a portable speaker.  Tour groups seem to be by far the most popular way to travel for domestic tourists so you end up with tour leaders yelling at each other with amplification.  The novelty wears off fast.  The Forbidden City now holds various museums, among them the excellent calligraphy museum that showcases that most artistic of writing styles and its transition through the centuries.

We visited the 798 Art District, a former factory zone outside the centre of the city which has slowly been turned into gallery spaces.  Chinese art and artists have become internationally renowned in recent years and the art we saw was vibrant and interesting and modern, a microcosm of the characteristics that define modern China.

There is a downside to all the progress in China. It is going through a modern day industrial revolution and on some days it has the pollution to match. London’s renowned pea-soupers have been reincarnated here. When we arrived it was almost 40 degrees and you could barely see buildings a block away through the mists of pollution. It was sticky, grimy and thoroughly unpleasant, but as a purchaser of cheap Chinese goods I can hardly criticise them too much for shouldering the burden of the Western world’s manufacturing. China has done well economically but there is a heavy environmental price which they are beginning to grapple with. After doing a loop through other places in China and coming back to Beijing the skies were gloriously clear, so it comes and goes in mysterious ways.  We were very happy to have the chance to see it in all its blue sky glory as well.

Rich is a Great Wall nut and kindly took us walking on a remote section of the wall on a perfect sunny day. There is obviously a lot of Great Wall but most tourists visit the sections near Beijing that have been restored. We walked along some of the original wall, joining it as it snaked over hills and through gullies. It was truly a surreal experience to be walking along such an ancient structure and seeing the attention that went into building the arrow slots and curves. The towers are crumbling but still holding up remarkably well given the harsh climate of hot summers with dusty winds and freezing winters. We spent the night in one of the sturdier towers, climbing into it and rolling out our sleeping mats, then watching the sunset from the roof. It was an unforgettable experience. The next morning we could see clearly the terrace marks in the hills now overgrown with bush. This was an idea of Mao’s to try and use every available space as farmland. A pity he didn’t think through that some places just aren’t good for growing crops.

Back in Beijing we went to the Temple of Heaven park which has several impressive structures, the most amazing being the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which is “a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace” all assembled with nary a nail in sight. Maybe a photo would describe it better.

The bright blue skies also presented a great opportunity to visit Jingshan Park, one of the higher points in Beijing, albeit artificially constructed in the Ming Dynasty.  The views were incredible, especially given the contrast with the polluted skies on our arrival.  The Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing and being this high you can see how the city radiates outwards with key arterial roads carefully planned for maximum feng shui benefits.

The sightseeing wasn’t over yet.  We still had the Confucian temple and Lama temple to see.  The Confucian temple is a strange idea in my eyes, taking a secular set of principles and worshipping them with musical performances and incense.  It is an old set of beliefs which seems to have built up over time into something approaching a religion.  Confucianism has its roots in education.  Confucius was a scholar and teacher who valued learning highly.  The Confucian temple is located next to the imperial academy which records those who passed the rigorous exam on stone tablets.

The Lama temple is a set of buildings dedicated to the worship of Tibetan Buddhism.  It was reputedly saved during the cultural revolution by Zhou Enlai, the charismatic international face of communist China for many years.  The Lama temple now sucks up enormous amounts of incense and did not enlighten us any more on the concepts behind Tibetan Buddhism.  It is very pretty though.

No visit to Beijing would be complete without a gawk at the old Olympic sites, especially topical as the London Olympics on the horizon.  As you would expect the metro lines up there are very slick and disgorge you on to a vast area which has the bird’s nest stadium lit in communist red and the water cube, such a cool design, glimmering away.  The area in between is full of people selling little kites that stretch up into the sky and proved too tempting as stocking stuffers for Sarah to resist.

That’s the sightseeing done but we couldn’t leave Beijing without a shoutout to Rich and all the great restaurants he took as to, from Peking Duck to dumplings, noodles, food from the far west and down near the Vietnamese border.  It was all sublime.  The century eggs are in acquired taste probably more suited to blue cheese fans but the general standard and variety of food in Beijing must make it one of the best eat cities  in the world.  Dining on the sidewalk at little plastic tables and throwing the bones in the gutter felt like a very Chinese experience.  The cleanup crews sweep through the city at night leaving it spick and span in the morning, well as clean as a big city can get, anyway.  Thanks again to Rick for having us to stay, showing us around Beijing and giving us so much guidance in planning our China itinerary.

This post captures our two visits to Beijing, in between which was a loop around the inland.  When we got back to Beijing we high-tailed out of there on the high speed train, getting up to 310km/h consistently.  Did I mention that China is modern?

I’ll end the post with two of the best dog photos we took all trip, another hat tip to Beijing style.

See the full set of Beijing photos here

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