Up till this year I’d been to mainland China four times but never to Beijing. I knew it was a place I had to go and I’d get to Beijing someday but it was still annoying to not have been to the nation’s capital all these years. This gaping hole in my China travel experience just kept on growing as I heard other people talk about their Beijing vacation or study stay or work experience there.
Well, I finally rectified this situation in May. I went on a HK tour group, which isn’t the most adventurous way to enjoy Beijing of course, but it was the most convenient, especially for my dad, who was making his first ever trip to the mainland. We spent five days there and it was great. The nation’s capital did not disappoint, with its vastness, its history, and its Northern character all so apparent. We did the standard places – Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, Bird’s Nest Stadium, and the Summer Palace. We also spent a short time in a mall and book store on Wangfujing Street, walked up to the CCTV building, the strange building that looks like the legs of a person, and enjoyed a ton of good food.
Usually in a tour, the environment is comfortable, safe, and a bit sterile. You get booked into a nice hotel (very nice in our case), then every day you get transported by a tourbus from place to place, escorted by nice tour guides, and in between you get taken to decent restaurants. But you don’t really encounter local people other than service staff and in mostly tour group settings, and don’t do anything that lets you experience local life, such as something as simple or banal as taking the subway.
These were my main impressions from my first Beijing trip:
-the air is really bad, though not all the time. The sky was dark grey for most of the first three days, then bright blue for the last two. When it was dark grey, it looked like a great rainstorm was going to come.
– I saw a surprising number of cool modern buildings and a lot of hutongs. There’s didn’t seem to that many lowrise apartment buildings as in Shanghai and Taipei, for instance.
– that Beijing accent really is thick and quirky, but in a good way. People really pronounce the “rrrr”s at the end of their words, which is the basis of all those stereotypes about mainland Mandarin. Those who do so in a quick and melodious way are true, genuine Beijingers.
– those historical tourist attractions like the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall, and Summer Palace are impressive, no matter how many times I saw them on movies, TV, or magazines. I really got the sense of the city being the center of power of all China, much more apparent than in Nanjing, which is still my favorite Chinese city though, and definitely Hangzhou, which many people probably don’t realize was a dynastic capital for over 100 years (Southern Song).
At the end of it, I couldn’t help feeling that Beijing was really different and unique from other Chinese cities I’ve been to. As it is, Beijing is the only city in China I’ve been to north of the Yangtze.
The two photos above don’t really need a caption. They’re of the Forbidden Palace, where emperors of China of the Ming and Qing Dynasties resided in.
The entrance to the Summer Palace, left, which we went to the first day of the tour. The bian-lian (變臉) performer who suddenly appeared and performed for us at lunch in the restaurant on the first day. Bian lian is actually from Sichuan.
The Temple of Heaven complex, with the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇), left, and the main building – the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) at right.
A famous historic Beijing duck restaurant chain, which we ate at, and the best-looking public toilet I’ve ever seen, though I did not go inside. The toilet was opposite Tiananmen Square, below.
Approaching the main entrance to the Forbidden Palace.
The complexes were huge, grand, imposing, and clearly old. While maybe a new coat of paint might have been good for the above building, the worn exterior added to the aura of the Forbidden Palace.