Beijing may not be as stylish as Shanghai but if China has a melting pot, this is it. Nearly every culture within China and most from outside of this quickly modernising country can be found on Beijing’s teeming, fascinating and never boring streets.
The city of Beijing is all about contrasts; flea markets and ancient monuments from China’s past mix with steel and glass architecture and hip urban cafes. Advertising runs amok and you’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out just how China is a communist country.
If you’ve ever wondered what the heart of a nation of more than one billion people looks like, Tiananmen Square is it. The world’s largest square is Beijing’s epicentre. Local kite-flyers mix with tourists from both China and around the world as well as undercover cops to take in views of one of the world’s most important cities. The square is impressive, day or night, on a massive scale. One of the best ways to enter these remnants of ancient China, the Forbidden City, is through the Gate of Heavenly Peace from Tienanmen. The Forbidden City is the impeccably preserved home of the country’s past emperors. This part of Beijing was shut off from the outside world for over 500 years and holds over 800 buildings. Leave Beijing behind (it is barely noticeable once you enter) and wander the vast complex full of houses, temples, halls and monuments that was only open to the emperor and selected help for centuries.
The Summer Palace is one of China’s most romantic tourist attractions. The surrounding grounds are a welcome relief from all the pollution Beijing is kicking out these days. It is easy to see why the country’s emperors picked this spot as a getaway from the heat and humidity that hit the Forbidden City during the summer. In the shade of the lush surrounding hillsides, the Summer Palace is a network of parks, pagodas, temples and lakes all in a charming setting. A walking trail around the palace’s lake will take in all the sights and row boats are on hire if you want cruise the tranquil waters and pass under the many bridges.
Although you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space (total myth), you can lay your hands on it via a short day trip from Beijing. Iconic in every sense of the word, you can get to a few different parts of the Great Wall in two to three hours from Beijing. Walking just a bit of its length and seeing it crawl through the surrounding mountains is one of those humbling travel experiences. The Badaling section of the Wall is well-preserved and the most visited section. There are loads of tour companies that will take you out there and it is easy to do it on your own in a taxi. Take one step on the Wall and you’ll have a story to tell for the rest of your life.
Bigger than the Forbidden City and not quite as big as the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven has been around since the Ming Dynasty and is about as perfect an example of Ming architecture there is. The cultural aspects of the Temple of Heaven and the beauty of the complex’s three main buildings are obvious and undeniable. But watching the locals practice martial arts, play traditional instruments and even do a bit of ballroom dancing is what gives this place the extra touch.
It should really come as no surprise that Beijing, the capital of the world’s largest country, should be full of all types of markets but the sheer quantity of them will leave you shaking your head. If gambling is China’s passion, shopping isn’t far behind. Modernisation has been responsible for claiming the lives of many of Beijing’s markets but some of the classics are still here. Hit the original flea market of Panjiayuan(aka the Dirt Market) where over 3,000 merchants hawk everything from cheap knockoffs, pirated DVD’s, Red China memorabilia and items too numerous to mention. The Silk Alley Market and the Hongqiao Market are not to be missed either.