In our armchair travels our last stop in China is Beijing. Beijing is a the huge capital city of China with a history stretching back 3 millennia. It is known for its mix of ancient sites like the amazing Forbidden City complex and modern architecture.
The Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City, is China’s most significant building and has roots in the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th century. Enlargements were made during the Ming Dynasty between 1406 and 1420. This lovely palace has been home to 24 Ming and Qing Emperors.
The complex is surrounded by a 10-meter-high wall with towers in the four corners and a 50-meter-wide moat. Among the highlights here are:
- The Meridian Gate built in 1420.
- The Golden River Bridges – five decorated white marble bridges.
- The 35-meter-high Hall of Supreme Harmony with the wonderfully decorated gilded imperial throne.
- The Hall of Preserving Harmony functioning as the Emperor’s banquet hall.
- The Hall of Military Courage – a permanent residence and private audience hall for the emperors.
Nearby you’ll find the Imperial College, founded in 1287 by Kublai Khan and closed in 1900.
Tiananmen Square (The Square of Heavenly Peace) is the world’s largest inner-city square. It was designed to hold a million people and built to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Republic in 1958.
- The Monument to the People’s Heroes – a 38-meter tall obelisk that consists of 17,000 pieces of granite and marble.
- Tiananmen Gate (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) was completed in 1417 and was once the main entrance to the Imperial City.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace has double eaves and is characterized by a giant-framed portrait of Mao Zedong and guarded by two pairs of Ming stone lions. It was built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century and this was formerly the largest of the four gated of the Imperial City Wall. It was from this gate that Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. For great views of the square visitors can climb the gate and get an awesome look at the impressive beams. Altogether there are 60 gargantuan wooden pillars and 17 vast lamps suspended from the ceiling. In the gate tower you can find a fascinating photographic history of the gate and Tiananmen Square and footage of military parades.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall is a prominent landmark in the middle of Tiananmen Square. On public display is Mao Zedong’s embalmed body within the mausoleum. The body lies in a crystal cabinet, draped in an anachronistic red flag emblazoned with hammer and sickle.
Not far from the Imperial Palace is Beihai Park, one of the oldest surviving imperial gardens in Beijing. It was laid out in the 19th century and takes its name from the nearby Lake Beihai (North Lake).
Among the important structures here are the Round Fort dating from the Yuan period of 1271 – 1368 and the amazing Hall of Enlightenment, built in 1690 and it’s home to a one-and-a-half-meter tall Buddha carved from a single block of white jade and a large black jade vase from the early 12th century.
Upon Lake Beihai is Jade Islet where you’ll find the 36 m-high Tibetan-style White Dagoba, built in 1651 for a visit by the Dalai Lama and rebuilt in 1741.
On the northern shore of the lake is one of the most interesting temples in Beijing, Xitian Fanjing. The first hall is The Hall of the Heavenly Kings. Nearby is the Nine Dragon Screen, a 5 m-high and 27 m-long spirit wall with colored glazed tiles that depict coiling dragons.
The Temple of Heaven dates back to 1420 and includes a group of some of Beijing’s most sacred buildings. It is surrounded by lush vegetation.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was built in 1420 in customary Chinese fashion of wood entirely without nails. The hall sits on a three-tier marble terrace with balustrades and a roof covered with 50,000 blue glazed tiles. A marble plaque of the floor represents the dragon and the phoenix stone, symbols of the emperor.
East Annex Hall at the Temple of Heaven
Another highlight is the Hall of the Vault of Heaven built in 1530 with a blue-tiled conical roof and was used to store the ceremonial plaques of Heaven and the Officials.
Visit the temple’s Echo Wall where echoes reverberate and have an effect exaggerated by three unusual echoing stones.
The Lama Temple is also known as The Yonghe Temple and it is one of Beijing’s most attractive and best-preserved temples. The temple was completed in 1745 and it served a political purpose by giving Lamaism, the religion of the then just annexed Tibet, an official seat in the capital.
The most important feature is The Hall of the Kings of Heaven with its Buddha statue surrounded by the four kings who are provided with symbolic objects – a toad, a sword, a snake and a shield.
Other Important buildings are:
- The Pavilion of the Four-tongued Stele – featuring a stele dating back to 1792, containing the history of the Lama religion written in Chinese, Manchurian, Tibetan and Mongolian.
- The Hall of the Buddhist Wheel – the teaching and assembly hall of the monastery. The interior has a six-meter-tall statue, two thrones and many scared manuscripts.
- The Pavilion of Four Thousand Fortunes – with an enormous 18-meter-high sandalwood statue.
The Bell Tower stands behind the impressive red-painted Drum Tower which used to be the city’s official time keeper, with drums and bells beaten and rung to be able to mark the hours of the day. It was originally built in 1272 and was once the heart of the Mongol capital of Dadu, as Beijing was then known. After a fire it was rebuilt as a Qing Dynasty structure.
Inside you can climb the steep inner staircase to view the grey-tiled rooftops in the surrounding hutong alleys. There are regular drumming performances using the reproductions of the 25 Ming Dynasty watch drums. On display are the 25 original drums – the Night Watchman’s Drums.
The Beijing Capital Museum is one of the country’s leading art museum. It was opened in 1981 and has a vast collection of artifacts among them ancient items of porcelain and bronze, traditional calligraphy and artwork as well as many impressive statues from Chinese and other Asian cultures. Some of the other highlights include over 200,000 important cultural artifacts, a great many of them originating from in and around Beijing. Quite impressive is the huge stele of Emperor Qianlong, weighing over 40 tons, standing nearly seven meters in height and containing ancient scripts and writings.
The National Centre for the Performing Arts is well worth a visit and is a most modern landmark, nicknamed the Giant Egg. It is considered to be one of the best opera houses in Asia. It was opened in 2001 and has played host to many of the world’s leading operatic performers.
Marco Polo Bridge is a 266 meter-long, multi-arched granite bridge. It is the oldest bridge in Beijing and decorated with 485 individually carved stone lions, each one different. The bridge dates back to 1189 and spans the Yongding River.
The Houhai Lakes consist of three lakes – Qianhai (Front Lake), Houhai (Back Lake) and Xihai (West Lake). This is one of the city’s favorite outdoor spots with many people gathering in the summertime both locals and visitors. Here you can see people strolling along, use the exercise machines scattered along the lakeshore, fish, fly kites or just relax.
At night it becomes a great nightspot with all of the restaurants, bars and cafes opening up around the lakes. There are many neon lights illuminating the night and lots of karaoke playing everywhere.
During the day you can also choose to go biking round the lakes and in the winter they freeze over and become the best place in Beijing to ice skate with Qianhai Lake being the most popular. Local vendors hire all the gear needed. There are also chair sleds, ice bikes, ice bumper cars and a giant ice slide.
798 Art District is a vast area of disused factories that were built by the East Germans. This is where you’ll find the main concentration of contemporary art galleries. Here you’ll find signboards with English language maps to guide you.
Some of the bigger galleries include the 798 Art Factory, a Bauhaus hangar-like space with ceilings decorated in the 1950s Maoist slogans and original machinery scattered among changing art exhibitions by Chinese and foreign artists.
The Danish gallery Faurschou Foundation Bejing has exhibitions by internationally acclaimed artists.
Among other highlights you’ll find the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art which showcases young avant-garde Chinese artists. Zhu Bingren Art Museum features the copper and bronze sculpture of renowned Shandong artist Zhu Bingren.
There are also many unusual and interesting open-air sculptures scattered around the site.
The Great Wall of China is a World Heritage Site. It was continuously built from the 3rd century B.C. to the 17th century A.D. on the northern border of the country as the great military defence project of successive Chinese Empires with a total length of over 20,000 km. The Great Wall begins in the east at Shanhaiguan in Heibei province and ends at Jiayuguan in Gansu province to the west. Its main body consists of walls, horse tracks, watch towers and shelters on the wall and includes fortresses and passes along the Wall.
The Beijing World Park is a miniature of the world with five continents represented and located inside following the pattern in which they exist in the world. Visitors can see 109 world-famous attractions from 40 countries. Scattered all about are Italian or Japanese-style gardens. You’ll also be able to see hundreds of statues. There are laser fountains and a maze made up of plants and fairy-tale land.
Beijing Botanic Gardens are lovely and come alive every spring. They are set against the backdrop of the Western Hills. Here you can walk among bamboo fronds, pines, orchids, lilacs and China’s most extensive botanic collection. There is a rain forest house, Beijing Botanical Gardens Conservatory with 3,000 different varieties of plants.
About a fifteen minute walk from the front gate but still on the garden grounds is Sleeping Buddha Temple. It was first built in the Tang Dynasty and houses a huge, reclining effigy of Sakyamuni, weighing 54 tons.
On the eastern side of the gardens is the Cao Xueqin Memorial, where Cao Xueqin lived in his latter years. Cao (1715–63) is credited with penning the classic “Dream of the Red Mansions”, a vast and prolix family saga set in the Qing period.
Beijing Zoo is now the biggest zoo in China. It features pandas, elephants, gorillas and dolphins and sharks. The zoo is a natural garden with dense groves of trees, plenty of grassland, a small stream, lotus pools and small hills dotted with pavilions and halls.
It was called Wansheng Garden in the Qing Dynasty which literally means the “garden of 10,000 animals”. In 1955 it was officially opened to visitors as the City Zoo of Beijing. One of the main highlights is the Hall of the Giant Panda. The giant panda is native to China and recognized as one of China’s national treasures and a national symbol. The lush bushes and bamboo make the hall similar to the wild habitat of the giant panda.
The Beijing Ocean Hall is located in the northeast of the zoo. The hall resembles a gigantic ocean trumpet shell. It is subdivided into several zones – The Hall of Tropical Rain Forest, the Hall of the Shark, the Ocean Theater and the Ocean Library and Reading Hall. Visitors can touch the aquarium in which the dynamic ocean bottom is visible.