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Tackling Beijing and the Great Wall

forbiddencityI'll try not to bang on about the bad weather we had during our few days in Beijing and give you a balanced view of the main attractions there. Remember to factor in lots of time for getting about. This is big, congested city so probably travelling underground is the best option.

Going to Tiananmen Square is a bit spooky, knowing its history, and with cameras pointing at every angle and the face of Mao overseeing it all it is an important reminder of the issues this country's folk face. They don't have the freedom we do and we are reminded of that when unable to get Google, Facebook or Twitter in China. But other than that it is a big square, not too much to see. But from here you pass under Mao's portrait to enter the Forbidden City - the emperor's palace.

 

The guides talk a lot about this and that Dynasty and I'm sorry to say I did switch off a bit but needless to say China has a long and rich history going back to the Xia Dynasty in the 21st century BC. The last dynasty was the Qing Dynasty from 1644 - 1911. It wasn't until 1949 that The People's Republic of China took the country into the communist era and a change in policies has brought huge economic growth since 1978.

 

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So the Forbidden City - a series of courtyards and palaces - leading on one from another was important in the Ming and Qing dynasty - the years 1420 to 1912. It was the political centre for 500 years of government and home to emperors. It covers 180 acres in all and even taking the direct route through it takes time. It is a World Heritage Site and listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world so it is very important. But having said that it could be better cared for in places, you can't enter the buildings and interiors were ruined in the Cultural Revolution. If I had found a short cut I would have taken it! The last part was a lovely garden with towering rockery and very old trees which I enjoyed - maybe because I was feeling the joy at having reached the end.

10 minutes drive from this main attraction you can stay in a historic inn offering a Chinese style living experience called Beijing Double Happiness Hotel. And see Xiao Yuan Alley Courtyard Hotel within walking distance of The Forbidden City.

heavenThe Temple of Heaven, dating back to the 15th century, beautifully symbolizes the relationship between heaven and earth. The circular and pointed 3 tiered roof is blue to represent heaven and its has a brightly coloured interior and 28 massive pillars and impressive marble steps lead up to it. You reach the temple through surrounding parkland where local retired people gather to dance, do tai chi, play marhjong or cards and kick a feathered shuttlecock between themselves with agility. I was interesting to see them at leisure.

The Chinese Opera - we were warned that that this is an acquired taste but through tourism a shorter version of this rather screechy performance has been created lasting just a hour. Even then many of our group nodded off during the show. Costumes and make up are dramatic, elaborate and heavy. The accompanying music sounds a little like dustbin lids being crashed by children. However, I enjoyed it - this is something altogether not Western. And the subtitled translations were amusing!

The Ming Tombs - I would skip this! Not a lot to see here. (Sorry if I'm not appreciating the history enough for some!)

wallThe Great Wall - This should have been a highlight obviously but unfortunately it was very wet while we were there.  We were swamped in a sea of umbrellas while ascending and you could just glimpse the autumnal shades on the surrounding hillsides over the edge of the wall, teasing us with how beautiful it could look. I was surprised at how steep the top of the wall is in places, and even without that it would be difficult to get far enough along it to walk more or less alone. Apparently you would need to walk for 3 or 4 hours to do that. On our tour this wasn't an option.

A top end approach to reaching the wall is to stay at Commune by the Great Wall outside Beijing, in Yanqing. A 5 star property with private access to the Great Wall and in wonderful natural surroundings. It is 1km from the Shui Guan Great Wall and 10km from Ba Da Ling Great Wall. It is 75km from Beijing Intl Airport. A modern architecture project, there are 40 villas of innovative design, great facilities and lots of glass - some rooms even have 'wall' views.

We visited at Badaling which is the most popular section of the wall and it was packed. It is a spectalar view (on a clearer day) and is the location of many of the famous images of the wall. This part is fully renovated with handrails. It is possible to take a cable car to get some height and come down on a toboggan - a series of trolleys with a driver at the front. Perhaps it would be best to go to Mutianya to join the wall and from there you can take trolleys down that you control yourself - which I have heard from a friend was really fun. Another option is Juyongguan which is also renovated and is closer to the city.

The Great Wall Courtyard Hostel, 2 star, is just 500 metres from the Badaling Great Wall. Simple rooms decorated in Ming and Quing Dynasty decor. This could be a good place to stay for visiting the wall outside the main bus tour times.

Seeing giant pandas - This is possible at Beijing Zoo but you will be amidst big crowds. Another popular option is to visit Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center. The worlds oldest living panda (in captivity), Jia Jia, aged 37 at the moment, is at Ocean Park in Hong Kong.

hutongThe Summer Palace, picturesque in its lake and hillside location, blends temples and palaces, bridges and gardens to create a impressive ensemble well worth visiting. See The Marble Boat (its actually wood painted to look like marble) within the grounds. Each floor has a mirror to reflect the surrounding water. You can also hire a boat to cruise the lake. Perhaps take one from Beijing Exhibition Center via the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace. (Getting off the roads to get around will be a lovely change!) Check other routes too.

Hutong - It is lovely to visit an old part of town with narrow alleys and single-storey traditional courtyard houses and bars along the riverbank. We took a rickshaw ride around and visited an old house. These areas are fast disappearing with modernization. It could be good to hire a bike locally and explore yourself. I would have loved to have stayed in an area like this and it is possible. Have a look at the Beijing Sihi Courtyard Hotel for authentic Chinese decor and great historic location at Dongcheng as are the 2 mentioned as close to The Forbidden City.  I do think staying in a hutong close to some attractions is the way to go.

Quirky on a different level is the Oxygen Room at the China World Hotel in Beijing. Oxygen is pumped into the environment which creates balance, reduces stress and rejuvenates. Treatments last 20 minutes.

For a stay close to the international airport (18 km away) - perhaps a luxurious first night to get over your journey - try Beijing Yi-House 798 Art Hotel. It is a 5 star hotel, with engaging photography and art, outside the city but walking distance to Art 798 - a hot spot for creativity and galleries with cafes and restaurants celebrating that.