Published: January 13th 2009February 3rd 2008
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
Center of the Chinese Universe
Beijing is one of the great cities of the world, possessing an alluring combination of ancient history, magnificent sites, unique architecture, great food, and proximity to China's most famous landmark, the Great Wall. I have wanted to visit Beijing for as long as I can remember, and I arrived there at a particularly interesting time; with the Olympics looming Beijing was the focal point of a lot of world and media attention, and the local government was making successful efforts to clean up the city and tone down it's terrible air pollution, so I was lucky enough to see some wondering blue skies when I visited. On the down side, the government was also demolishing ancient portions of the city, including it's unique hutong, or traditional Beijing-style alleyways
, but I was lucky enough to visit a number of them while they still stand.
The hotel of my choice in Beijing was actually located right in a famous hutong neighborhood north of the Forbidden City, which like most of them was constructed following the destruction of Beijing by the Ghenghis
Qing Dynasty Mongolian General's House, located in a peaceful Hutong neighborhood
Khan in the 1200s. Called Lusongyuan Hotel
, it was itself constructed by a Qing dynasty Mongolian General
, and built around a number of inner courtyards, like most of the houses in the neighborhood. My room itself was tiny and looked in to one of these ancient courtyards, and came equipped with the smallest bathtub I have ever seen, but great for dealing with the freezing temperatures during my winter visit.
In my neighborhood I climbed up to the top of the Drum Tower
, the center of the old Mongol capital, for an astounding view of the hutong rooftops and south to frozen Qian Hai lake
, where hundreds of people were ice skating as the sun descended to the horizon.
From my hotel it was about an hour long walk to the Forbidden City via a number of interesting hutong districts, and stopping en route to climb the hill at Jingshan Park
for a breathtaking view of the Forbidden City, the Beijing Opera House, and Tiananmen Square. I couldn't have imagined the sheer enormity of this ancient city of palaces, which can only be fully appreciated by viewing it from above.
Next I meandered into the Forbidden City
itself, accessing it by crossing the massive moat and entering by the Xihua (Western) Gate. I then circled around to the front of the great walled city, arriving at the enormous red walls of the Meridian Gate
. From here I entered, and saw so many ancient palaces, temples and halls that I don't really care to list them off, but suffice to say that this is largest and best preserved collection of ancient buildings in all of China, home to two dynasties of emperors, and the site is so immense that it is a little intimidating to fully absorb.
I exited to the rear of the enormous complex, and looped around again to the front (that's well over one km!), to where the famous Front Gate
of the Forbidden City, with it's giant Mao Portrait
, itself a landmark of Beijing, stands adjacent to Tiananmen Square
, the largest public square in the world.
The massive square is interrupted with a number of monuments and buildings, including the Chairman Mao Memorial hall
, where one can observed Mummified Mao
himself, a creepy sight if I ever did see one. Now all I need to see is Lenin and I have seen
Meridian Gate Wall
Forbidden City Entrance
all three of the great preserved communist leaders (the other being Ho Chi Min in Hanoi)!
After visiting this section of Beijing, you really feel incredibly small, because everything here is so enormous. Not only the ancient sites, but also the more modern (and ugly) communist architecture is constructed to intimidate
, and even the streets themselves are so vast that it is a bit of a trek just to cross, and distances on maps are incredibly deceptive. The MRT system was also of a somewhat ancient variety, where attendants still wait to rip your ticket as you pass, and lights dangle from the rickety ceiling of the trains. I believe the metro has in fact finally been updated since my visit.
You also get the impression that you are under constant supervision (because you are), forgetting not that this was where shit went down in '89, and a vast network of cameras and undercover security
maintain a tight grip on the square and surrounding region, so that any attempts at protest are immediately crushed.
From here it was on to the Temple of Heaven Park
, yet another national landmark, with it's enormous 500 year old Hall of
Prayer for Good Harvests
Nick at Tiananmen Square
Front Gate with giant Mao portrait across the street
, a large, rounded, 3 tiered structure which is regarded by many as a symbol of Beijing. Adjacent to it is the smaller scale but no less impressive Imperial Vault of Heaven
, as well as the Round Altar
, a 5 meter high circular marble structure which the emperors once stood at the center of to receive divine communications.
Exiting the Temple of Heaven Park to the east I encountered hundreds and hundreds of elderly Chinese people playing chess, dancing, playing traditional music, socializing, and spinning flags in the afternoon winter sun, and I lingered for some time to observe their activities.
I also made a visit to the Lama Temple
, supposedly the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, though I really didn't get much of a Tibetan feel from the place. I saw few prayer flags or other elements that are characteristic of Tibetan temples, and more importantly, I don't think I saw a single real Tibetan monk. However, the 17m tall wooden Maitreya Buddha statue carved entirely from one enormous log of sandalwood
was entirely impressive. I also visited an enormous vegetarian buffet restaurant in the interesting neighborhood surrounding the temple.
Since I am vegetarian I could not try Beijing's most famous region dish, Beijing (Peking) Duck, but I found a worthy vegetarian counterpart in one of the city's many faux-meat houses, a deep fried vegetarian pigeon
, complete with wings, head, and even eyes. Many vegetarians I know are repulsed by the Asian vegetarian need to mock the meats that they abhor, but personally I find it quite amusing and I am a loyal devotee of the any faux-meats I can get my hands on.
Last but not least, I made my way out of Beijing to the most famous landmark in the nation, the Great Wall of China
. There are actually a number of portions of the ancient system of walls remaining, the most famous being the almost entirely reconstructed and super touristy section at Badaling. I however opted to stray the extra hours from Beijing to visit the more remote sections at Jinshanling and Simatai.
I booked a small tour through a hostel to hike for several kilometers along the wall itself. This proved to be one of the most impressive days of my life, and ranks as one of my top-5 travel experiences of all time
Hiking along the Great Wall
One of the most spectacular experiences of my life, hiking from Jinshanling to Simatai on the Great Wall of China
We arrived a remote village below Jinshanling
to a very brisk and cold morning, with sprinkles of snow on the ground and a wonderful blue sky. From there we ascended up to the wall and then hiked along past dozens of watchtowers and incredible vantage points. A couple of local women actually followed us for hours trying to sell us 'I climbed the Great Wall' t-shirts, and when they finally parted from us I handed over the 5$, since I felt they had deserved at least one sale for their effort...
Our hike ended at Simitai
, a very dramatic and particularly steep and crumbling portion of the wall. For the finally stretch we had the option of a 30 minute descent around a lake, or a 3$ zipline from the Great Wall itself across the lake to a village below
. We of course opted for the latter option. What a strange way to end a near-mystical experience! For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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