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Published: June 24th 2006
Beijing... the fast-changing capital of the most populous country in the world, and the only Chinese city I had visited before I came to China this time. My parents took me and my brother to Beijing for a family holiday ten years ago, when I was 13. It was my first visit to Asia, and has since inspired me to come back to Asia several times to see more. Returning to Beijing, I was wondering whether it would still resemble the city I remembered from so long ago, and whether it could live up to my memories...
We arrived in Beijing on Sunday on an overnight train from Harbin. After freshening up in the City Central Youth Hostel across the road from the train station, we spent the afternoon visiting the Temple of Heaven Park, Tiananmen Square, and Jingshan Park. It didn't take us long to discover that many of Beijing's main sights are currently being renovated in order to be able to show them off in their full splendour during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Several of the buildings in the Temple of Heaven Park, as well as all the pagodas in Jingshan Park were covered in scaffolding. Given that
the pagodas are the best place in Jingshan Park to catch the sensational view of the nearby Forbidden City, this was a real pity, especially as it was one of my favourite sights in Beijing on my last visit...
In the evening, we met up with a friend from my visit to Beijing ten years ago: Weifeng. Back then he guided the family around the city and became a good friend in the process. Having not seen him since he and his son Uny visited us in Luxembourg 9 years ago, it was awesome to catch up with him and Uny. They took us to a local restaurant which is famous for its Beijing roast duck. After a really fun evening, it was a shame that we couldn't arrange to meet up again, as Weifeng was leaving Beijing for business for a couple of days.
On Monday, we visited the Confucius and Lama Temples in northern Beijing. The Lama Temple, the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet was well worth a visit. The complex is vast and some of the buildings wouldn't look out of place in the Forbidden City. I have however lately been having some
issues with visiting temple after temple. Everybody is friendly and welcoming, and yet I can't help but feel out of place and an intruder. The many tourists and their flashing cameras must surely be getting on the nerves of the people who visit to worship?!
The Great Wall, is a must-see for any visitor to China. Mao Zedong once said that "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." On my last visit to Beijing, we visited the Wall at Badaling, which is apparently by far the busiest section. This time, I wanted to go somewhere a bit quieter. Through our hostel, we booked a tour which would drop us of at Jinshanling and would pick us up 10 km further on at Simatai (110 km northeast of Beijing). On Tuesday we had to get up early for the long drive there but in the end it was worth it: The Great Wall is very, very special when there's hardly another person in sight! We walked the 10 km on the wall in just under 3 hours, climbing up and down some incredibly steep steps, stopping frequently to marvel at the raw and impressive
landscape surrounding the Wall, and taking pictures after every corner. We were knackered when we caught the bus back to Beijing, but were feeling pleased with ourselves for having avoided the crowds of Badaling.
On Wednesday we visited the Forbidden City, so called because it was off limits to the public during the 500 years of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is hard to imagine how an emperor, his concubines, servants, and ministerial staff could have filled the enormous number of halls, palaces and squares. Nowadays it's no doubt busier, with thousands of foreign and domestic tourists flocking to see the beautiful architecture and extravagance of the place. We were lucky with the weather: the sun brought the colours of the buildings out very nicely. After several hours of walking around the vast complex we called it a day, even though we had not nearly seen everything! Before going back to the hostel, we walked to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, where we were rewarded with some nice views over the rooftops of Beijing.
In the evening, we went to have dinner at the Donghuamen Night Market, described by the Lonely Planet as a "food zoo".
A zoo it was... We sampled some very exotic creatures. I ate scorpion, cricket, locust, dragon fly, snake, silk worm, centipede, and lamb's testicles. Some things were nicer than others. The scorpions were surprisingly tasty, but I wasn't too tempted to order another portion of centipede or dragon fly... All the poor creatures were skewered onto sticks, and grilled or deep-fried. And still we didn't try all that was on offer, leaving the beetles and cute seahorses for other adventurous diners. Afterwards I at least felt that I would now be able to survive in the jungle. All you need is some insects, some skewers, and a fire. Bon appetit...
Last on our list of must-sees was the immense park of the Summer Palace, northwest of the city center. On Thursday, the sun was out once again, which made our visit very enjoyable. After spending weeks on end in huge cities (Harbin with its 3.1 million inhabitants being the smallest we had visited since leaving Hoi An in Vietnam) walking around the park was refreshing, just as our visit to the Great Wall had been. Not being too much of a city person, even beautiful cities like Beijing start
getting on my nerves sometimes!
By Friday our 3 weeks in China had already come to an end. Beijing turned out to be as awesome as I remembered it to be. I would like to return though when they have finished renovating so many of the prime sights, from the Temple of Heaven Park, to the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. China as a whole was more modern and advanced than I could have imagined. China and India are often named in one breath as the upcoming economic powers, but there is at the moment an incredible difference between the two. India still has a lot of catching up to do... Next stop: Japan!
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