Forbidden cities and great walls. (September 2014)


Beijing is China’s capital and after Shanghai, the second largest city in China. It’s also regarded as the political, educational and cultural centre.

From what we have seen the Chinese love to be tourists in their own country, Beijing was no different.

Our guide in Beijing was Lucy and as she explained, a member of the Han community.

There are 56 different cultural groups in China with the Han making up 90%. The other 55 ethnic groups make up the remaining 10%.

I think that all the ethic groups love to travel as we found a huge diversity in the tourist mix.

We arrived late on a Sunday and the air was clear and the sky blue. The next day the haze was back but not as thick as we had seen.

Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s largest temples and situated in a huge parkland area, not far from our hotel.

Here the local retirees do their morning exercises. This can vary from line dancing to hackie sack kicking with a variety of other activities in between. There is also mahjong and cards for the less active.

People are in groups or for the more solitary souls off on their own amongst the trees.

Many of these trees are very old, some dating back 400 years. We knew this by the plaques indicating their age.

The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City.

This is where the Emperor came every year to pray for good weather and an abundant harvest.

Between visiting the Temple of Heaven and Tiananman Square we had tea, tasting five different varieties. According to our hostess every one of them had some amazing power to heal and revitalise the body.

Our next stop was the famous Tiananman Square, a vast open space dominated by public buildings on on either side, with Mao’s Mausoleum in the centre and the Forbidden City at one end.

This is a place that many Chinese wait their whole life to see and there were a lot fulfilling their dreams on the day we were there.

Other cities in China have a Forbidden City but the one in Beijing is far and away the largest and most impressive.

With 980 buildings covering 72 hectares, this is a vast complex, so it’s no wonder that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Built from 1406 to 1420 it was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty unti the end of the Qing dynasty. Built at the same time as the Temple of Heaven it has been the home of emperors and the centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years.

In the evening we visited the  Beijing Chaoyang Theatre, Acrobatics World. The theatre wasn’t full so our tickets were upgraded to VIP class. This gave us softer seats in the middle rows, close to the action.

Acrobatics have been a part of Chinese cultural life for over a thousand years, however this show was totally modern.

It was themed in an typical Chinese manner with umbrellas, pushbikes, hats and motorbikes. The motorbike act started with one bike speeding around inside a metal sphere, and ended with eight of them. At times it seemed totally chaotic, much like the Beijing traffic.

It was a relatively early start on day two and the haze was back. The temperature had also dropped a degree or two, which made climbing the Great Wall much more bearable.

On the way to the wall we had two obligatory factory visits, complete with shopping opportunities. One was to a jade workshop and the other an outlet that purported to make cloisonné (wire and enamel ware). It was really a front for a vast showroom.

We yet again resisted the urge to buy and moved on.

Once we reached the Badaling section of the Great Wall, at Lucy’s suggestion, we chose to walk on the south side. It was less crowded and more strenuous, but certainly worth the effort as we also got great views looking back to the north side. There were thousands clambering over the wall – the tourist invasion of 2014.

Not long into our walk the sky’s cleared and the sun made an appearance, improving the clarity of the snaps.

Forty two kilometers from the Beijing CBD, in the Changping District, is the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.

This area was also constructed by the Ming Dynasty emperor, Yongle (1402 – 1424). Based on the principles of feng shui, he chose to build his own mausoleum here.

Leading up to this necropolis is the sacred Road or ‘Spirit Way’ with statues of guardian animals and officials on either side, lining the way. The animals are all in pairs, with one pair sitting and the other standing.

We reached the Mausoleum of Emperor Chengdu late in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky – the magic hour for photography.

The first hour of our last morning in Beijing was spent investigating if the Chinese Post Office could send my useless Sony lenses home.

It tuned out to be too hard to arrange as there was too much danger of them being broken. Not that they were of any value now.

We were then loaded onto a rickshaw for a ride through an old area of Beijing. These old areas are known as hutongs and are a tangle of narrow streets clogged with people and vehicles.

We then visited a ‘typical’ house of a hutong resident where the owner explained the way they live in this area. I have a feeling that this was more for show than authenticity. Still it was interesting to see how people live in the more traditional areas.

We had a separate guide for this trip into the hutong and Tony peddled along beside our rickshaw, narrating as we zigzagged in and out of the traffic.

Our last stop, before boarding the Bullet Train to Xian, was a quick visit to the Summer Palace.

This vast area, dominated by an artificial lake, was the summer resort of The ‘Dragon Lady’ Empress Dowager, Cixi. She diverted a fortune in silver, designated for the navy, to build this personal retreat.

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