My family spent a year and a half living in Beijing, from July 2009 to December 2010. We knew our time there was limited, and so we packed in as much as possible during our 18 months. These recommendations are based on our adventures, and while some may seem obvious, the differentiation lies in the detail. Beijing is rich in cultural treasures and offers much more than the ten below, but it’s a start.
- While the government implemented a rigorous English program for cab drivers leading up to the Olympics, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people you meet will not speak any English. Be prepared by always carrying the name of your destination and hotel in Chinese.
- Beijing is very dry; make sure to bring water on outings to avoid dehydration.
- Beijing is also very polluted. If anyone in your family suffers from asthma, it may improve in the dry climate, but it also may worsen due to air quality issues. Be sure to pack inhalers and other medications just in case.
- Stick with bottled water rather than drinking from the tap.
- You must bargain at markets in China. A good place to start is 50% of the asking price. If you walk away after stating what you’d like to pay and the seller relents, you know you’ve hit it about right.
- There are a lot of people in China, and they enjoy seeing their national monuments, especially during peak seasons. I’ve highlighted some ways to avoid crowds, but for the most part, they are a part of the China experience so try to enjoy them.
- We often ate street food and never had any adverse affects. The hawkers will not speak English, but you can convey what you would like by pointing. Some of my best meals were noodles and dumplings bought and eaten on the street.
- China is very safe; while petty crimes happen – as in all big cities – we always felt very secure walking around, even at night.
- The currency is the RMB (also called Yuan). ATMs can be found everywhere so bring your cash card.
1. The Great Wall of China
Most tour groups are directed to see the Great Wall at Badaling, which means that your experience may feel like a walk with all 1.2 billion people in China. More pleasant is a visit to the Wall at Mutianyu. Like Badaling, the site offers a cable car and toboggan ride down to the bottom for those who want it. Unlike Badaling, you will be able to wander in relative peace and enjoy the quiet beauty of the Wall (once you’ve passed the corridor of hawker stands, that is). An added bonus is The Schoolhouse, a delightful restaurant located a short walk down the hill from the entrance. If you are on a tour and have no choice but to go to Badaling, try taking a right at the top of the gondola and hiking to the highest point of the Wall. You can then descend down the far side. It is much less crowded, and the steep slope will add some excitement to the trip.
While I try to avoid the crowds at the Great Wall, I embrace them at the Temple of Heaven, where locals gather to sing, play checkers, dance, do tai chi, gossip, and play musical instruments. The best time to see this wonderful snapshot of Chinese culture is in the morning just after the grounds open. You can even join in if you feel like it. Be sure to leave time after viewing the Temple to enjoy a stroll around the lovely grounds.
Though I’ve now seen it many, many times, I never tire of The Forbidden City, which I’ve combined with Tian’anmen Square because they are across the street from each other. While wandering the palace grounds, you may find the main, central sites mobbed with eager tourists. Try walking around the sides and you’ll be surprised when you find yourself alone and able to photograph beautiful corners of this magnificent place without the hordes. Walking in Tian’amen Square is a must. Every time I go, I am awed by this vast square and its history, which dates from the 17th century. If you want to visit the Mao Mausoleum, located on the Square, remember you are not allowed to carry any sort of bag or camera, so leave them in your hotel or with a friend.
You can find most every souvenir here that Beijing has to offer, but you absolutely must bargain. Products range from pashmina shawls to paintings, mahjong sets, pearls, beaded jewelry, table linens, cashmere sweaters, and every counterfeit brand item you can imagine (remember that the knock offs are illegal to import into many western countries, including the US). Here are some tips for bargaining: Check out the desired item to make sure the quality is okay, and then ask how much is costs. When the seller responds, feign surprise and tell him or her, while smiling, that the price is very expensive. Then ask for the seller’s best price. If it is still too high, state just below what you are willing to pay. If the seller declines, try walking away. Usually, he will come running after you and the deal will be made. You can assume, no matter what anyone tells you, that all “antiques” found here are reproductions.
Most tourists will visit Yonghe (Lama) Temple, one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist Temples and monasteries in China. You should too, but when you are done, walk about two blocks down to the Temple of Confucius (13-15 Guozijian St) and enjoy the peace and solitude after the hussle and bustle of Lama. Not on the usual tourist itinerary, the Temple never seems to have more than a handful of visitors. It was constructed in the 14th century and well illustrates some of the differences between Confuciunism and Buddhism. Other highlights are the old, gnarled trees and the adjacent Imperial College, home to a forest of steles – stone tablets – that contain the Thirteen Confucian Classics. They were all engraved by one man, Jiang Heng, over a period of 12 years.
Food is everything in Chinese culture, so for those traveling to Beijing, this restaurant is worth finding. The Family Li web site tells you that their superb skills in the kitchen started with an ancestor, Li Shunqing, who was Lord Secretary during the Qing dynasty in the last days of imperial China. His responsibilities included protecting the Forbidden City, and specifically, overseeing security issues and the imperial kitchen. During Li’s tenure, the Qing government ordered hundreds of chefs from all over China to make one dish each. Li Shunqing not only tasted each dish, he recorded the recipes, which his family continues to serve well. We always ordered the least expensive set meal (to avoid things that may not appeal to western sensibilities). This is a meal to remember.
A trip to China is not complete without trying foot reflexology, an ancient Chinese custom still popular today. While many westerners consider this – simply – a foot massage, reflexology equates each area of your foot to a part of your body. This means that if you have a particular ache or pain, it can be remedied – or improved – by massaging the corresponding place on your foot. Whether you believe this outing will have a medicinal impact or not, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour. We liked to go to Taipan in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing (1 Xingdong Road, Chaoyang District, T: 8532-2177). Reservations required.
This area began in the 1950’s as a factory complex, built with the assistance of East German engineers. As the factories gradually came to a standstill and were vacated, avant-garde artists moved into the abandoned spaces. Today, the area is the premier art district in Beijing, home to many galleries and restaurants. It is also a lovely place to stroll. The factory structures remain, which are at times as interesting as what is found inside.
Despite the crowds, this UNESCO site is well worth a visit. While there have been royal structures here since the 12th century, what you see today mostly dates from the Qing Dynasty. There are grounds and temples that would take days to explore, but my personal favorites are the long corridor and the Tower of Buddhist Incense, which stands on Longevity Hill. My daughter loves the marble boat, which “floats” in the man-made Kunming Lake.
Over the last twenty years, destruction of China’s charming old walled homes, known as “hutongs,” has accelerated as the country’s economy has boomed. These dying symbols of China’s past are torn down to accommodate large glass towers representing the country’s new prosperity. One area where you can still get a sense of old Beijing is HouHai, long ago home to nobles and wealthy merchants. Many are critical of the tourist-focused shops, which have overrun those more traditional to the area, but I still enjoy the tri-shaw ride through the narrow streets and – for a nominal fee – the opportunity to enter hutong homes and see what it is like to live without heat and plumbing. A great place to avoid crowds – and see a traditional old estate – is at the former residence of Song Qingling, Sun Yat Sen’s widow (46 Houhai Beiyan Road). The house is now a museum surrounded by a traditional Chinese garden.
For more travel photos, go to Delicious Baby.