In all my travels around the world, very few places left as much of an impression on me as Beijing. The Chinese capital may be infamous due to its dangerous levels of smog, but in terms of culture and general tourist attractions, there are very few superior locales. In Asia, only Kyoto in Japan comes close to having the levels of historical intrigue that you will find in Beijing.
First things first: you won’t be able to avoid the smog when travelling through Beijing. It is simply unavoidable! Some people wear face masks, but I only spent a week or so there, so I didn’t feel the need to purchase one. However, by the end of my week I, too, was coughing, so it seems the air pollution affects us all. It can be a somewhat startling sight to stand on a bridge and look out over the roads early in the morning, when the sun should be shining (at least in spring and summer), yet it actually seems like the sun has gone down already, such is the desolation of the smog. It’s no wonder Beijingers are beginning to move down south for a better quality of life!
The design of the city actually makes it relatively easy to navigate, although it would be much easier if there were less people living in Beijing! Wherever you go – above ground or below ground – it seems like a rat race of epic proportions, with people oozing out of every nook and cranny. The Beijing Subway is very cheap, and it will get you anywhere in the city, but unfortunately it has a deserved reputation as being dangerously overcrowded, especially during the early morning rush hour.
Most people will be familiar with the Forbidden City. This imperial palace sits pretty much at the heart of Beijing, and all roads and railways effectively encircle it. For over 500 years it housed the Emperors that ruled China. Much of the Forbidden City is now open to tourists to explore. What is spectacular about the Forbidden City is that it really is a city of sorts, not just a single palace or a mere temple. Standing atop nearby Jingshan Hill and looking back on the rear of the city gives you a great example of how complex this city still remains today.
Another great place of interest in Beijing is my own personal favourite: The Temple of Heaven. This a Taoist temple where emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties came to pray. In Ancient China, the Emperor was known as the son of Heaven and twice yearly he and his entourage came to pray at the Temple of Heaven. No normal Chinese citizen was allowed to see this procession.
But central Beijing has more to offer than just temples and palaces. It is also a mecca for shopping. In particular, Wangfujing Street is known as the main street for retail therapy, with the added bonus of being mainly pedestrianized. It is very similar to Nanjing Road in Shanghai or Beijing Road in Guangzhou in that it has all the mod-cons and Western-style high street brand names, yet the local Chinese citizens cannot usually afford to shop in these kind of places themselves; the streets are mainly catered for Western tourists.
Accessible directly from the Beijing Subway Line 1, Wangfujing Road also has a very popular night market, and unlike the westernised department stores, the night market is a place for locals to come and shop. Some of the items on sale to eat include creatures and bugs, such as fried scorpion and tarantula! In Beijing, these are considered delicacies, and if you’re too squeamish to taste them yourself, you cannot miss the opportunity to watch someone else devouring them!
When in Beijing, you must also try the famous Peking Duck, a dish which originated here a long time ago. I once ordered Peking Duck from my hotel for room service, and they didn’t even know what I was on about! I found this a little strange, but I am fairly certain everyone else in the city will be able to direct you to a good establishment that serves Peking Duck.
So what else is there to do whilst in Beijing? Well, further afield, you have the famous Summer Palace, where the Emperors of ancient times retreated for their seasonal vacations away from the centre of the city, and a portion of the Great Wall of China (the Badaling section) is a 50 minute taxi ride from central Beijing, but taxis are fairly cheap in China, so £25 return fare to this iconic location should suffice.
I hope I have given you an idea of some of the best bits of Beijing. Please tell me in the comments section what your own personal highlights are.