My main goal in diverting so far north from Shanghai to Beijing was to sleep overnight on the Great Wall of China, but as long as I was in Beijing, I couldn’t leave without seeing a few of the other famous sights the city has to offer. The company who provided my Great Wall experience, The China Guide, incorporated a visit to the Olympic Village, site of the 2008 Olympics, to see the now-famous Bird’s Nest and Swim Cube architectural wonders, as well as a stop at the Ming Tombs, the final resting place of 13 Chinese Emperors, where we walked the Spirit Way and descended into the underground crypt of the Ding emperors.
After the Great Wall, with only one full day left, we rushed around to see as much as possible. Half a day (not nearly long enough) was devoted to the Forbidden City, which stood in the center of the ancient city of Beijing and was home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today these astounding structures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The site is visited by millions of people each year and I think they were all there on the day we toured. Unfortunately, the enormous crowds made it difficult to truly appreciate the Forbidden City as it should be; I could not get close enough to see inside any of the palaces, so I contented myself with appreciating them from afar. Eventually, we emerged at the front entrance, where Chairman Mao’s iconic giant portrait keeps a watchful eye over the Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square, directly across the street.
But my two most favorite sights probably don’t even make most guide books. Lovely, serene BeiHai Park, located in the city center adjacent to the Forbidden City, features scores of old temples and miles of walking paths surrounding a placid lake where visitors paddle around in rental boats or read books on benches beneath lacy Weeping Willow trees.
At day’s end, the route back to our hostel took us down a series of narrow hutongs – old lanes – lit by Chinese red lanterns and neon signs, where old men tote goods for sale on three-wheeled bikes and women congregate on stoops to gossip.
To me, Beijing is quintessentially Chinese; much more so than Shanghai, and to this city I would gladly return. Sorry to say, I don’t feel that way about Shanghai, but more about that later….