By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Beijing is one of those places where the name melts on the tongue and conjures up images of ancient sites and history galore. My challenge was to pick a selection of favourite things to see in three days, as this was going to be a brief 72-hour-visa-on-arrival visit. There are some must-sees, major landmarks that simply cannot be missed as with every city; the problem is that Beijing has so many.
On my first day, I headed straight to Tianamen Square, the vast plaza where once, back in the 1600s, there stood the Great Ming Gate, and which the Great Hall of the People hems today, the National Museum of China, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Dating back to the early 1400s, when it became the residence of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City has played home to 24 emperors. Covering 720,000 square metres, this is not only the largest imperial palace globally, but with its 980 buildings and more than 8,500 rooms, it is also a formidable challenge to visitors trying to see even a fraction of it. Especially as some 40 percent of it, is still literally forbidden to visitors. I eventually emerged by Jingshan Park and decided to walk up the park’s hill, which is the result of the excavations of the moat for the Forbidden City, and as such, a perfect place to climb for views across it and beyond.
Following the track northward, I decided to finish my first day with a tour of the hutongs, the old traditional lanes and neighbourhoods formed by family courtyard residences, some dating back to an era before the Forbidden City. With the help of a rickshaw driver, I explored the Hutongs until I capitulated under the onslaught of impressions.
It was an early start the following day, as I was off to see a wall. The Great Wall, is a place of superlatives: some 21,196.18 km long and 2,300 years old, with roughly one-third of it already having succumbed to old age and locals taking bricks to build their homes. Even though the wall was in part constructed more than 2,000 years ago, Mutianyu, the stretch I was visiting, dates to the mid-6th century and was upgraded during the Ming Dynasty. So, relatively new when it comes to Chinese history.
I had chosen the Mutianyu section because it was supposedly gentler on the knees and a lot less crowded than the most visited stretch called Badaling. Walking from fortified buildings and look-out posts to the next, the wall stretched in front of me and behind into the distance, growing ever smaller but no less impressive. Even if the myth that this creation can be seen from space has proven untrue, it certainly is the most amazing man-made construction I have ever seen.
Back in Beijing, I headed straight to the Summer Palace, a palace and imperial garden of the Qing Dynasty, which preceded the Ming Dynasty. Strolling along the 720m-long canopied and ornately decorated Long Corridor walkway, I tried to imagine the richly dressed members of the imperial court strolling along the same path, looking out across the 2.2 square-kilometre large lake. The lake was excavated to add to the scenic setting and the dug-up soil of, which forms the adjacent Longevity Hill. Today the many halls and buildings were busy with visitors worldwide, but mostly with Chinese marvelling at their ancient history, including a large boat made from marble. Which floats. Tomorrow modern Beijing was waiting for me.
It was day three to see how today’s Beijing measured up. I headed straight to Art Zone 798, a former military factory complex built in the stark Bauhaus style by an East German consortium in the 1950s, covering an area of some 500,000 square metres, abandoned in the 1990s. In 1995 the Central Academy of Fine Arts looked for storage spaces, with myriad artists looking for studios and exhibition space. And thus, Art Zone 798 was born: A vast complex of small and large galleries, artists’ residences, cafes and restaurants, outdoor installations, and museums.
Wandering in and out of galleries located in the vast former military halls, exploring the small lanes in between buildings, and stopping for lunch and snacks in modern cafes not out of place in London, my culture shock could not have been greater. There were worlds between yesterday’s ancient wall and temples and today’s contemporary approach. But both suit Beijing very well.
To get a last-minute shopping fix in, but staying modern, I decided to explore the markets and shops around Wangfujing, such as the Xindong’an Plaza with its vast flashing plasma screens. The area was neon-lit and pedestrianized streets hemmed by bright shops, music spilt out of every door, and all the known and many unknown global high-street stores were present.
Finding a few smaller, more typically Chinese shops, I shopped for souvenirs and headed for a last thrill – the Wanfujing Food Market, just around the corner. The smells were heavenly, the sights not so much. Anything from fat grubs, scorpions, lizards, insects and even seahorses was roasted on sticks, and locals, as well as brave tourists, were tucking into this eclectic food. I must admit to looking but not partaking. I settled for a rather nice chicken skewer.
Three days in Beijing had thrilled and exhausted me, not so much physically but mentally. So much history, so many beautiful sights, so many old and modern new impressions. It would take me a while to process it all, but I intended to return for more.