Contemporary Beijing is not a beautiful city by design. The dense capital is home to sky-scraping apartments, factories and gargantuan chimneys that pollute the air as much as they do the scenery. However it is the dichotomy that exists between the minimalist landmarks of post-cultural revolution China and the traditional gems of the historical Empire that makes the city a visual spectacle.
Home to a myriad of impeccably preserved attractions such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace, the city is a history buff’s dream. The vast Tiananmen Square is located at the centre of the city – the epicentre of an area of massive cultural significance. A Westerner can expect to attract a bewildered and native audience, many of whom have not had the opportunity to meet a Caucasian person. Expect harmless pointing, staring and followers with cameras.
Surrounding the Square, you will find a number of notable attractions worth a visit including the National Museum of China, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. To the north of the Square is the entrance to the Forbidden City. A collection of 980 beautifully intricate buildings that boast traditional Chinese architecture comprises what was the imperial palace for over 500 years. It is worth enlisting the historical knowledge of a tour guide for your trip around the Palace. If you have not already arranged a reputable guide, be sure to haggle and agree upon a price at the entrance with one of the many opportunistic guides that will approach you at the gate.
For a more laidback experience, the Temple of Heaven is ideal: a beautiful collection of religious buildings that served as the Emperor’s place of prayer, dating back to 1406. The surrounding parks are bustling with activity, and give tourists the opportunity to mix with the natives and partake in public singing, mass outdoor aerobics-cum-dance classes, or to join them in a game of Jianzi (a folk sport played with a peculiar-looking feather ball).
It would be unforgivable to visit Beijing and not devote a day to the Great Wall of China. A two-hour car journey from the centre of Beijing, the Mutiyanyu section of the Wall is recommended over other tourist-swamped sections. The excitement of the attraction is heightened by the novelty of a terrifying ski lift to the top of the mountain and the opportunity to toboggan down, following enough cultural intake and a top-notch profile picture. Otherwise, it’s just a big wall.
The least terrifying way to get around Beijing is by taxi. Fares are inexpensive, and a half-hour journey should cost no more than sixty CNY (roughly six euro). The challenge to attain a taxi cannot, however, be underestimated. Many taxi drivers refuse to take Western tourists, so allow a good half an hour to hail a taxi. Furthermore, make sure to have the name of your destinations written in script to present to the driver, as no amount of hand-gesturing hints at “the Northeast gate of the Forbidden City. Also I need an ATM on the way” will do the job.
In general, eating out is in the city is cheap, and a traditional meal can be acquired for the guts of ten euro. For all your shopping and cheap Chinese tat needs, pay a visit to the Pearl Market at Hongqiao Lu. The indoor market boasts five floors crammed with more counterfeit Converse and grammatically incorrect t-shirts than you could shake a chopstick at. Exercise some gall, and haggle at every corner – offer no more than twenty to thirty per cent of the original asking price. The reward is a bucketful of bad quality, branded merchandise for a pittance.
Far beyond the troublesome taxi journeys and the tourist traps, a trip to Beijing offers an experience like no other. To glimpse a culture so vastly different from our own is an eye-opening and rewarding experience. It is the hospitable people, the amazing cuisine, and its remarkable history that makes Beijing a charming metropolis that offers the trip of a lifetime.