Travel to Beijing & the Northeast
Beijing is a mishmash of centuries and cultures, the modern mixing with the ancient on streets of intrigue. Sprinkled around the center are some of the world’s most iconic sights, unmissable odes to civilization that combine inspiring scale with inimitable intimacy. The mountainous Northeast is one rarely visited by tourists, other than on a series of day trips from the capital, the most famous being the Great Wall of China. As the country’s capital and cultural center, Beijing is on virtually every traveler’s itinerary, not least because of its status as international transport hub. Thanks to its labyrinthine hutongs, Beijing feels significantly older and more traditional than Shanghai and Hong Kong. Even though these traditional narrow lanes are being pulled down, the city has developed outwards from the upwards. This chapter covers Beijing along with with the provinces in the northeast of the country.
Getting Here: Most people will land in Beijing. The cheapest and quickest route from the airport is by the Airport Express train line. If taking a taxi, use the official taxi queue as there are numerous reports of overcharging from feverish touts. Trains arrive in Beijing from all across China, terminating in a series of stations, each on the metro line.
Getting Around: A vast overhaul for the 2008 Olympics transformed the Beijing metro into one of the world’s best. Not only are the signs in English, they’re not in Chinglish, so visitors can make sense of them. The metro will take you most places but be careful to plan a day before setting off, as the distances can mean potentially long underground trips. Buy a pre-paid card to save time: most journeys cost around $0.50 to $1.50.
Heading into Northeast China is possible by train, bus, or private hire. Beijing was a city of a million bikes although that’s quickly being replaced by cars. Still, it’s a very flat city and experienced cyclists find the traffic and cycle lanes manageable.
• Tiananmen Square was the scene of countless historic moments in world history,
each usually involving huge parades and a sprinkling of tanks. It’s one of the world’s largest city squares and flanked by some glorious buildings, making it a free and iconic start to exploring the city.
• Beijing’s monuments always defy impressions of scale. The Forbidden City
dominates central Beijing, the historic emperors’ home protected by towering walls and gates. Enter and gasp at the size of the courtyard, ornate buildings lining the walls and each corner. The Hall of great Harmony and Gate of Heavenly Peace are perhaps the two most iconic photographs. There’s somewhere between 9,000 – 10,000 rooms in the Forbidden City and the ones that can be visited are part of the Palace Museum, a huge complex dating from the 15th century. Each bursts with relics from throughout the ages; in particular, ceramics, paintings, bronze, enamel, and sculptures. It’s estimated that there are over a million works of rare or valuable art in the collection.
• Chairman Mao is laid to rest in the Chairman Mao Memorial Wall, (on Tiananmen
Square) lying peacefully in preservation in the mausoleum. In high season there’s long queues of locals waiting an hour for a 20 second allotted peek at the great man; if there’s not a queue it’s a real tick of the list world monument.
• China’s largest religious building is the Temple of Heaven, a pointing pagoda
standing that’s almost always insanely crowded. Admiring from the outside is an alternative to queuing for the inside. The temple is set in a vast parkland which also helps provide an escape. Vendors take round little glasses of tea to help reenergize.
• Beijing’s most visited gardens are those at the Summer Palace, a green expanse filled with pagodas, pavilions, and royal mansions. After the three iconic sights above, the Summer Palace tends to serve as the resting place for tourists with sore feet and full camera memory cards. The impressive architecture makes this the most beautiful of Beijing’s parks, but in summer, it’s not always the peaceful escape you’re looking for. Just a few hundreds meters away, the Old Summer Palace lies in ruins but still screams of Qing emperor indulgence.
• Two other famous parks offer a similar concoction of historic architecture that curls
above a lake. 13Th century Beihei Park is quaint and green, the pavilions appearing between vast stretches of indigenous plants. Jingshan Park is where the locals hang out and do their communal dance sessions – always entertaining – and a good place to find some solace.
• The huge National Museum of China covers the history of China, albeit from a very
biased perspective (but aren’t all national museums?) It’s certainly full of some intriguing stories and political themes, made the more better because it’s free to enter.
• Beijing’s ancient hutongs, or neighborhoods of narrow alleyways, are mostly a thing of the past. Nanluoguxiang is the most accessible as it’s within walking distance of the Forbidden City. It takes you on a twisting journey through traditional homes to elegant courtyards and a couple of fascinating monuments like the Bell and Drum Towers. Seemingly hundreds of drivers line the entrances with their modernized cycle rickshaws – they can take you on a tour but negotiate hard for the price. It may be more enjoyable to walk.
• For a taste of innovative modern Beijing, the district of Chaoyang contains many
of the city’s remarkable architectural landmarks. Guided tours can be taken of the Bird’s Nest (the 2008 Olympic Stadium), a mass of unusual design that still lights up at night. The Olympic Park also includes the dazzling Water Cube. Nearby, the World Trade Center Tower III and the “Bird’s Legs” (CCTV Building) make for iconic photos. Also check out the “Beijing egg”, otherwise known as the glittering. National Center for the Performing Arts
• Beijing’s best preserved historic neighborhoods are found in Hou Hai, where hutong alleyways spread out from the lakes of Oianhai, Xihai, and Houhai. Cycle rickshaws take you on tours but it’s also possible to simply get lost in the maze and admire the odes to tradition. Be sure to stop for a glass of green tea in one of the many local tea shops. On the northern side of this area, the Peking Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling is a delightful traditional house of the elite.
• Shijia Hutong is a smaller and quieter neighborhood to explore. Qianmen has a similar vibe to Hou Hai although it’s been restored to its history rather than preserved. Littered with shops and restaurants it’s an atmospheric place to spend the evening and absorb the vibrancy. Wanfujing Street is similar and filled with the weird and wonderful of Beijing culture (like taking your photo with a pet rabbit in a cage).
• Another place for evening entertainment is the Donghuamen Night Market or
Dong Hua Men Night Market, a place where you sample all the stereotyped strange food China is famous for: turtles, grasshoppers, snakes, smelly smelly tofu, frogs etc.
• Some 700 years old and still revealing its history as the place for sacrifices, the Temple of Confucius and Guozijian Museum now holds the Capital Museum and rarely gets a tourist.
• One of the world’s oldest observatories, Guguanxiangtai is filled with equipment from the Ming and Qing dynasties, enabling a time hop into how the world used to explore the wider universe.
• Spend an evening experiencing Chinese performing art at the Forbidden City Music Hall, an immense palace that shimmers with the ambiance of historic times. Another look at old opulence is the Great Hall of the People.
• China has always had a certain military might and the Military Museum does an excellent job of spanning the eras and dynasties. It’s certainly interesting to see how the country has always been involved in something.
• Contemporary Chinese art generally gets hidden behind porcelain and ancient dynasty paintings. 798 Art Zone is the country’s hub for modern artists and the changing exhibitions confound all preconceptions of Chinese art. This is also a good place to meet local students.
• A selection of smaller parks weave through forests on the edges of Beijing. Xiangshon Gongyuan (Fragrant Hills) are the most local of these and a place to drink tea or get involved with the mass tai chi sessions. Also in Haidian District you’ll find the Beijing Botanical Garden. During summer, Ritan Park is the one that maintains a very local feel and misses almost every tourist radar. Yuyuantan Park is out of town but situated on a serene lake.
These places are best visited on a series of day trips from Beijing. This is mostly due to the excellent transport from the capital and better accommodation options.
• The Great Wall of China is one of the world’s great landmarks, stretching for thousands of miles to protect the country against Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire. Up to 20 meters thick and almost impossibly steep, the wall is the most popular day trip from Beijing. There are a series of distinct sections that can be visited, each with its own advantages. Most people arrange transport via their hostel / hotel to visit the wall, although it’s possible to do it by a long public transport journey. At each of the following you can walk along the walls – beware that it’s very steep but getting the legs into gear helps get you away from the crowds. Allow at least half a day to do any of these trips:
◦ Badaling is the most popular and most crowded, generally due to its proximity to Beijing (also making it the cheapest to get to), but also its iconic setting. In winter it’s still great here, but summer can be astonishingly crowded and most of the charm is lost. If the crowds get too much, the nearby Badaling National Forest Park provides an escape.
◦ Huanghuacheng is a regular stop on Great Wall tours and offers the revered combination of massive walls, huge towers, and steps that make the legs complain the next day. Very similar to Badaling.
◦ Mutianyu is a longer drive than Badaling but doesn’t get as crowded, especially with local tourists. In particular, it’s easy to wander off towards Jiankou and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s a cable car to the top for those who don’t want to walk.
◦ To escape the crowds, strap on your walking boots and visit Jiankou. You’re in a remote part of Northeast China and much of the wall isn’t restored. This trip requires private transport. Expect two to three hours walking to get from the road and see the huge ramparts. A great full day hike goes from Jiankou to Mutianyu.
◦ Changping and Hairou Xiangshuihu are also good places for seeing the Great Wall without the great crowd.
◦ The Juyong Pass of the Great Wall has been heavily restored but has an idolized setting tumbling down a forested hill. Less popular than others.
◦ Punggu Jiangjunguan is usually an add on to one of the above: it’s hard to press a claim for visiting here over the other spots.
• Tianjen is one of China’s most developed cities and is connected by high speed train to Beijing. At its heart are the Five Avenues, where a collection of buildings have been built in famous styles from around the world: Gothic, Italian Renaissance, British, etc. Nearby, Tianjin Ancient Culture Street provides an easy pathway between the city’s Qing dynasty landmarks, like the Matsu Temple.
• Just over an hour from Beijing, JuYong Guan is a traditional series of hutongs without the tourist crowds of Nanluoguxiang. Protected by UNESCO it’s a place to observe local life seemingly unchanged for centuries. Cuandixia Village is much older, a few millennia of history to be discovered on the crumbled streets. It’s a bit like their version of Roman ruins.
• Hongluo Temple is a fascinating alternative to getting crushed in the central Beijing temples. Two temples stand either side of Five Hundred Arhat Garden and it’s easy to lose a day absorbed in the area.
4、Far Northeastern China
These remote regions feature immense stretches of wilderness and adventures largely into the unknown.
• Northwest of Beijing lies the vast desert region of Inner Mongolia. Annexed from Mongolia, it retains an authentic portrayal of nomadic life. Horse riding trips and spending the night in a nomadic gur are the highlights of the experience, both easily arranged in the regional capital of Hohhot. Surreally beautiful despite having no obvious landmarks, Inner Mongolia is much more Mongolia than China and a good chance to getaway into silence and forgotten lifestyles.
• Bordering North Korea, the province of Liaoning is hotchpotch of influences: Russian, Japanese, Imperial Chinese, Korean, Chinese Han, and Manchurian. It’s particularly appealing to anyone who has spent a long amount of time in Asia or China and seeks a culture that confounds stereotypes. This was a place of ancient capitals and history although what remains is only what was saved from the marauding Mongols. Shenyang, Anstan, and Benxi have some fascinating World Heritage Sites, but like most of Liaoning, the challenge is to see them through the smog.
• Heading towards Russia, you reach Jilin and then Heilongjiang Provinces. Both have former capitals with imperial tombs and temples, the most impressive being Goguryeo in Jilin. The regions are most famous for their annual winter snow festivals, where great ice sculptures are created and the national parks are resplendent beneath a coating of white. Harbin is the most famous (probably in the world) although Jilin city is easier to reach from Beijing. They start just after new year and run until the snow melts. The other prime attraction here is the Siberian Tiger Reserve, home to many tigers and roaming through trees.