With Beijing being my first stop in China, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. How can you really prepare for a city that has more than 21 million people? That’s more than half of Canada’s entire population!
Despite my initial nervousness, I didn’t find Beijing to be a totally overwhelming experience. As long as you’re not riding the metro during the notorious rush hours (which I was lucky enough to do.. with my backpack), Beijing can be manageable without having a complete meltdown!
The city has SEVEN different sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List so don’t expect any sort of relaxation upon arriving to the capital of China. I’ll break down a few of the places I had time to check-out.
My first stop was the Temple of Heaven:
Built in 1420, this was a place where emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties went to worship heaven. Twice per year, emperors would visit the Temple where they would pray for better harvests and favourable rain while abstaining from eating meat.
The grounds cover around 3km making the Temple of Heaven a nice place to casually walk around taking in the beautiful scenery and peaceful atmosphere.
And hey, you’re in China.. A place where nothing seems out of the ordinary. So if you’re lucky enough, you may even see people ignore nearby washrooms to pee in the Temple grounds!
A 700 year old Temple is clearly no big deal to this dude..
My second day in Beijing was spent exploring China’s largest and best preserved complex of ancient buildings called the Forbidden City. For over 500 years, this was the home for emperors as well as the ceremonial and political centre for the Chinese government. There are 980 buildings within the Forbidden City!
Inside of these walls was off limits to the Chinese population for over 500 years. The Forbidden City is also surrounded by a 52-meter wide moat.
Expect just a few other tourists when you visit this historic place ; )
Once inside the complex, plan on staying for at least 3 hours to get a bit of a feel of the enormity of it all. You can definitely begin to grasp how construction of the Forbidden City took 14 years, using over 1 million workers!
The current day Forbidden City is home to the Palace Museum which includes extensive artwork and artifacts from the two dynasties of imperial rule. There is really just too much to take in, in my opinion, but it’s certainly an impressive place!
Just across from the Forbidden City, lies one of the top 5 largest city squares in the world. Finished in 1651, Tiananmen Square has been the location of many memorable events over the years. On October 1st, 1949 Mao announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
40 years later in 1989, Tiananmen Square was the location of the infamous pro-democracy protests which resulted in hundreds and possibly thousands of civilians being shot by Chinese soldiers (the official numbers are disputed). The iconic photograph of one person standing in front of a row of oncoming tanks also took place here.
Nowadays, the square is just packed full of tourists wearing very questionable clothing…
Over the years, the square has been enlarged four times and the sheer size of the area is pretty staggering. The Mao Mausoleum is also located in Tiananmen Square so make sure you are a little more vigilant than me as it closes at 1:30pm.
Beijing National Stadium (the Birds Nest):
Designed for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the ‘Birds Nest’ is as impressive as huge stadiums come. I’d recommend visiting at night as the whole area is lit up, making it a pretty cool place to check out. It will also be used for the Winter Olympics in 2022, making Beijing the first city to host both Olympic games!
The Great Wall (Mutianyu section):
One of the most iconic sites in the world, the Great Wall definitely does not disappoint. It is more than 2300 years old and spans more than 21,000 Kilometers!
From Beijing, there are a number of different sections of the wall to check out. However, most tours will offer trips to 3 of the main sections:
Badaling- 72 Kilometers from Beijing, this section is most popular among Chinese tourists and is usually the most crowded.
Mutianyu- 73 Kilometers from Beijing, this section is most popular among Foreign tourists. It is said to be the most magnificently restored section of the Wall.
Juyongguan- 60 Kilometers from Beijing, this is the closest section to the city. It is wheelchair friendly and it contains one of the greatest forts.
I can only attest to Mutianyu and from my experience it was an excellent section to visit for the following reasons:
- It isn’t very crowded
- You still get to hike along the wall and it can be quite gruelling going up and down, up and down.
- If you hike for about an hour and a half, you get to the section that is no longer maintained and is therefore, a little more authentic. Some parts of this section are 700 years old!
The Mutianyu section also contains a type of toboggan that you can take down the wall. Although, it is in the opposite direction of the highest peak (1200 metres) so you may need two days to do both the toboggan, and climb to the highest point!
Well, that’s about all I had time to see during my stay in Beijing. My expectations were pretty low prior to visiting but I came away with a real appreciation of China’s capital. For a massive city, there is a noticeable lack of skyscrapers and super-sized buildings. Although they are declining, Beijing is also home to a large number of Hutongs – a type of narrow alley’d neighbourhood – preserving traditional Chinese culture. These streets are all lined by trees and cars barely have enough space to drive through (although that doesn’t seem to phase the boldest of conductors). Hutongs are just super cool to walk around in, forgetting you are in a city of 21 million people.
It’s definitely a little rich for the senses at first, but Beijing is such an important and fascinating city! Ultimately, it needs to be visited by anyone with a travel mindset! Enjoy!