It is China travel lore that “you need a week in Beijing”. Now, given we travel at a pace so slow it’s verging on glacial, we were (obviously) going to spend at least a week in Beijing anyway.
But, gentle reader, even if you travel faster than us (which isn’t difficult), and even if you’re the kind of dedicated culture hound who can head out every morning in search of new stimulation with nary a day of lounging around (which is), you too will need a week in Beijing.
And not just for the food…
You see, when someone told me you needed to spend either three days or a week on Angkor Wat — and the amazing early Khmer sites that surround it — it didn’t really sink in.
Result? Two intensive days of sightseeing and one very footsore, rather shellshocked wander around a place that really should make every single list of the wonders of the world.
On the plus side, though, I did get a T-shirt (and it even fit!)…
Anywise, when folk said we needed a week in Beijing, I listened.
The thing about Beijing, apart from the various world wonders that it holds, is that it’s bloody enormous. Beijing has been the capital of China (with a few breaks for civil wars and suchlike) since Kublai Khan blazed his way out of Mongolia more than 700 years ago.
And everything, nay everything, in the centre of Beijing is built with the kind of megalomaniac grandeur that only emperors who can’t get out of bed without ten thousand concubines and a small army of eunuchs or one-party states with a population of over a billion and a — how can I put this? — brisk attitude to human rights can achieve.
Tian’anmen Square, for example, is famously the world’s largest public square. That means you need to walk more than half a mile to get from one end to the other. Chuck in extricating yourself from the subway (or, better, walking from your guesthouse in the alleys they call hutong), and that’s a vigorous constitutional in itself. You can walk a good couple of hundred yards just looking for a gap in the railings to cross the road.
Now, people say the Forbidden City is on Tian’anmen Square. It isn’t. It’s a bit of a way to the north of the square. You can add a decent half mile and a hefty acreage of red buildings to your pedometer before you even get to the ticket booth, and, of course, they call the Forbidden City a “city” with good reason.
Beijing also takes a while to get around. The good news is that both buses and subway run regularly and effortlessly and have English language on board. You would, however, be unwise to attempt either — unless you are a fifth dan black belt in elbow jabbing — between 8 and 10 in the morning, or between 4.30 and 6.30 in the evening.
Now, I’m not normally a fan of safari-style sight-bagging (we went to Komodo and didn’t see the dragons). But Beijing is one of few places in the world where this approach is worthwhile.
So, like most people on a week in Beijing, we bagged the Big Four.
The Great Wall
You would, frankly, be a bit mental to visit China as a tourist and not see the Great Wall. You can do this at Mutianyu (where you can toboggan down the slop3) — three hours or so out of the city — or at Badaling (an hour and a half from the city, but rammed with souvenir stalls and people). Generally the best option for folk who don’t like crowds is whatever stretch of “Secret Wall” your guesthouse or hotel does trips to (a couple of hours or so out of the city).
I normally hate group tours. But the Great Wall is so huge that it’s easy enough for a hotel to find a bit with hardly any other tourists. For an independent traveller, unless you speak excellent Chinese or have done extensive research to discover the undiscovered stretch you want, it’s extremely time-consuming.
We waited for a bright day to see the Great Wall, which is genuinely awe-inspiring as it unfolds over the mountaintops for hundreds of miles. On a smoggy day, or in a blizzard, you’ll be hard pushed to see your hand in front of your face and most of the Wall, which is steep with unfenced staircases, won’t be safe to walk on.
Visiting the Great Wall will take you one day. It needs to be a clear one. So allow enough time in Beijing to choose a good day to see it.
The Forbidden City
Home to emperors, eunuchs and concubines from the thirteenth until the twentieth century, the Forbidden City dazzles in real life as much as it did in The Last Emperor. The scale, initially, goes beyond impressive into firmly oppressive, as enormous courtyard gives onto enormous courtyard, via enormous throne room after enormous throne room, extending, apparently, for miles.
To capture the reds and golds, the blues and greens, the tranquil waters of the Forbidden City, you’ll want to visit on a sunny day. And you’ll also want to take your time about it — ideally climbing the hill to the north of the City to see it stretching out below you in all its wonders.
The bits we loved about the Forbidden City, in fact, were the more intimate living quarters and gardens to the north and east, a kilometre or so away from the entrance. Like Angkor Wat, it really repays visiting twice — once to get a sense of the scale, and a second time to investigate the details.
The Summer Palace
If the Forbidden City is where the emperors demonstrated their power and might, the Summer Palace was their playground, an enormous pleasure park of opulence and luxury that still dazzles even in winter.
One of the emperors’ summer palaces (the Yuangongyuan) was, famously, destroyed by the British at the end of the Opium Wars. (These are the ones the British fought to force China to abandon prohibition of drugs and accept our opium exports, and look every bit as good in the history books as today’s Oil Wars will look a century or so from now.)
But this summer palace, the Yiheyuan, out in the northwest of the city, is at least as awe-inspiring as the Forbidden City. It’s largely the work of the Empress Dowager Cixi, a lady who progressed from royal concubine to ruler of all China by an unnerving combination of hot sex, manipulation and murder.
Shady gardens of ancient cypresses and countless palaces sit around an enormous lake, lined with bridges, where pleasure boats cruise. One highlight for history geeks? The marble steamboat Cixi had built with money embezzled from the Chinese navy, shortly before it got its ass comprehensively whupped by the Japanese.
Now, I hate to keep saying this, but the Summer Palace is gigantic. It’s really worth spending a day here, wandering, exploring, appreciating the grounds, the buildings and the boats, and getting out further than the tour groups venture.
The Temple of Heaven
A source of great pride to most Chinese, the Temple of Heaven is one of the best surviving examples of Ming Dynasty architecture. It’s a lovely, tranquil place, set in calm gardens not far from Tian’anmen.
And, unusually for Beijing, the complex is relatively pocket-sized. Meaning this need only take you half a day. Yay!
After the Big Four there is, of course…
Beijing is an amazing place to discover different sorts of Chinese food, not least because English is, by Chinese standards, widely spoken and both picture menus and English language menus are relatively common, avoiding the “point and hope” approach that can produce gristly surprises.
Don’t miss succulent, gorgeous Beijing-style roast duck and chunky jiaozi dumplings (the classic is pork, but dumpling stores offer them in a cornucopia of flavours and colours).
Sweet treats include candied Chinese haws (and pretty much any fruit, in fact), sunflower seed cakes and ginger honeycake. You can get a headstart on delicious hot-sour Sichuan food at any one of a myriad Sichuanese restaurants, and there’s the range of international restaurants you would expect in a world city.
Beijing is not short on museums. There’s at least one museum on everything from trains to militaria to architecture, art, astronomy, calligraphy and jade. Museum buffs could easily spend a week in Beijing trawling these alone.
If you’re not?
The National Museum of China, a gigantic Stalinist-posh edifice opposite the mausoleum where Mao lies pickled on Tian’anmen Square, reopened a few months ago after a complete refurb and is a must-visit. That’s not just for the comedy value of a single building simultaneously housing exhibitions sponsored by BVLGARI and by the Propaganda Department of the People’s Liberation Army.
The basement level, which alone covers a foot-achey 17,000 square metres, offers probably the best overview of Chinese history in the country, all the way through from prehistory to the fall of the emperors. It is well worth a day, or, to combat museum fatigue, a couple of afternoons.
The Theme Park!
If you’re travelling with a child, or your inner child, you would, frankly, be remiss to miss Happy Valley Beijing, one of the best of China’s Happy Valley theme park chain, complete with four full-size rollercoasters and 30-odd fairground-style rides.
The standout? Crystal Wings whirls you face downwards through near-vertical corkscrews between sheer walls, with a balance of pace, pause and drama that is even better than Battlestar Galactica, Singapore.
Not a coaster fan? There’s a hilarious ghost house, a gadzillion fairground rides at paces ranging from terrifying to tame, climbing frames and kitsch aplenty.
If you do one kiddie thing in Beijing, do make it this rather than the waterpark in the Water Cube. That has a couple of good slides in a stunning environment but is freezing in cold weather and feels, frankly, none too hygienic.
The Shows (and the Bars)
It would be a shame to go to Beijing and not see Beijing opera, traditional acrobatics or all of the above (not to mention kung fu or circus). Beijing is also an affordable place to get a hit of classical Western culture, be it ballet, opera, or music, often in an iconic building too.
The bar scene, like the restaurant scene, is as grown up and international as you’d expect from a world city with a population of over twenty million.
It’s easy to spend a week in Beijing. There are parks. Hutong to wander in. Some of the best shopping in China. The contemporary art district. A myriad temples (plus a mosque or two). Street food aplenty. Skating and outdoor skiing in winter…
We spent two, in fact. And we loved it.
Thanks to Kursal Oostende for the acrobat picture.
Have you been to Beijing? What are your must-dos for a week in Beijing?