How did the last week fly by so quickly?! Feels like I was just busy packing my luggage yesterday and now I’m back to reality. Beijing already feels like a lovely dream I’ve woken up from all too soon.
I had high hopes for the trip, mostly because I finally get to immerse in all the rich culture of my ancestors, witness something authentic and steeped in tradition, and collect research materials for the new novel I’m planning that is meant to be inspired by ancient China. Oh, and also enjoy some chilly fall weather away from the humidity and heat of Singapore.
And boy, did Beijing live up to those expectations. This is going to be a long post, so if you have the patience and interest to read all the way to the end, I applaud you in advance. Suffice to say, the trip was rewarding in terms of food, accommodation and itinerary, and we went at a comfortable pace.
Here are some of the highlights (because no trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to those tourist hotspots and historical and cultural landmarks):
Day 2: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Shichahai (什刹海)
Day 3: the Great Wall and Ming Tombs
Day 4: the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven
Day 5: Day Trip to Tianjin
The bullet train down to Tianjin took only half an hour. Tianjin, being a coastal city slightly south of Beijing, was understandably more blustery. But we were too cold to walk about very much and stayed near the riverside to take pictures.
Tianjin is a lot calmer than Beijing, without all the crazy neon lights at night and roads roaring with waves of traffic. It’s got beautiful European-style architecture because it contains several concession territories ceded by the Qing dynasty to European countries, the U.S. and Japan. These self-contained concessions were each complete with schools, prisons, hospitals, and barracks.
The pace of life seems slower there too, and our tour guide told us that Tianjin is like the Canada of China, where its people have a laidback, easygoing vibe and a sense of levity and humour for most things, vastly different from the severe, businesslike Beijing-er.
Day 6: Day Trip to Chengde
Up north, the town of Chengde is a four-hour drive away from Beijing. Temperatures are notably lower, and it sees snowfall weeks earlier than Beijing. When we got there, it was already experiencing single-digit temperatures (Celsius), and the rain didn’t help.
Our agenda for being in Chengde was to see the replica of the Tibetan Potala Palace. But the place was half-closed for renovations and the local tour guide couldn’t wait to make our money, forcing us to pose for a group photo as soon as we arrived at the foot of the palace and then taking us halfway up before telling us the rest of the place is closed for renovations. I can take the rain, the cold, and the slippery ascend. But we were the only souls there, and the tour guide was kinda pushy. She offered no information or background about the place.
Nonetheless, the structure was majestic and we managed to get some good shots, even though we were freezing our butts off. But really, the cold is lovely once you’ve gotten used to it. And the rain made everything more beautiful. The top of the palace was laced in mist, and tree leaves lay slick and gleaming around our feet.
Mercenary locals, though. This was one blemish in an otherwise perfect trip.
Day 7: Back to Beijing
Shopping day! As mentioned, the standard of living in Beijing has gone up rapidly over the years, so don’t expect to go crazy in the shops. I spent mostly on snacks (girl’s gotta have her fruits) and souvenirs, which I regret not buying more of.
Our tour guide, Yoko, is a petite lady who was born and bred in Beijing. She’s been in the tourism line for over a decade – she became a tour guide right out of college – and you can tell how seasoned she is through her efficiency and practised manoeuvring at ticket counters, through crowds, and with the schedule. She is unfailingly polite, professional, and amiable. Plus, she’s well-versed in the history and sociocultural and political landscape of China (although some of her opinions are entirely her own), which makes her a very captivating story-teller and us a very rapt audience.
Here’s some trivia she shared with us along the way:
1. Emperor Qianlong is the longest-ruling emperor in Chinese history. He ruled for 60 years before passing away at 87.
2. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties went to pray each year for good harvest. The Taoist temple is painted an unconventional blue (instead of the typical gold and red) to mimic the sky.
3. Empress Cixi is a major female ruler of the late Qing dynasty. (The other is Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled China during the Tang Dynasty.) She started out as an imperial concubine who later ousted a group of regents and installed her nephew as emperor before rising to power herself. Despite her ruthless ascent, Cixi was an effective ruler. She was in power for 47 years from 1861 until her death in 1908.
4. Majority of the thirteen Ming dynasty emperors’ tombs are buried in a cluster near Beijing. The place was first set up by Emperor Yongle (the third Ming emperor), who selected his own burial site and created his own mausoleum.
5. The Summer Palace consists of a man-made lake, Kunming Lake, and hill (the earth dug up for the lake was piled at the back), Longevity Hill. This is because the emperor believed in the fengshui of being fronted by water (to receive prosperity) and backed by mountains (to have support in hard times).
6. The third Ming dynasty emperor, Zhu Di, reigned from 1402 to 1424, after he rose in rebellion against his predecessor, his nephew Zhu Yunwen. He named himself Emperor Yongle (永乐), which means “eternal happiness”. I don’t think his nephew got to experience eternal happiness.
7. The Forbidden City has over 1,000 rooms that the emperor would select at random to stay each night. This made it hard for assassins to try and kill him in his sleep.
8. The Forbidden City is called Zijin Cheng (紫禁城) in Chinese, which means “Purple Forbidden City.” This refers not to the colour of the city’s walls but to the night sky.
9. The concubines who have fallen out of the emperor’s favour are banished to the “cold” palace (冷宫), which is not cold in temperature. Rather, it’s similar to the English expression “to give one the cold shoulder”. The “cold” palace is relegated to the outskirts of the Forbidden City, far away from where the emperor usually roams, so the emperor can go up to months without sparing the shunned concubine a glance.
10. The oldest parts of the 8,851km-long Great Wall date back to as early as the 7th century B.C. That was when Chinese rulers first erected border fortifications to keep the northern armies at bay.
1. Beijing is the political central of China, so most people there try to keep themselves up-to-date and well-informed about global current events.
2. China classifies its cities according to tiers. Tier 1 (一线城市) includes well-developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Guangzhou. Tier 2 (二线城市) includes Tianjin (below), Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, etc. These are the more modernised cities with dependable infrastructure.
3. The standard of living in Tier 1 cities has shot up rapidly over the past few years thanks to the skyrocketing property prices and an economy that’s growing faster than the people can keep up with.
4. The stereotypical Beijing-er is someone who is straight-talking, no-nonsense, all-business and methodical in his/her work.
The stereotypical Shanghainese (according to our Beijing tour guide) is one who believes herself to be in the centre of the world, and constantly in touch with all the contemporary trends in fashion, art and lifestyle. (They didn’t dub Shanghai the Paris of the East for nothing.)
Shanghainese typically find Beijing-ers old-fashioned, conventional and crass in their manner of speech, while Beijing-ers find Shanghainese proud and loquacious.
5. Beijing is the city with the highest concentration of top-ranking officials.
6. Methods of governance that work on cities like Beijing don’t work on other provinces like Yunnan or Macau. That’s because those places are mostly made up of minority groups that are less likely to abide by the hard-nosed policies set by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and more likely to revolt if they’re being beaten into shape (so to speak). Macau, being a sovereign state of China, even gets special privileges like NO taxes. Yes, the people don’t have to pay taxes to the central government.
7. Beijing speaks the official putonghua (普通话), Mandarin Chinese, that the rest of China speaks, so everyone can understand them. However, they may not understand everyone else because each province has its own dialect and accent.
8. Beijing-ers love their tea. It’s cheaper than water, and they also believe it clears their breathing passage and keeps them hydrated during the cold and dry winters and smoggy summers.
9. Chairman Mao Zedong is a revered figure in China – his painting on the wall of Tiananmen Square is renewed every year on China’s National Day, 1 Oct.
However, there were dissidents like the artists and intellectuals who were beaten down during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). One of them, Lao She, was persecuted, denounced, and publicly humiliated. Devastated by his fall from grace, he took his own life by drowning himself in Taiping Lake. But these intellectuals made up a very small percentage of the people; the majority of the populace worshipped Mao. After the Cultural Revolution ended, though, Lao She was posthumously “rehabilitated” – his works were republished and several of his stories were made into films.
10. Beijing is home to major top universities like Beijing University and Qinghua University. Because priority is given to those living in Beijing, many parents moved to Beijing for a higher chances of getting their children accepted to the schools. (So you can imagine what that does to property prices in the area.)
Congratulations, you made it to the end! You are either incredibly patient or have a deep fascination with Chinese culture. Either way, thanks for reading! I can’t express in words everything I’ve experienced and learned on this trip, but I hope what I managed to share is evocative and insightful enough so you didn’t just waste your time reading this post.
Beijing is a beautiful, vibrant city with a dynamic mix of the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary. There is so much to take in when you’re there. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Chinese culture, I absolutely recommend a trip there.
I’d love to hear YOUR stories if you’ve ever been to Beijing! Which other parts of China do you recommend as well? I’m thinking of Hangzhou (the pictures look GORGEOUS, and I’ve heard lots of rave reviews of the place) or Shanghai next. Share your thoughts in the Comments below!