Traditional Beijing tourist stuff
Trip Start Aug 14, 2011
14Trip End Aug 27, 2011
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Where I stayed
Tailong International Hotel Beijing
Read my review - 4/5 stars
Read my review - 4/5 stars
We set out from Heathrow (weirdly meeting someone we knew quite unexpectedly) for our first leg to Helsinki, Finland. The BA crossing was OK and after a snack we landed after a 2 hour flight in Helsinki.
We didn't have to wait long, thankfully, for the connecting flight to Beijing- we just had enough time for a toilet + snack break which was good. The Finnair flight was the new Airbus so (hooray) we had leg room. After an odd meatball supper we settled for a night flight (6 hours) so we arrived at 6.30 China time (around midnight UK) after at least a snooze.
We were impressed by Beijing airport- it was updated for the last Olympics and you could tell they had thought about keeping it light and airy
As we came through we caught a short aerial tube ride to baggage collection to find it was already there! In China the (very sensible) system means you have to show your matching luggage receipt to the luggage you have collected in order to leave so it would be very hard to have it stolen. How sensible!
We were met by Mr. Wu (our Beijing based guide) who took us straight to the waiting car. The city has 5 concentric ring roads (confusingly nos 2-6) which you can join and progress, then cut across inwards. As there had been an accident on one we were diverted around it to an inner one, but our driver knew the way. Interestingly to get onto the ring roads with busy traffic a police point system was being run to allow traffic to join by stopping the main highway. Steve was very impressed by the number of new cars on the roads, especially luxury models from Germany. Our guide said 2000 new cars were sold every week in Beijing which was adding to the traffic congestion. Some car makes/ models we didn't recognise at all. Some cars didn't even have number plates on the front or back- I’m not sure if it was legal but it certainly wasn’t uncommon
We went inwards through the ring roads until we got to the inner ring road (No.2) which is basically the original wall line of Beijing and went through (at our request) some of the old entrance gates to the city (Dongbianmen, Xibianmen, Deshengmen & Yongbianmen) which took a bit longer but was interesting to see. We passed by the only remains of the Ming city walls close to South Station. The walls were built in 1435 and originally surrounded the whole city (24km long & 15m high with 9 gates- only the 4 we saw above are left) but were mostly demolished in the 1960’s for road building.
The last ring road passed under bridges -the one next to our hotel had large red letters on saying E=MC2 and F=GM1M2/r2 and F(b)-F(a)=F(ε)(b-a) which seemed like an unusual thing to put on (later we saw other bridges with different formulae on). We had to go past the hotel (most Chinese roads are blocked in the central reservation by barriers or hedges) to Qianmen street, do a U-turn & come back to get to our hotel The Tailong Plaza (luckily not far).
The room wasn’t quite ready (in China check out time is noon and we arrived at 8am) so we had complimentary tea in the lounge whilst it was made ready
We had the executive room on the 6th floor but as there was no double glazing (typical of China we later found) we could still hear some traffic. The hotel was beautifully decorated with flowers & it turned out we had arrived
Anyway, after a brief rest and shower we changed into some lighter clothes (35oC outside) we decided not to waste time & headed out for the Forbidden City. We turned right out of the hotel and in 2 minutes were at the end of Qianmen street, a pedestrian street (apart from the trams) which leads to Tiananmen gate & square.
A comment on Qianmen Street
Qianment Street was first developed during the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 under Emperor Yongle 1402-24. He had made Beijing his capital and built a north-south road around a central gate (the Zhengyang Gate or Zheng Yang Men)
At the north end is the beautiful Wu Pai Lou decorated archway. It has six red pillars with two lions at the base (the plinth and architrave have dragons, phoenix and qilin decorated on them).
A qilin is a chimera, sometimes a dragon-tiger, sometimes a unicorn-deer, but always gentle (it’s feet don’t even harm the grass). It’s said that one visited the Emperor Huangdi (c2600 BC) in his garden. The qilin can punish the wicked however by breathing flames from its mouth at them.
At the end of the street is the shop of Yue Sheng Zhai and the Qan Ju De restaurant (where I tried out my Chinese successfully – OK just hello, but it was a start!) At the south end are the department stores (ie
We walked along Qianmen street (being careful to avoid the very quiet trams that come up and down- I loved these wooden trams- they seemed so old world), looking at the beautiful architecture & the decorated archways leading to back alleys and side streets filled with enticing colours and smells with promises to visit later. There were wholly Chinese shops (in architecture & in their gold name lettering) and other fusion shops whose names we recognised- Sephora (blast- should have brought my card- never occurred to me!), a Chinese copy of McD (similar logo, similar looking food) and lots of designer stores. However- on a mission to Tiananmen so onwards and upwards. We walked up through the Wu Pai Lou (archway) to the archery tower of Zhengyang (also known as Qianmen or Front) Gate. The back of the archery tower still has its white railing ramps clearly standing out. The gate structure (tower + gate) was built in 1419 as the main entrance to the Imperial City and is a very impressive, imposing building (well, it impressed us). The road going through the gate used to be the "beautiful entrance or lizhengmen. We had to get across the road to get to the gate itself (a feat in its own right as we couldn’t originally find the underpass but could only see the bus station and metro and central barriers blocking our way
We walked down past the government buildings towards Tiananmen Square. The square is really large and had some statues in (some I liked –the statue to the Liberation just in front of Mao’s mausoleum & others not at all- the obelisk like Monument to the People’s heroes in the centre). We saw Mao’s Mausoleum (behind the Monument to the People’s Heroes) but did not fancy going in, so we carried on to Tiananmen Gate (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) with its huge Mao portrait on the front. We saw the Great Hall of the People to the left & the imposing buildings of China’s National Museum (which sadly we didn’t have time to see) to the right.
Then under the road to Tiananmen Gate, past the cool looking fountains and through the gate. We walked along the road towards the Forbidden city under a tree lined pedestrian way filled with street vendors selling nick-nacks
The name "Forbidden City" or Zijincheng actually means Purple (Zi) Forbidden (Jin) City (Cheng)- a reference to the traditional residence of the Celestial Emperor in the north purple star which links to his representative on earth and jing as imperial permission was required to enter the city. However locals call it GuGong or "Former Palace".
The Forbidden or Imperial City was first established by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, but was burnt down by the succeeding Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Emperor Yongle began the construction of the imperial city in 1406 and it became the imperial residence from then until 1644 when it was taken by the rebellious Li Zicheng of the short lived Shun Dynasty (1644-45). He was defeated by the new Qing Dynasty (1646-1912). The city contains 980 buildings and covers 178 acres.
We UNDERSTOOD it was a big area, but hadn’t really appreciated it until we actually stood there for real. First we went through the Meridian or Wumen Gate (the southern gate of the walled palace). It had two wings which effectively made a 3-sided square with 5 gateways (we chose the central one which was were the Emperors alone would walk and the Empress only on her marriage and anyone passing the Imperial exam but only the once). A beautiful bronze lion guarded the gate.
The gate opened into a large open square with five small white bridges and walkways across the Inner Golden Water River (quite pretty) which sort of wandered across the square. In front of us was the Gate of Supreme Harmony and a three tiered marble terrace with Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) straight in front of us. We went right, walking along the edge of the Hall of Literary Glory (used for printing and lecturing- apparently a copy of the Siku Quanshu is there- commissioned by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th C to be a complete encyclopedia of Chinese history). It is the only building with black (=water) roof tiles. It was cooler to go along the covered walkway along to the Southern Three Palace (the Crown Prince’s home) (green =fertility roof tiles) ; and then we headed onto the high marble terrace of the Hall of Supreme Harmony which we accessed using the gentle ramps- the central one was reserved for the Emperor and had a nice bas-relief carving going up it- actually made from 2 pieces of stone but this was only recently discovered
Behind the Hall was a smaller hall, The Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian), used as a waiting/ preparation area by the Emperor, with its attractive square shape and pyramid-shaped roof and behind that the larger rectangular Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe) for rehearsals and examinations. Both had open doors to look through to the throne rooms (one had a sedan) but were VERY busy (and jostly). The ramps from here to the inner courtyard had a beautiful dragon head carved on each finial. The central ramp down was lovely- a beautiful bas-relief showing dragons and flowers- carved from one block of stone weighing 200 tonnes.
Interestingly the Outer Court buildings are arranged in 3’s (Qian triangle=Heaven) while the Inner Court is in 6’s (Kun triangle=Earth)
From here we could see Prospect Hill to the north (it was built from the moat to conform to ancient Chinese feng shui (based on Taoist principles) of living by a hill (heaven) and water/lake/river- this was why the Qin Emperor sited his famous tomb where it is)
This was the end of the Outer (Front) Court which was used for ceremonial and state business and the start of the Inner (Back) Court which was used as the imperial families residence. There was a smaller courtyard in front, then a gateway (Gate of Heavenly Purity) guarded by another lion (and containing a gift shop), into the Palace of Heavenly Purity (another double eaved building) with the Hall of Union and Palace of Earthly Tranquility behind. These were much smaller buildings and were the official residence of the Emperor (Palace Heavenly Purity), Empress (Palace of Earthly Tranquility) and the hall of Union where they met. The Ming Dynasty used these palaces, but the succeeding Qing Dynasty (after Emperor YongZheng) in the main preferred the halls to the west in the Hall of Mental Cultivation. The Palace of Heavenly Purity then became an audience hall and the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity became a shamanistic centre (originally used by the Qing emperors who were Manchu in origins).
We carried right on through to the imperial gardens in the very north of the city. They were pretty and the area quite compact, though the idea of putting old battered and weathered rocks or dead trees on elaborate plinths seemed unusual to use. It was, however, nice to be under the trees and in the artificial caves/ grottos
We went around to the Hall of Mental Cultivation (now on the right centre of the Inner court. This was where the Qing Emperors and Empress Dowagers (including Cixi) lived.
At the far end we went left through the gardens and came out of the end of the city. A guard wanted us to go round the outside of the city, but we thought we’d get lost, so we went back through the city on the other side. We were really pleased we had as we would have missed all the museum rooms. There were a number of rooms filled with a variety of artefacts (old saddle, pottery, jade, documents, weapons....) with limited labelling but still interesting. Even though lots of places in China say No Photography not a single person took any notice of it- I asked our guide later and he just shrugged and said “But Chinese people love taking photos” as if that was justification enough!
The exhibits came mainly from the former imperial collections and are particularly strong in Shang bronzes, Tang and Song ceramics and pre-Qin inscriptions.
As we had walked around the other way we finished by seeing the Hall of Military Eminence (Outer Court, just before the Meridian gate) used to receive ministers
A note on PuYi and Cixi
The last Emperor of China, Pu Yi was profoundly influenced by his mother, Cixi. She was born in 1835, the daughter of a Manchu official. Her name was Yehonala. She was chosen as a concubine to Emperor Xian Feng when she was 16; quite an honour. She was the only one of his wives/ concubines to give him a son, making her a level 1 concubine and then one of his wives. She showed promise and the emperor often asked her advice. When he died in 1861 her 5 year old son, Tongzhi became Emperor. She quickly seized power from him and ruled as an empress. She liked luxury and spent a lot of state money on her pet projects (particularly developing the Summer Palace). Tongzhi’s became an alcoholic libertine and eventually died young (possibly from smallpox or an STD). As he had no children Cixi put her nephew, Guangxu (aged 3) on the throne. At first he did as he was told, but when he reached 17 in 1889 he began to start reforming China by building railways, reforming the legal system etc. Cixi used an old military lover, Jung Lu, to oust Guangxu and lock him up in a palace in Winter Lake. He died in 1908, effectively under house arrest. Cixi rapidly put the 2 year old PuYi (also Xuantong) on the throne shortly before she too died.
As we left the city it was still very hot, so we bought some more water (about 20p a bottle) and retraced our steps. The fountains had been turned up and the cool spray was pleasant, causing a rainbow effect. We got to the Arrow tower, but it had been blocked off for the Autumn parade down Qianmen Street. Oddly (from our point of view) Autumn in China begins in mid August with the start of cropping). It’s marked with celebrations, hence the parade & the floral displays in the hotel. It took ages to find our way around it and we were getting hungry. We tried some side streets but they were mainly take-aways which we didn’t fancy. Finally we got to the 7-11 and bought some food. Unlike the UK, you can usually get a selection of hot food in these shops (we chose some Dim Sum, crispy noodles with fish and what Steve thought was beef but turned out to be rice)- they even provide chop sticks. However, a bit harder to find sandwiches for tomorrow- bit of an alien concept- but we did find bread & some fillings so OK.
A note on the Ming
The Mongol based Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) ended with the Red Scarf (Hongjinjun) peasant revolt led by Zhu Yuanzhang (of peasant stock)
Hongwu (1368-98) attempted to stamp out corruption at both imperial and local level and replaced court officials with Han rather than Mongols. He systematically destroyed Mongol influences, including the Forbiddden city, mongol dress etc. As a peasant he was sympathetic to them and tried to lower their burdens (he had spent time as a Buddhist early in life). However he was a harsh ruler and there were many purges and mass killings. He disliked the eunuchs influence under the Yuan and sought to curb it as well as issuing decrees that the relatives of the emperor were forbidden from office (this anti-nepotism ruling was continued through most of the Ming period).
He was succeeded by his grandson (his son had already died) but after four years another son, Zhu Di launched a coup and seized the throne as The Emperor Yongle (1403-24). It was Yongle who built the Forbidden City in Beijing and moved his capital there. He was a strong emperor who was keen to develop the country. He commissioned the first encyclopaedia in the world, the Yongle Dadian, and attempted to develop trade links to India and Africa (although his successors reversed this policy)
His son, Emperor Hongxi (1425) died quickly, leaving his son to become The Emperor Xuande (1426-35). He attempted to revive Yongle’s policies, including his voyages but the growing power of the eunuchs meant this had limited effect. His son, Emperor Zhengtong (1436-49) was young and easily influenced by the eunuch Wang Zhen who persuaded him in 1449 to attack the Mongols. They promptly captured him. To ensure continuity the imperial court made his brother Emperor Yingtai (1450-57). He was released one year later, but on returning to China was arrested and imprisoned by his brother. He staged a coup 7 years later to take the new imperial title of Tianshun (1457-64).
He was succeeded by his son, The Emperor Jenghua (1465-87( whose rule was marked by the rise in power of the Lady Wang (nearly twice his age) who systematically prevented his wives and concubines from having children or killing those already born. Her own son by him died young, but luckily he had a son who’d been brought up in secret, who became The Emperor Hongzhi (1488-1505)
Hongzhi is unique in Chinese history as being monogamous. He was an excellent emperor, ruling well, reducing taxes and rooting out corruption. He had two children, his son became Emperor Zhengde (1506-21) but had no children, meaning the succession past to his cousin, Emperor Jiajing (1522-66). Zhengde was fairly useless as a ruler, preferring his own pleasures of brothels or hunting- he had so many concubines some starved as not enough food was available.
Jiajing was even more useless- he was extremely cruel, to the point where his concubines planned to assassinate him in 1542 by strangling him with hair ribbon. Unfortuantely the knot failed to work and all the girls were tortured and killed (we saw the reputed spot for this). He refused to hold audiences and all his decrees were relayed through his eunuchs. For most of his reign few people saw him. The eunuch fraction in government ensured that ocean going vessels were banned. Luckily his son, The Emperor Longqing (1567-72) was much more capable and attempted to revive the Ming Dynasty. He did not live long enough to really halt the decline and his son, The Emperor Wanli (1573-1620) initially sought to continue his policies with the help of the able Zhang Juzheng. In his later reign however, he turned his back on this and retreated from ruling to follow his own pleasures. He was rarely seen in government. Interestingly it was he who met the first Christian missionary, Matteo Ricci. His son Emperor Taichang ruled for 12 days, fell ill, took a “red pill” given by his doctor, felt better and took another red pill and died!! (so, don’t take unknow red pills is the moral). His son became The Emperor Tianqi (1621-27) who was fairly unimportant. As he had no children his younger brother became Emperor Chongzhen (1628-44)
We set off on the Monday at 9am and were lucky with the traffic arriving in time for check-in (which was lucky as we hadn't been able to use online check in and the plane was getting full). The plane was on time and it only took 2 hours to Helsinki where we only has to wait for 1 hour before catching the Beijing flight (which turned out to have better than average seats so Steve fitted in well.)
The flight (6 hours) was fine and we arrived as the dawn broke over Beijing- we had been able to see down onto China for about 45 minutes before and it looked empty apart from along the rivers- about what we had expected).
The airport was beautiful- very modern and clean with high ceilings & efficient. Our visas took no time to check, then onto the connecting train to pick up our baggage which was waiting for us already. Our baggage stubs were checked (brilliant idea as no-one could steal your luggage)
Mr Wu met us and took us to our taxi. As we drove in he explained that we had to negotiate 5 ring roads, like a series of concentric circles, to get into central Beijing. An accident meant we had to divert, but luckily our driver found a way.
The traffic was bad which gave us the opportunity to see things along the way like the remains of the original Qing city walls.
We went under a bridge with mathematical formulae on in great red letters (like E=MC2) which was right next to our hotel, the Tailong Plaza.
Whilst they sorted out our room (it was only 9 am China time) we had tea in the lounge and sorted out with Mr Wu what we were doing. He had already arranged a trip to Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and I asked if he could arrange a show (I didn't mind what) so he suggested a Kung Fu show with Peking duck dinner after. Steve eagerly agreed and then our room was ready so we went up for a rest.
After a (brief) rest and shower we changed into some light clothes (35oC) and headed out. We turned right for no particular reason which turned out to be the right way. A few yards along the road we found the entrance to Qianmen street. This is the main road leading up to Tiananmen Square and it is pedestrianised (apart from the tram). All the shops have been built with traditional architecture which looks really nice. As we walked down the road we saw enticing side roads through arches, filled with colour and smells. However, we were on a mission so onwards and upwards. A tram (looked like a wooden one from old America) passed us. We passed a Chinese McD substitute (similar logo, similar looking food) and loads of recognisable brand shops like Sephora (blast- should have brought my card- never occurred to me!)
At the top of the road we went through the painted arch into a small open area with a coffee house. In front of us (over the road) we could see Arrow Gate.
We walked through……….
The other side we could see the entrance to Tiananmen Square area, but could we get across (barriers across all the roads- this was a common theme in China- all the central reservations were barriered so you couldn’t walk across & taxis all had to go further on and do U-turns). Finally we found the underpass. As usual there was a security check, but they are fairly relaxed for tourists & even smile with a thank you (in Chinese!). After 3 underpasses we got to Tiananmen Square……
It was getting really hot as we walked through the square up to Mao’s Masoleum. Finally we went past the beautiful fountains (5 swirling in a row creating a rainbow) to the gate. Through the gate.
As we walked up to the main gate & ticket office we passed all the stalls selling water, fans, Hello Kitty (oh yes, adults in China like it) & hmm, plastic toys and (very popular) balls on elastic. Loads of people were buying dolls (adults, not children) or plastic hair decorations. We weren’t tempted by anything! We bought 2 tickets at the right hand office & went through to the Forbidden City.
We UNDERSTOOD it was a big area, but hadn’t really appreciated it until we actually stood there for real. There are ……
At the far end we went left through the gardens and came out of the end of the city. A guard wanted us to go round the outside of the city, but we thought we’d get lost, so we went back through the city on the other side. We were really pleased we had as we would have missed all the museum rooms. There were a number of rooms filled with a variety of artefacts (old saddle, pottery, jade, documents, weapons....) with limited labelling but still interesting. Even though lots of places in China say No Photography not a single person took any notice of it- I asked our guide later and he just shrugged and said "But Chinese people love taking photos" as if that was justification enough!
It was so hot we headed back to get some water and wander back to the hotel. A bit tricky as the entire Qianmen street had been blocked off for a parade (looked later- was Autumn celebrations- seemed a bit early to me but apparently Autumn starts now!). After a variety of attempts we managed to get back to our road. Although it wasn’t late (7pm) we decided we were too tired to go out to eat so we went to the 7-11 shop next to the hotel. It had a hot take away counter so we got some noodle dishes and rice, some sandwiches for tomorrow and ate in our room. Our guide phoned to let us know she would collect us tomorrow at 9.30. Early night.
- Walk Qianmen street, tram; Tiananmen Square (subway; security); Mao's masoleum
- Forbidden City- courtyards, gates, garden, statues, museum, water
- Hard get back, walk around & around; 7/11 store & noodles