Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China and the world’s third most populous city. Before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the capital was also known as Peking. Why this was the case seems unclear – it may have been related to the Cantonese dialect, or a mispronunciation by western colonialists.
We landed on 7 November 2003 to a fresh and crisp Beijing that had just its first snowfall and was starkly contrasting with the golden hues of autumn. We were so excited that there had been a touch of snow – it turns everything into a wonderland.
Carol, Roy and Trevor were living in a beautiful home in Xiang Jiang Bei road in the Chaoyang District. This is a less populated area frequented by expats and is noticeably greener and provides a cleaner, less polluted breath of fresh air.
As always, Carol was the perfect hostess and wasted no time in showing us around her city. Ding, their patient chauffeur was on call to take us to see the sights and to go shopping for bargains. One of our first ports of call was the Pan Ji Yuan or “dirt market”.
Described as “the mother of all antique markets”, it is home to over 3,000 dealers who scour the countryside in search of unusual antiques, family heirlooms and curios. We loved the unusual figurines, stunning carved furniture, vintage photographs, porcelain vases and the Qing-style furnishings and craft works. After being used to more African artifacts, it seemed extremely exotic and refreshingly different.
Dinner on our first evening was an amazing experience. Roy took us to the Red Capital Club in the Dongcheng district. We were told that this had been Mao Zedong’s favourite cigar bar back in the day and there was something deliciously authentic about the place which seemed to capture the mood of the 1950s, when China was driven by idealism. The Red Capital Club is hidden in an ancient hutong alleyway located near the courtyard homes of many of China’s past and present leaders.
The cigar lounge makes you feel like you are stepping into Mao’s private meeting rooms. The place is filled with couches, easy chairs, period paintings and memorabilia from an era when Mao Zedong and his Red Army comrades ruled China. Every dish we were served was delicious especially the sticky pork.
A day trip to the Great Wall was one of the activities that we were most excited to experience.
Ding drove for just over an hour from Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Mutianyu is one of the four main tourist sections of The Great Wall of China. This section is notable because it is one of the most beautiful and less crowded areas of The Great Wall. We headed up to the top of the wall via a cable car. During the 5-minute ride we had incredible views of the surrounding area and marvelled at seeing the wall partly covered in snow!
The Great Wall of China is one of the most incredible sights in the world, famous for being the longest wall in the world. It is an awe-inspiring feat of ancient defensive architecture. Its winding path curls over rugged country and even steep mountains. The total length of the Great Wall, built over many dynasties, is 21,196 kilometers (13,170 miles)
The Wall was built along an east-to-west line, across the historical northern borders of China to protect the empire against raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups who were looking to broaden their territories. Several walls were already under construction as early as the 7th century BC; these later were joined together and made bigger, stronger and longer! The Great Wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced over various dynasties. It was far wider than I had imagined and I hadn’t really expected all the staircases and alcoves.
Two hours at the Great Wall of China left us breathless. We walked for some distance stopping to take pictures and found it amusing how random Chinese people wanted us to pose in their photographs. The wall was slippery with wet snow and slick icy patches and we had to tread carefully. It was hard to imagine how Carol had participated in a running event here!
After a glorious and surreal time at the Great Wall, it was time to head back down. The cable car was available, but we chose to descend in style with the toboggan ride. It was such a fun thing to experience! Instead of fancy electronics, gravity was the propulsion, and we controlled our speed with a brake lever. Whooshing down The Great Wall of China through a magical snowy landscape, has to be one of our all time best adventures together.
Time for Trevor’s choice for a great dinner and we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. We were pleasantly surprised at how good the food was and I particularly enjoyed Trevor’s recommendation of potato croquettes in entertaining shapes!
Saturday afternoon, and we went to fly kites in Tiananmen Square #asyoudo!
Tiananmen Square is a public plaza in central Beijing. It’s said to be the largest urban public space in the world. Although the site has social and historical significance within China, it’s perhaps best known worldwide as the site of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which followed pro-democracy protests in 1989. The protests ended when Chinese government forces stormed the square, killing scores of protesters and injuring thousands more.
Carol booked for us all to go and see an incredible Chinese acrobat show at the Chad Yang theatre 🎭. Such an astounding and impressive performance!
The next day Ding drove us to the airport at the crack of dawn and we flew westwards to Xi’an. It took just over two hours to get there.
Xi’an is often called the birthplace of Chinese civilization. It is the capital of Shaanxi Province and eastern end to the Silk Road.
Xi’an was the capital city of 13 imperial dynasties and many ancient structures have been preserved.
In 221 BC, the first Emperor, Qin Shihuang strove to construct an entire empire underground that would reflect his glory and leave a mighty legacy. Over 7000 larger than life clay warriors and war horses in battle formation were put in place. It took 40 years and involved 720 000 people. Sadly 10 years later it was destroyed. The site was re-discovered by farmers in 1974.
Workers digging a well, stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in the world – a life-size clay soldier poised for battle.
The diggers notified Chinese authorities, who dispatched government archaeologists to the site.
They found not one, but thousands of clay soldiers, each with unique facial expressions and positioned according to rank. And though largely gray today, patches of paint hint at once brightly colored clothes. Further excavations have revealed swords, arrow tips, and other weapons, many in pristine condition.
The soldiers are in trenchlike, underground corridors. In some of the corridors, clay horses are aligned four abreast; behind them are wooden chariots.
The terra-cotta army, as it is known, is part of an elaborate mausoleum created to accompany the first emperor of China into the afterlife, according to archaeologists. To date, four pits have been partially excavated. Three are filled with the terra-cotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots, and weapons. The fourth pit is empty, a testament to the original unfinished construction.
Archaeologists estimate the pits may contain as many as 8,000 figures, but the total may never be known.
The mausoleum is strategically situated according to Feng Shui principles and the balance of mountains, water and earth were taken into account.
Qin’s tomb itself remains unexcavated, though Siam Qian’s writings suggest even greater treasures.
(John Roach, www.nationalgeographic.com)
The summer palace, in northwest Beijing, is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world, and the largest of its kind still in existence in China.
With over 3000 halls, pavilions, towers and courtyards, exquisite private gardens and a beautiful lake, it was no surprise to see that it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is only a short drive (15 km) from central Beijing, but seems like another world. Once a summer retreat for emperors to escape the stifling heat of the city, construction (which also involved deepening and expanding the lake) began in 1750. Anglo-French troops vandalised the palace during the Second Opium War (1856–60) and it was badly damaged by fire.
We easily spent half a day wandering through the gardens, crossing the bridges and admiring the lake, the boats and in particular the unsinkable carved, marble boat.
Below are some of Geoff’s candid people watching shots. We loved the little boy playing on his own, executing some excellent kung-fu movements!
China for me is synonymous with the giant panda. At the Beijing Zoo Panda House, we were able to visit the giant pandas and thankfully they were receiving “VIP” treatment. They had an outdoor playground with a climbing platform. It was lovely to see a big guy lazily spread out on top of the platform, soaking up the sunshine, while another sat on its furry bum and munched a pile of bamboo shoots, one after another. There was also a glassed indoor area where I was reduced to tears of emotion watching a mommy panda nurturing her new born baby. She held him out with both paws and gazed intently into his little face with an expression of pure awe and then cuddled him close to her heart. Such a poignant moment that we were so privileged to witness.
The Imperial Palace or Forbidden city was built in 1406 and was our next excursion. The name “forbidden” arose because common folk were barred from the area. The Forbidden City occupies 720,000 sq m (7,750,000 sq ft), and is over three times larger than the Louvre in France. An estimated 1 million labourers worked to complete the structure. It is impressive! It has more than 90 palace quarters and courtyards, 980 buildings and over 8,728 rooms. The Forbidden City is known to have the world’s largest collection of well-preserved medieval wooden structures. Apart from the magnitude of the complex, the detail of the architecture is also astounding. Every detail reflects features of traditional Chinese architecture and rich Chinese culture.
Beijing’s hutongs are the beating heart of the city, teeming with old stories and everyday modern Beijingers going about their lives. Back before Beijing reached its megacity status, there was only one main roadway that ran along the outside of the city – today it is known as the second ring road. Inside and around this roadway are neighborhoods of tightly-packed traditional courtyard homes connected by narrow alleyways known as hutongs. Carol made reservations for us to go on a huton tour. You are taken by rickshaw into the alleyways where you can see the everything firsthand. We were even allowed into a home to see the living quarters for ourselves. Most interesting.
Most delightful was an afternoon spent at Prince Gong’s mansion.
Prince Gong’s Mansion is one of the most exquisite and best-preserved royal mansions in Beijing. It is though to be the biggest quadrangle in the world and now it is the best preserved of the more than sixty princely mansions of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The mansion consists of the residence area and the garden area. The residence covers an area of 3.2 hectares (7.9 acres) and the buildings are magnificent. There are towering rockworks, winding corridors and pavilions, ponds, flowers and courtyards – quite beautiful!
While we were there we took part in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Tea-drinking is an important part of Chinese culture. China is an original producer of tea and is renowned for its skills in planting and making tea. People either boiled the tea leaves straight from the tree, or sun-dried tea leaves for future use. Although not avid tea drinkers, we loved the style and ceremony that accompanied the process.
It was my birthday while we were in Beijing with Carol and Roy and they arranged a special celebration at the most amazing restaurant, the Green T house. Expatriate friends Jonathan and Sue, Debbie and Ian were also invited and we had an hilarious evening in excellent company.
The Green T House is a thoroughly modern and quirky space, with absurdly large chairs and marble floors. Black and white French movies are projected onto the wall. Disturbingly, the bathrooms are surrounded by clear glass and one can see right into the toilet cubicles. However once you are brave enough, or desperate enough to go inside, the walls automatically frost over to give you privacy. The food was outstanding and theatrical in its delivery. Billowing clouds of dry ice would reveal exquisite and tasty dishes. Such a lovely spoil.
To round off the evening, Roy whisked us off to the Flair Chivas bar for cocktail. There was a team of young Chinese bar tenders, juggling bottles of Chivas Regal to retro pop tunes as they poured our cocktails. Set in the happening Gongti district we loved the vibe and atmosphere.
What a memorable evening to round off an extremely impactful trip. How lucky we were to have friends living in such an exciting city as Beijing!