We ticked as many of the main tourist boxes as we could during our few days in Beijing. The high temperatures and the teeming crowds of high season made some parts challenging but we could not help but enjoy ourselves.
The Forbidden City: vast, colourful and deserving of far more time to explore its nooks and crannies than we allowed. Beautiful under bright sun and blue skies.
One of many lions in The Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square: Predictably huge and comfortably bigger than Moscow’s similarly impressive Red Square. Entering the latter does not require a security check and bag scan though; and I have yet to see huge five-metre by twenty-metre video screens facing Saint Basil’s like the pair facing The Forbidden City.
The Summer Palace: an imperial lakeside retreat that must have been paradise of relaxation before being handed over to tourism. Again, a large site that would benefit from more time to explore on a cooler day.
The Lama Temple: the largest temple of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet is fully operational and a stroll around the premises is accompanied by the all-enveloping aroma of incense burning everywhere. Pride of place goes to the Guinness Record-listed seventeen metre high statue of Buddha made from a single piece of sandalwood.
Detailed roof tops in the Lama Temple
The Great Wall: we chose to travel a bit beyond the over-popular Badaling part of the wall that is nearest to Beijing and visit at Mutianyu. Our reward was a relatively peaceful section of wall set on precipitous mountain tops with potential for stunning views when there is less heat haze. A bonus in the heat of summer was the ability to ascend via chair lift and descend via toboggan run rather than attempt the steep gradients on foot.
Part of The Great Wall at Mutianyu
Food: as expected, Chinese food served in China is different from Chinese food served elsewhere in the world and it definitely tastes good. In both Beijing and Xian we thoroughly enjoyed the broad range and high quality of food available. From mutton kebabs and duck neck eaten at a pavement table through donkey dumplings in a locals’ hideaway to Peking duck served as art form in the CBD, there was plenty to please the palate.
Identify this (very tasty) starter… (picture courtesy of Leyla Robson)
Drink: lots here for tea-lovers to enjoy as one would expect and plenty more besides. Beijing happily imports coffees, beers, wines and spirits from all round the world so most travellers should be able to get hold of a preferred tipple. The local beers like Tsingtao and Yanjing are pretty good too.
Nightlife: you name it, Beijing has probably got it. We walked the bar strip by the lakeside at Shishahai, felt the punch of a large Turbosound PA system at a nightclub in Chaoyang district, found bohemian bars between the Drum Tower and Bell Tower and enjoyed a French jazz quintet at a little hutong venue in the city centre. Time Out has a Beijing edition and several other guides are available for restaurants, gigs and so on.
In conclusion: Beijing is a very engaging city with plenty to offer most tourists. It is not nearly as ‘different’ as it used to be judging by stories we heard from several other foreigners who have known the city longer than we have. Certainly Katie Melua might be disappointed to find out that most of the bicycles in Beijing have been replaced by cars. The 2008 Olympics brought about a vast amount of change very rapidly; the positive and negative sides of which can be debated. Centuries of history can be found rubbing shoulders with aching modernity here but for how much longer is uncertain. Let us hope a balance can be maintained.