Beijing is one of the most populous cities in the world. This city of over 20 million residents has more to offer than any other metropolitan area in China. As one of China’s old and current capitals, the city is teeming with ancient sites and modern marvels. Although the city is always moving it is hindered by two faults. One is that the city is immensely polluted and second is that desertification means sand storms are becoming more and more commonplace. Regardless, one can not go to China and miss Beijing.
The “center” of the city is the Forbidden Palace. Growth in the north and natural city expansion means the Forbidden Palace is only central in the tourist case (and even this is an overstatement, since the attractions can be quite far apart). Because of the distances and the fact that most attractions close by 5 or 6, it is imperative to have several days to see everything you want to see. Furthermore, taxis are a tough affair and traffic is terrible, which means options are limited. Although the conventional entrance for the Forbidden Palace is Tiananmen Square, it is likely better to start at the back at Jingshan Hill…where there is also a Metro station (newly built). The hill is the only place where you can get a proper view of the great palace. The Palace is gigantic and will likely take up to two hours to explore.
At the front gate is Tiananmen Square, which is very different from what you may imagine. There are roads and traffic going all around the square, which can only be accessed by pedestrians by going under the busy road. Access into the square depends on the political situation, there could be upwards of an hour wait in line at security to get through. The square is rather bland and covered with old soviet buildings that house China’s government. One would suggest that the second most powerful country in the world, modernize a bit. The square has Mao’s Mausoleum, where you can actually see his body. It wasn’t open when we went. In front of the Mausoleum is one of the city gates. There is also a museum across from the square (government buildings and museum can only be accesses after leaving the square). The square also has security guards every few feet and fire extinguishers.
The Temple of Heaven lies to the south of the city in the middle of a large park. You must pay entry for the park and the temples separately. The temple is quite unique and humungous, it is definitely worth checking out. Along with the temple are many other old attractions, including where Emperors were coronated. Near the park is also Beijing’s famous Pearl Market, but there are definitely better places to go to haggle for cheap, fake goods. Yashow Market in the northeast has a much better collection. There are some negative reviews of the place, but it is everything you should expect. Plus it isn’t laid back Sichuan, so don’t expect the friendliest of people (unless your wallet is big). Bargain down 50-60% of asking price.
The Summer Palace is another must see, far west in the city (once again distance is an issue). Tourist company monopolies means that getting there isn’t so straightforward. This great attraction
unfortunately conveniently has an ugly bus station in front of it. By metro is a bit of a walk and there are few signs to guide you there. Theoretically the Palace could take you the whole day to explore, since the complex is just massive. Set aside several hours for getting lost and getting back to the front entrance. There are two ticket options, one is just entry and the second includes many attractions inside. Don’t bother with this ticket. Instead just pay for the temple at the top when you get there (and think you are ok with climbing so many steps). The other attractions are quite boring unless you are really interested in accessories of empresses and a really fake river village shopping street tourist trap. Near the Summer Palace is the European one, but didn’t have time to check it out.
The Llama Temple is sort of near the drum and bell towers as well as the famous food street. Like most other temples it is more or less the same. The only difference is that people pay lots of $$ to pray at this temple. After paying the steep entry fee, they enter and burn incense sticks. There are a few interesting things inside, as well as figures at massive heights. Also there are many monks and some interesting things from Tibet (although this temple seems more of the Mongolian variety). Much further out of the city and far from metro stops is Beijing’s 798 Art District. The location is quite weird and you may likely need to take a taxi, if you want to save on time. This place is a definite must see, as well as way better for shopping for knock off brand name stuff. Lots of cool sculptures and art to see and just as strange and incredibly politically incorrect stuff to buy.
Probably the most important attraction of Beijing is the Great Wall of China. There are many sections, but we parred for the western tourist friendly Mutianyu. 2 hours away, we took a local bus 867 from Dongzhimen, which should be by now in a new construction-free bus terminal. You are supposed to go to the terminus station, but hawkers will aggressively pull you out and make you hire a minivan right outside of town. You will have to hire someone one way or another, and getting a taxi back from the wall isn’t so easy. One advantage is that you can use the minivan to take you also to Ming Tombs. In the end you will pay less than an organized tour, get your own driver. This is the case when you are travelling with a group of people. Mutianyu is also quite restored and has many many steps going up and down. But at the ends are large lines of old broken sections of the wall.
Last thing of note is the Olympic Village in the north. Also quite far up, but it gives you a glimpse of “new” Beijing. At night everything is lit up and people are running around. It doesn’t cost anything to enter the area and makes a nice night stroll. Of course Beijing has just too much to offer, as long as you have the time.