Beijing was not high on our “must” do list: it’s a really big, over-crowded city which has a reputation as being smog-choked. I had been to Beijing briefly some years ago, on my way to Xi’an and Hong Kong on business, so except for a mad dash through the Forbidden City and a chaotic visit to the Pearl Market, I had not experienced it or its cultural sites. Susanna had not been anywhere in Asia, and since Beijing is major tourist destination in China, it seemed like a good idea to tack a on short visit, after our two-week fling with the Wild China of Sichuan, before returning to the US.
We arrived at the Beijing airport early afternoon to a hazy atmosphere which limited visibility but clouds and muted patches of blue were sometimes visible in the gray sky. We had arranged a private, three-day tour through Catherine Lu Tours and were met by our very late-arriving, non-English-speaking driver who hustled us downtown to the upscale Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. This hotel was to be our home for three nights. It is well-located and just blocks from the Forbidden City and other cultural highlights.
After we checked in and got settled, we met our affable and well-informed guide, Justin, and began our tour at the Bell and Drum Towers, where a Tai Chi class was being conducted in the courtyard between them. After visiting the colorful Tibetan-Buddhist Lama Temple, we headed for Quianhai Lake, a popular bar and boating area with a beautiful lakeside walk.
We had planned a pedicab ride through the streets of the ancient hutong, but a substantial rain storm prevented that. Not to be deterred, we shifted to a walking tour along the narrow and winding streets, with our umbrellas in hand. We got soaked before Justin guided us through the Beijing subway maze, back to our hotel.
Our plan for Day 2 of our tour was to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall in the morning, pick up the Summer Palace in the afternoon, and attend an acrobatic show before dinner. Unfortunately the timing of our Beijing excursion coincided with May day and China’s national holiday, when all government workers go on holiday and visit the same sites we had targeted. The normal 1.5 hour commute to the Great wall took 3 hours, giving us a rather late start. The wall was crowded, but not unmanageable, once we finally got there, but our visit extended into the afternoon. The smog was mostly washed away by the previous night rain storm, giving us beautiful weather for our time at the Wall.
To make up for the time lost in the traffic, coming and going, we chucked our intended lunch at a Chinese restaurant in favor of a take-away Subway sandwich with chips which we ate in the car as we traveled to the next site. Yes, that Subway.
We arrived late afternoon at the Summer Palace and agreed to scratch the acrobatic show off our schedule so we could to take advantage clear atmosphere and beautiful weather which lasted most of the afternoon. The Summer Palace is made up of lakes, gardens, bridges, and palaces. It is a public People’s Park, and on this holiday weekend, it was filled with retirees and families, playing card games, exercising, or just plain relaxing. Many sit and stroll along the Long Corridor, a covered walkway extending nearly a half mile around the central lake. The Corridor is covered with more than 14,000 beautiful paintings depicting Chinese life and culture over the centuries. Boating is a popular summer pastime for the people of Beijing.
The next morning our itinerary started with The Temple of Heaven, another exquisite public park. Like the Summer Palace, this park was filled with people walking, playing games, dancing and of course doing Tai Chi. We came across a large group of citizens waving Chinese National Flags, listening and dancing to the martial and national music of China, some in costume, as part of the May Day celebration. The weather was amazing clear and the skies were sunny and blue…a wonderful exception to the normally smoggy, gray days we expected.
Our final destination of the day, before heading for the airport, was the Forbidden City which we accessed via Tiananmen Square. The Square is a celebration of the revolution, featuring large statues of Mao and other founders of the communist party and early leaders of the People’s Republic. The Forbidden City is a huge compound which transitions from large plazas and palaces to intimate gardens and royal housing as one walks towards the north entrance, about a mile from the entrance. It’s really overwhelming, but quite beautiful.
Was the stop over worth it? Absolutely. The Great wall is worth a visit…once… as was the Forbidden City. Both are testaments to Chinese engineering and architecture. I found Beijing’s real charm to be in its public parks: the summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. These places are where you see and experience the local people and culture. They were definitely worth the detour.