From climbing the Great Wall of China, to marvelling at the Forbidden City and soaking in the Summer Palace’s serenity, Beijing left Veronica Stivala enthralled.
China is like several countries rolled into one. Even though I was aware of this before I went, I realised for myself how very true this was as we travelled from Beijing to Shanghai, Guilin, Suzhou and Hong Kong. It is for this reason that I will focus just on Beijing. Even for this city alone I feel I have merely scraped the surface.
The city’s selling factor is definitely that it is home to a whopping six Unesco World Heritage Sites. It is home to the extraordinary Forbidden City, a magnificent palace of astonishing proportions, and to the Summer Palace, an idyllic palace so big it feels like a city.
Travelling to China does involve a certain amount of preparatory work, such as applying for a visa, which in turn requires that you plan out your travel and accommodation, as well as researching the best times to go. Everyone will advise you not to go at the beginning of October, as this marks Golden Week, the semi-annual seven-day holiday when thousands of tourists travel throughout China.
One of the best pieces of advice I read was not to underestimate Beijing. The city is so huge that you always need to factor in time to find your destination, perhaps to get lost, and to savour it in its entirety.
Do not underestimate Beijing. The city is so huge
My highlights included the city’s celebrity – The Forbidden City (known as Gu Gong), the largest palace complex in the entire world. A good idea is to visit Tiananmen Square and then enter the palace from the Meridian Gate at the north. Since 2015, a north-to-south entrance and exit policy has been introduced, although you can exit from more than one gate.
Words cannot do justice to this palace. Serving as the home of emperors and their households for almost 500 years, it houses 800 buildings and 9,000 rooms; the courtyard at the Gate of Supreme Harmony holds 100,000 people.
While the reason for its name is now defunct – only those with permission from the emperor were allowed to enter – the site is so popular among tourists that you are advised to go early during peak season because there is a cap of 80,000 visitors a day.
While everyone has to enter through the same gate, it is a good idea to steer off the main path because it can really become crowded. We did this, and before we passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, veered right to visit the Ceramics Gallery, inside the Hall of Literary Brilliance, featuring the splendid history of Chinese ceramics.
The Summer Palace was a welcome break during hot September to cool off at its extraordinary ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces. Interestingly, the palace is the second version, as the first was devastatingly looted and then almost entirely destroyed by the British during the Opium Wars. But, covering an expanse of almost three square kilometres, the current Summer Palace is an adequate substitute.
You’ll need to get the full ticket to visit the entire complex – highly advisable – and it is a good idea to start off in the cafes, little shops area, and then take a boat around the luxurious surroundings in one of the colourful boats. Kunming Lake is particularly stunning at sunset.
I’ll end with the highlight of all highlights – the Great Wall of China, and the reason I decided to go to China in the first place. This engineering feat is one of the Great Wonders of the World for good reason, and I remain impressed, enthralled and yearning to explore more to this day. The name is actually a misnomer as there are many walls. The most popular, because it is restored and even features a lift to reach it, is the Badaling part. However, we decided to go to a more rural part of the wall, one which was not restored and was indeed crumbling at parts but was well worth it.
We entered through a gate at Gubeiku village and chose a walk that was supposed to take some five hours in total, but which took longer, as we went a bit further than planned. Picture this, you are walking along scaling heights, a deep drop below you, greenery beneath and sprawled in front of you, and as far as your eyes can see, the winding Wall in all its glory, with a peppered history that saw millions die to build it, and that dates all the way back to circa 200 BC.
Tom Carter’s words from his book, China: Portrait of a People serve as an apt conclusion: “I drift like a cloud/Across these venerable eastern lands,/A journey of unfathomable distances,/An endless scroll of experiences.../Lady Zhejiang here we must part,/For the next province awaits my embrace./Sad wanderer, once you conquer the East,/Where do you go?”
• Keep your passport with you all the time. You’ll need it to get into most attractions.
• Prepare translated versions of your accommodation and take these with you in case you need help getting back.
• Squat-style toilets can be a challenge for visitors but keep in mind they are actually healthier for the body. Do keep tissues on you as toilet paper is not always available.
• Download a VPN app so that you can still access many banned sites and apps.
• Buy a local sim card to be able to use maps, for instance, and avoid having to get taxis everywhere (though they are very cheap).
• Haggling is standard procedure in markets and shops (not department stores) and vendors sometimes go as low as a quarter of their initial asking price.
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