The 2008 Summer Olympics put Beijing firmly in the world’s eye. These days, you can hardly claim to be a world traveler without having visited the capital of China. Here’s what to experience once you get there:
1. The Great Wall of China — Whether or not it can be seen from space, the Great Wall is surely one of mankind’s great constructions. The portion standing today was built during the Ming dynasty, over a period of 200 years. (The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in only 30 years.) If you want to see the actual wall, instead of viewing the throngs taking pictures of it, this is one spot you are better off not visiting by public transport or package tour. Instead, stay at the Leo Hostel, and go along on their tour to the Wall. Not only do they take you to a miraculously deserted part of the Wall (when we were there, we only saw one man and his dog out to lunch, besides our little group), they will give you several hours to stroll / hike and of course, to take pictures, at your own pace. Solitude on the Great Wall can be sublime.
The rest of the experiences on this list are within city limits, and can easily be visited by public transportation. Beijing has an excellent subway system, easy to use, and all signs are bilingual (Chinese/English).
2. Tiananmen Square — The vast square of paving stones stands as mute testimony to China’s brutally suppressed political protests of 1989. Today, the crowd is more likely to be worshipful Chinese tourists lining up to pay homage to Mao Tse Tung, whose tomb and mummified remains are here. Make sure you don’t get in their way while trying to take a picture of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or you may be yelled at to “Go away, foreigner!”
3. Forbidden Palace — As you enter the Forbidden Palace through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, you should feel suitably blessed. The common man was barred from entering these hallowed grounds for 500 years. Even the animals were considered sacrosanct — the very rare Pere David deer (you can see them at the Bronx zoo) had to be smuggled out (at great personal cost) before they went extinct in some flooding. The vast grounds and magnificent ceremonial buildings are well worth exploring for as long as you can stay on your feet.
4. Temple of Heaven — This is a UNESCO World Heritage site of tremendous symbolic significance, and beautiful architecture and landscape design. Built in the 15th century, the Temple of Heaven is not ancient by Chinese standards. But the iconic complex of temples, surrounded by old pine woods, is a lovely place to both admire and relax.
5. Donghuamen Night Market — Do you really want to overcome your fears? Well, you came to China. Now you have to visit Beijing’s famous night market, where you can get pretty much anything grilled on a stick. Dog? Sheep testicles? Scorpions? Check, check, check. We tried grilled snake (interesting but palatable), and silkworm (kind of like Rice Krispies).