The huge city of Beijing is large enough to be treated as a province in its own right. The name literally means ‘Northern Capital’ and distinguishes it from Nanjing ‘Southern Capital’. The capital of the country has moved around from the first unification of the country at Xi’an. In terms of the length of Chinese history the founding of Beijing is a late event. Only at the start of the Ming dynasty in the early 1400s did the emperor take permanent residency here, at the northern edge of the vast country close to the Great Wall. Over the ensuing years, Beijing has taken on the trappings of a great imperial city controlling the rest of China with its palaces, parks and museums. Traces of the grid pattern of the original Ming City plan can still be seen in places. The climate is varied, cold in winter and hot and humid in summer.
Average temperature: In January around -4.7°C (23.54°F) and 26°C (78.8°F) in July.
Places to visit
1. The Forbidden City in Beijingis one of the top tourist attractions in Asia, attracting over seven million visitors a year. The Forbidden City is ‘Forbidden’ because it was a closed community, the emperor rarely went out of it (partly for his own safety) and the city was exclusively for the use of the Imperial court. The Forbidden City is the largest and best preserved collection of ancient buildings in China; it covers 178 acres [72 hectares] and consists of over 800 buildings and over 9,000 rooms. It stands to the north of the vast open expanse of Tiananmen Square and the main Meridian Gate is where the huge portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong The layout is broadly symmetric about the central meridian axis. The main halls/palaces are on the center line and have poetic names for example the ‘Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony)’ and the ‘Ningshougong (Palace of Peaceful Old Age)’. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is where the emperor sat on the Dragon Throne and gave decrees; it is the largest and most splendid hall. Of the three ramps leading up to it, the central one was reserved exclusively for the emperor. Nearly matching it in splendor are the three halls to the north where the emperor would meet visiting envoys and delegations. The imperial living quarters were on either side of the main axis, and these included lavish gardens. The Western section was occupied by the empress and concubines. In Ming times it is estimated there lived at least 800 maids and 3,000 eunuchs in the palace, so it was a very busy place. Many of these halls are now set out as specialist museums (jewelry; paintings; ceramics; bronzes etc.).
2. The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) is located 3 miles [5 kms] to the south east of the Forbidden City. More correctly the term should be ‘Altar of Heaven’ and refers to several buildings and parks that make up the complex spread over 741 acres [3 sq kms]. The Temple formed the key location for the rituals that maintained the Emperor’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and was use only by the Emperor. An emperor’s reign continued only so long as he held the Mandate of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is an impressive circular building with raised covered walkways. The temple is set at the center with a square park to the south representing ‘earth’ and a semi-circular northern area representing ‘heaven’.
3. The Great Wall is China’s best known historical monument. Stretching 1,674 miles [2,694 kms] it has formed China’s northern boundary for thousands of years. The chief architect of the Great Wall was Qin Shi Huang – the First Qin Emperor of China who conquered the kingdoms making up China. A plaque at Shanhaiguan proclaims it as ‘Tian Xia Di Yi Guan‘ the First Pass under Heaven, identifying it as the edge of the civilized world. There are a few viewing locations open to vast numbers of tourists along the route including: Badaling; Mutianyu; Huanghua Cheng; Simatai; and Jinshanling.
4. Following traditional Imperial design Beihai Park is dominated by a large Lake on which is Jade Island. The park was created as an Imperial garden in 1197 but not much developed until the Yuan made Beijing their Imperial capital. There are many sculptures, shrubs and pavilions in the Park.Here also is the wall (Zhao Bi) known as the Nine Dragon Screen made of glazed tiles (there is a similar one in the Forbidden City).
5. The Ming Tombs (Míng ShI San Ling, literally the thirteen Ming tombs) are underground and there is not a huge amount to be seen, the more impressive part is above ground. Like most burial grounds in China the avenue leading to the tombs starts with an archway and is lined with large stone statues. These form the Spirit Way and are made up of twelve pairs of animals (camels; lions; elephants; horses, xiezhi mythical beast, qilin mythical beast). These are followed by twelve pairs of ministers and generals. The most impressive tomb is Chang Ling, the tomb of Emperor Yongle. The tombs are laid out the same way as the palaces of the living with luxuries stored for their use in the after-life.
6. The Imperial Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan) was laid out by Emperor Qianlong as an alternative to the heat of the Forbidden City. The site had been used by previous dynasties but he redesigned it on a grander scale with scenic beauty in Mind. The name Yiheyuan can be translated as Garden to Cultivate Peace. It covers 716 acres [290 hectares] and most of the area is covered by lakes of which the largest is Kunming Lake. To the north-east of the lake is an area of gardens; temples and pavilions. The Bronze Pavilion; Temple of the Sea of Wisdom; Hall of Benevolence and Longevity and the Garden of Virtue and Harmony are all notable buildings. A 17 arch bridge leads majestically to the Temple of the Dragon King on an island on the main Kunming Lake.
7. The large open space set in the center of Beijing just to the south of the Old Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) is called Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace). To the west is the ‘Great Hall of the People’ where the NPC meet, and there are National Museum to the east. It is a vast open space of 109 acres [44 hectares] and has seen rallies of a million people. To the south of the center of the square is a large modern sculpture to the ‘Heroes of the People’, it bears inscriptions by Mao Zedong (“The People’s heroes are immortal”) and Zhou Enlai. Scenes sculpted commemorate the Opium Wars; Taiping Rebellion; the 1911 Wuchang Uprising; May Fourth Movement (1919); May 30th 1925 demonstration against Japanese occupation, and the crossing of the Yangzi by the PLA (1949). It is 120 feet [37 meters] high and weighs over 10,000 tons [9,071,850 kgs] and was erected in 1958.
8. The city boasts many other places popular for sightseeing. Less well known are the Buddhist Green Cloud Temple (Biyunsi) and Daoist White Cloud temple (Baiyunguan); and the impressive Beijing Art Gallery. The famous ‘Birds Nest‘ stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is at Chaoyang just to the east of the city center. Beijing Opera (Peking WG Opera) is world renowned as an ancient art-form which can be enjoyed in Xuanwu District, and accomplished acrobats can be seen here too. For shoppers, many of the most popular shops are in Yansha and Guomao Shopping Malls; Wanfujing and Xidan Street.