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On our way to attend the CTV+ Global Video Media Forum 2018 and CGTN Global Media Summit recently held in Chongqing, we took this opportunity to visit Beijing. Our three-day stop allowed us to see all the top “must-see” places in this ancient capital and to experience Beijing as first-time visitors to China.
If there is one word I could use to describe my most vivid impression of Beijing– its key cultural landmarks as well as its modern urban landscape– that word would be… BIG! According to our tour guide, the Forbidden City is the largest imperial palace in the world, the boulevard in front of the Tiananmen Square is the widest and, of course, the Great Wall of China which spans some 13,000 miles – or 21,000km – according to an archaeological survey carried out in 2012 by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, is indeed… long.
As the capital of the People’s Republic of China, adjectives such as “Big, Large, Long, Wide” does befit a country which is home to around 1.4 billion people. And understandably so, as the places we visited were teeming with people, streams of people– both locals and foreigners—taking in the cultural sights and sounds of Beijing.
Impressive is another word that comes to mind. The big boulevards with modern buildings rising up to the sky, wide sidewalks with tall trees… In the forty plus years after the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing transformed itself into a modern mega city that can stand side by side with other great cities of the world. Its cultural landmarks and heritage sites which were desecrated by the Red Guards were also restored to their age-old glory.
My travel companion and I stayed in an old courtyard home (now turned into a hotel) in a traditional hutong, the name was given to a lane or small street. In the past, Beijing was composed of hundreds of courtyards around the Forbidden City, and these lanes stretched out in all directions, connecting the different courtyards in the city. These hutongs have been preserved and give visitors a chance to experience the everyday life of old Beijing.
From there, we explored Beijing.
First, a visit to the tombs of the Ming Emperors. We walked through the portal which divides the human world from the afterlife, through which 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty together with their wives and concubines passed through on their journey to the afterworld.
Then, a cable car up to the Great Wall of China. There are several places where tourists can access the Great Wall. We accessed the Wall through the Mutianyu Section and walked along its ramparts and towers. There is much more to the Wall than walls. There are fortresses, barracks, guard towers, and beacon-towers along the main lines of the Wall. From up here, one has a vantage point of the hills and valleys that surround the area.
At Tiananmen Square, we joined the throngs of visitors and walked through pavilion after pavilion that stands within the great imperial palace which housed the emperors of the different dynasties that ruled China for centuries. The palatial heart of China, it was the home of emperors for 492 years; 24 emperors lived there. With 980 buildings in over 70 palace compounds, the halls and walls is a testament to Chinese architecture. The emperor was believed to be the son of heaven; the palace was considered a divine place, forbidden to ordinary people who were not allowed to enter. Not so, today.
Most visitors enter the Forbidden City through Tian’anmen, via the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’. October, being the start of the peak season, the palace was packed with people. Our guide said that over 14 million people visit the palace yearly, and is big enough to hold a maximum of 80,000 visitors daily. Yellow and red everywhere, yellow being the color of power and used only by the imperial family, while red is the color of good fortune and happiness. Pavilion after pavilion with poetic names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important court housing the Dragon Throne where emperors attended grand ceremonies and conducted state affairs. After walking through the different courtyards, visitors exit through the Gate of Divine Might.
Next in the itinerary was a tour of The Temple of Heaven where rites, ceremonies and prayer offerings for a Good Harvest were held. An Imperial Sacrificial Altar, the Temple of Heaven, a circular structure set high above a series of stone steps amidst gardens surrounded by pine woods, it was constructed wholly out of wood. Our guide explained that roofs have a special significance in Chinese culture. Only imperial palaces and homes could have two roofs and use the color yellow. The Temple of Heaven, being a divine building, had three roofs, and was colored blue. A fine museum explained the significance of its architecture and the role it played in ancient China when a good harvest was of prime importance for the well-being of the country. Its layout symbolized the relationship between earth and heaven – which is at the heart of Chinese cosmogony, and the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.
From the Temple of Heaven to an afternoon stroll around the Summer Palace. Built around a huge lake near the city, the Emperor and his court would reside here to beat the summer heat. Today, anyone could go boating, stroll around and have a leisurely time in its cool grounds.
A visit to China isn’t complete without seeing the cute, lovable Pandas so off to the Panda Zoo to watch them. Their favorite activity? Eating their favorite food, bamboo shoots and leaves. These Pandas were brought to Beijing for the Olympic Games and have remained in the Beijing Zoo since then. And, speaking of the Olympics, we got to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube up close and personal
After a rickshaw ride through one of the many hutongs where Beijingers still live in, we had a taste of a typical lunch prepared by a local in their home. A simple yet filling lunch, before heading to the Lama Temple.
Our guide mentioned that this is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Tibet and was first an emperor’s palace during the Qing Dynasty. But today, its halls, courtyards, ponds and prayer wheels serve as a lamasery for practicing monks. Also known as the Yonghe Temple, the buildings and artworks of the temple combined Han Chinese and Tibetan styles. It was a Sunday and we encountered many, many locals praying and offering incense in front of the different manifestations of the Buddha housed in its different halls, exuding an atmosphere of quiet, reflective serenity amidst this busy, bustling mega city.
Our tour ended on a high note, with views of Beijing from atop the Jinshan Gardens. The yellow tiled roofs of the Forbidden City surrounded by greenery juxtaposed against the modern skyline was a good introduction to China as it was before and as it is now, a seeming contradiction of past and present which somehow manages to co-exist and propel China into the 21st century.
Here’s a link to a video montage of our three-day tour of Beijing created by photographer and fellow travel companion, Boldy Tapales.