Twenty four million people live in Beijing, and we reckon we were pushed and shoved by, waved and smiled at, or beeped at by most of them in our brief time there. At least that’s how it felt. It’s an incredible place, full of energy, vibrancy and modern industry alongside obvious poverty and some beautifully preserved ancient history. Driving here is not for the faint hearted, but most of the signs on the metro are in English so it’s pretty easy to get around. Especially if you have a guide!
We hadn’t really thought much about what we wanted to do here, but the Forbidden City is a must. After spending some time wandering around Tiananmen Square, and avoiding the slightly morbid temptation to view Chairman Mao lying in state, we joined the weekend throngs crushing through the front gates and into the Imperial Palace. Security is tight, bags get scanned entering every metro station and tourist attraction, so everything takes longer than you expect, and there are security cameras everywhere (the national television station is ironically called CCTV). It was a busy Sunday too, though nowhere near the 80,000 visitors per day capacity that public holidays attract.
The City is, quite simply, staggering. It consists of 980 buildings covering 180 acres marking the centre of Beijing and was built between 1406 and 1420, during the Ming dynasty, with impressive speed given the complexity of the structures. It served as the emperor’s residence and centre of the imperial government from 1420 until the Chinese Revolution in 1912, and is surrounded by an eight metre high wall and 52m wide moat. The outer court consists of the Halls of Supreme Harmony, Central Harmony and Preserving Harmony, whilst the inner court includes the Palaces of Heavenly Purity, Earthly Tranquility and Tranquil Longevity, among many many more. Each of these performed a different role in the ancient court. Some of our favourite names included the Bower of Well-nourished Harmony and the Hall of Abstinence, though after three hours in the general melee we felt the Palace of Heavenly Coffee and Ice cream, the Hall of Sharp Elbows, and the Pavilion of Celestial Gifts and Trinkets might be more modern interpretations. The last stop is the Imperial Garden, which is a serene and relaxing place despite the crowds, and from where you are spat back out into the general chaos of the modern city.
After lunch we headed up to the temple in Belhai Park from where you get an impressive overview of the old city, and wandered among the old hutongs getting a feel for the great disparity of wealth which exists right in the heart of Beijing.
The following day we headed for the Summer Palace, west of the city centre and the summer residence for the imperial court to escape the stagnant heat of the old town. This was generally a quieter experience, involving a boat trip through the water-streets of Suzhoujie and across Kunming Lake, though by the afternoon we were feeling that it was time for us to escape. It is a myriad of lakes, gardens and palaces with equally grand names as those of the Forbidden City, though whoever named the Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture had perhaps visited Wales at some point. The main attraction is the impressive Buddhist Temple sitting on Longevity Hill. Much of the site has been carefully restored, having been burnt down by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War of 1860.
After some essential food shopping, a dash around town to find some gas cylinders for one of our stoves (most outdoor shops are allowed to sell the stoves, but not the cylinders…) we eventually left Beijing on April 23rd heading north-east to the Mongolian Border at Erenhot. After driving through invisible hills, the smog eventually cleared 250km out of Beijing itself as we reached Inner Mongolia. After a night in Ulanqab the landscape flattened out and the temperature plummeted to 2deg as snow fell around us, before reaching Erenhot in mid-afternoon. We were somewhat nervous about our decision to ship the vehicle to China, but we are immensely glad we did and would love to come back and explore more of the this vast country. Hopefully getting out will now prove as straightforward as getting in….
Thanks to: everyone in Beijing, for making it such a memorable experience!