Glancing at the crispy skin of the golden-roasted ducks hanging from steel hooks in the shopfront windows, surrounded by wandering hordes of identically dressed tour groups taking identical photos, breathing heavily and with tear-streaked eyes from the smoggy haze that blurs one’s vision, heeding the call of the street-side vendors hawking steaming piles of dumplings fresh from bamboo steamers, and finding myself lost amidst the paper lantern-lit maze of back-alley hutong, I knew that I must have finally arrived in big city of Beijing.
Despite over a year of travel through Europe, Africa, and Asia, the endless miles I’ve logged under my belt, and the travel-trail grit I’ve permanently worn into my shoes, my mood was still apprehensive upon stepping foot in China for the first time. It is a marvel of a culture if only for the sheer scale of its virtues: a landmass nearly the size of the entire European continent, over a billion and a half citizens, a long history stretching back thousands of years, hundreds of ethnic groups (each with their own unique history and culture), and a bevy of iconic sights that are instantly recognizable the world over. Add to that the difficulties for a foreign visitor – very little English being spoken or written, a brisk, direct attitude (some may say unfriendly) in dealing with interpersonal communication, long miles and many hours necessary to travel from place to place, a very strong military and security presence in all public places, and the uncertainly as to what one will be confronted with around each corner – and it is perfectly understandable why venturing into the realm of one of the world’s new super powers is intimidating, to say the least. But it wouldn’t be traveling without a little bit of pain and hardship, and thus it was time for me to experience the world through the eyes of the Chinese.
As mentioned above, Beijing is my first port of call, both for the fact that it is the capital city where the cultures and customs of all of China’s provinces converge and for its bounty of historically and politically significant sights – not to mention the fact that given both of the above sentiments, it is also one of the (relatively) more traveler-friendly cities, meaning it is a good place to ease into the Chinese mentality without being completely thrown into the deep end.
Although it is more in line with the recent memories of the city’s emergence onto the world’s stage than of its historic past, the Olympic Park (from the 2008 Summer Olympics) is another interesting sight, if for nothing other than the memorable stadiums and arenas or the fact that it was the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Unfortunately, the area is more of a ghost town now (as are most Olympic Parks around the world), but that didn’t stop me from having a look around:
The most iconic sights in the city – and the most crowded, unfortunately — are that of Tiananmen Square and the nearby Forbidden City. The former being the world’s largest public space and sight of countless public events, Chairman Mao’s funeral, and the now famous pro-Democracy demonstrations in the late 1980’s (when a man famously stood his ground against an oncoming tank); and the latter being the massive, 500-building complex that served as the reclusive home to two Dynasties, where formally the price of uninvited entry was your life (happily, this edict no longer stands). Both sights are lined up perfectly on a North-South Axis (as is much of Beijing), with Tiananmen Square covering the Forbidden City’s Southern Flank:
When the Imperial Family grew tired wallowing in the heat of the city and needed a brief respite from the claustrophobia-inducing confines of their walled-in home, their retreat from the Forbidden City is what is now known as the Summer Palace. Essentially a gigantic park complete with photogenic bridges spanning various lakes and rivers, deliberately designed gardens, scenic views towards the mountains and simple, uninterrupted natural space, this was where the royal family let off some steam. Interestingly enough, although it is located almost 20 kilometers outside of the center of Beijing, the city has continued to grow and expand as time has passed, and now has enveloped even the areas surrounding the Summer Palace, as well. The grounds of the Palace itself, however, are still left gloriously unblemished:
For those, like myself, who dream of one day visiting the mountainous Southwest province of China known as Tibet, but who are unable to make the trip (it is currently closed to all foreign visitors, else it would be on my itinerary), a fair approximation would be the sprawling Lama Temple in Beijing, the largest Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside of Tibet.
Getting out of the city and away from the smog for a day (that’s actually a bit of a joke, as you really can’t escape the smog no matter where you go), I was next off to see one of China’s most enduring legacies: the over 2,000-year old engineering marvel known as “The Great Wall.” Although you can visit the Great Wall from virtually any of China’s Northern provinces, some of the most well-preserved and majestic sections lie within a few hour’s drive of Beijing – which turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as it means that there will likely be tens of thousands of other visitors attempting to see the same areas alongside you. Regardless, if you avoid the closest few sections and opt for a longer drive (I chose Mutian Yu as my destination), the crowds thin out quickly and give you clear access to the thousands upon thousands of steps that are necessary to arduously traverse any length of the Wall. The views are worth the climb, however:
When asking around about what constitutes the cuisine of Beijing, I was usually met with the same answer: the city doesn’t have many historic or representative dishes itself, but that given that it was the Imperial seat for the country, it was where dishes from all across China were imported and then honed to a higher art, fit for a royal banquet. Thus, much of my culinary exploration through China will come as I continue my travels in other provinces, but there was still one characteristic dish of the capital city that I couldn’t leave without having sampled: Peking Duck (though it is often referred to here as simply Roasted Duck).
My multiple splurges on Peking Duck (I had to try both the open-oven and closed-oven versions, obviously) weren’t my only means of sustenance while in the city, however. Another aspect to Beijing that I hold close to my heart is the large variety of street food. Whereas many visitors don’t get past the live scorpions, starfish, silkworms, and cicadas that are on offer – though, as a side note, these are all just novelty items for the tourists that the Chinese themselves don’t really eat – there are still many excellent options to be had. After Beijing, I’m headed for the quaint town of Pingyao, but before that, I’ll leave you off with a few of the tastier (if still slightly disturbing) snacks I found while wandering the streets: