To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countriesAldous Huxley
Nov 16-17 & Dec 2-3 2015
We had the opporunity to spent 48 hours in Beijing by working in stop-overs during our trip to and from Taiwan. This gave us one day to visit on our way to Taiwan, and another day to visit on our way back home to Oakland. With the limited amount of time, including sleeping, we had to figure our how to make the most of it. Being such a massive city with so much one could do and see, we decided to break it down by seeing some of the traditional and historic China related sites during the first stop-over, and some of the modern and ‘new’ China related sites during the second stop-over.
After arriving at the Beijing Airport we went through immigration, normally we would have needed a Visa, but since we were only staying for a short period of time we were able to skip that process, otherwise it probably would not have been worth the hassle. We hopped aboard the airport metro and headed towards the city.
We stayed at the adorable Hutongren Courtyard Hotel, located just off of South Luogu Lane in the Dongcheng District. The boutique hotel and teahouse occupies a hundred-year-old renovated courtyard home, with uniquely decorated rooms and a peaceful garden terrace. Since it was already night we decided to quickly get to bed so we could start some siteseeing first thing in the morning.
We got up just as the sun was rising and began the fairly long walk towards the Forbidden City. We arrived before it was even open, but enjoyed walking around the moat and outer walls, checking out the small parks and plazas that surround it. Constructed from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers over 180 acres. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.
Next, we headed for the famous Tiananmen Square, directly south of the Forbidden City, with the Gate of Heavenly Peace inbetween. The square has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history, but outside of China it is best known for the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
First, we snapped some photos of the gate, adorned with a giant portrait of Mao Zedong surrounded by massive flags and a visibly heavy security presence. We then entered the massive square, one of the largest in the world, able to hold over 600,000 people. As we continued to cross, lines had already formed to enter the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong which was located in the center. We finally reached the south side which was marked by the massive Zhengyangmen Gate. Built in 1419, the gate guarded direct entrance into the imperial city. Although much of Beijing’s city walls were demolished since, Zhengyangmen remains an important geographical marker of the city as it’s central north-south axis passes through Zhengyangmen’s main gate.
Leaving the square we grabbed some lunch nearby and then headed back north to check out some of Beijing’s historic neighrborhoods, known as hutongs. Old, walled courtyard homes are the building blocks of these delightful areas. More venerable abodes are fronted by thick red doors outside of which perch either a pair of lions or a pair of drum stones. Many more, though, have been converted over the years into a ramshackle collection of cramped, one-storey homes, accessed via the narrowest of winding pathways.
We first visted the hutongs surrounding Houhai Lake. The area is known for its nightlife, with many residences along the lake shore being converted into restaurants, bars, and cafes. The area is very popular with foreign tourists, expatriates and the younger generation of locals alike. We strolled past many places of historic interest and scenic beauty, stopping to relax and take pictures.
Next we would head east back towards our hotel and spend the last few hours exploring the hutong we were staying in. Nanluoguxiang, also named South Luogu Lane, is one of the oldest alleyways in Beijing, over 800 years old. The area, like Houhai Lake, was full of cafes, bars, and shops all designed in the classical Chinese style. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the airport and catch our flight for Taiwan. You can read about our adventures in Taiwan starting with first post of a three part series, Taipei.
On our way back from Taiwan we got to spend another 24 hour layover in Beijing. After visiting some of the older tradisitonal areas we decided this time we would visit the modern and ‘new’ Beijing. It started by checking into our hotel at the very posh JW Marriott located in the central business district of the city.
Located directly across the street from the hotel was the 1,083 feet, 81 story China World Trade Center, the tallest in Beijing. The building bears an eerie resemblance to the original One and Two World Trade Center in New York City, that I had visited when I was much younger.
We had arrived late at night like last time, but instead of going to sleep we decided to take a taxi to Guijie Road, or Ghost Street. It gets it’s name from the ghostly spectacle of the grocery and produce night market formerly located here, but now it is one of the most alive places you can find in the city. Stretching for a mile, this is the only street in Beijing that truly never sleeps. Guijie is a 24-hour celebration of Chinese cuisine, and so the perfect place for us to get some late night Peking Duck. It was a very large but delicious meal, both enjoying the skin and dipping sauces the most. Fighting off the food coma that was about to set in and headed back to the hotel to get some sleep.
The next morning we would visit the CCTV Headquarters nearby, home to China Central Television. Instead of a traditional tower, the main building is a loop of six horizontal and vertical sections, creating an irregular grid on the building’s facade with an open center. The buildings architect, Rem Koolhaas, has said the building “could never have been conceived by the Chinese and could never have been built by Europeans”. Locals often refer to it as “big pants”. A Chinese critic once said that the structure was modeled after a pornographic image of a woman on her hands and knees, which Koolhaas has officially denied.
Breaking from the modern theme, we also checked out the Panjiayuan Market. Beijing’s biggest and best-known arts, crafts, and antiques market. It is divided into five parts, a Buddhism statue area, antique furniture area, high-rank antique store area, a books and scrolls area and a middle area that is mostly a mix of ceramics, paintings, beads, trinkets, and apparel. I picked up some “Little Red Books”, a book of statements from speeches and writings by Mao Zedong, as souvenirs.
The last place we would visit was on the way to the airport, an area known as the Beijing 798 Art District. A mix of the old and the new, a complex of 50-year-old decommissioned military factory buildings boasting a unique architectural style that have now been turned into avant-garde art workshops and studios.
Previously this type of thing was frowned upon by the government, only able to exist on the fringes of the city, but artists and designers started trickling in, attracted to the vast cathedral-like spaces. Despite the lack of any conscious aesthetic in the Bauhaus-inspired style, which grounded architectural beauty in practical, industrial function, the swooping arcs and soaring chimneys had an uplifting effect on modern eyes, a sort of post-industrial chic. At the artists’ requests, workers renovating the spaces preserved the prominent Maoist slogans on the arches, adding a touch of ironic “Mao kitsch” to the place. Now it is an entire neighborhood, complete with bookstores, cafes and museums beside the artists workshops and studios. It’s a place could spend much more time at and will definitely come back when we visit Beijing in the future.
Back at the airport to catch our flight home, we looked back on the great, if brief time we had in Beijing. Giving us a new insight into the fascinating country that is China, we decided eventually we will apply for full visas and return for a proper trip. For now we’ll treasure the time that we did have in the fascinating capital for nearly 1.4 billion people. Also, for those wondering, our Google worked without any problems as we didn’t encounter any problems with censorship during our visit.