Last month, I traveled around South India in hopes of getting in touch with my Indian background. This month, I took a trip to East Asia, in the pursuit of appreciation of my lesser obvious Asian side, the one that’s been developed purely because of my presence in Singapore. I called it the Breath of the Dragon trail – two weeks spread across four of the biggest cities known in Chinese modern history.
East Asia definitely opened my eyes to a whole world of knowledge and culture. The Chinese have been known for their unique approach to all topics – especially those of spirituality and society. As I traveled from Beijing to Shanghai to Taipei (and Jiufen) to Hong Kong, I was slowly discovering the evolution of this demographic and how despite the changes in infrastructure , the consistency of beliefs and traditions remained. It was an accident that my trip was planned in the way that it was,from a city that spoke the least English to a city that spoke the most English, but I’m definitely blessed to have witnessed and encountered the conversations and experiences that I did.
Beijing is definitely the capital of China. There is no doubt about it. From major palaces, to political structures, there is no shortage of motifs and symbols here to remind you of what greatness used to reside in this city. The layout of Beijing invites curiosity, as it is concentric, with multiple ring roads demarcating different zones in the city. The innermost ring road borders the most important structures then. Spending time in Beijing can include one of three possible activities : visiting all the grand sights, eating all the good food, shopping at all the local places for cheap products. Of course, the third option wasn’t even applicable for me – I don’t shop that much. But grand sights I definitely opened myself up to, almost entirely in this trip.
We’ll start with the Temple of Heaven. I highly recommend this park as a window into life in Beijing.The Temple itself stands tall and majestic, but it doesn’t speak as much volume as the people who occupy the park on an almost daily basis.
Populated by mainly the elderly and retired, you can see people dancing, doing taichi and exercising in the morning till early afternoon. My favorite view was this, where you can see crowds of people overseeing games of Dai-Di (Big Two, a Chinese card game) and Chinese Chess. It’s almost definitive of how people still remain active even in old age here, rather than lock themselves up in retirement houses or in front of the television screens, and that’s very impressive.
Another interesting sight would have to be the Echo Wall. Just a short walk from the actual Temple of Heaven, and within the park, this wall surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Legend goes that if you shout at one end of the wall, your voice can be heard at the other end. What ensues then, is a bunch of tourists shouting and screaming at this stone wall, which in itself is a sight. I doubted its effectiveness, it didn’t really seem to be working , but this and a few other structures are interesting deviations from the regular temples and gabled structures.
I’d also recommend travelers to visit the Forbidden City – it is filled with imperial structures that have motifs only an emperor could be privy to. Its size also challenges you to take in the full grandiose of the kingdom and imagine what it would have been like to rule over China. The Tian’anmen Square nearby was unfortunately closed because of a parade but I had heard good reviews of the place, especially juxtaposing the imperial haughtiness of the Forbidden City, with a similar arrogance in modern form at the Square.
The Summer Palace could probably be prioritized on a lower peg after visiting the places above, but one should visit it to take in the view of Kunming Lake, that the Palace oversees.
Of course, if it’s your first time in Beijing, you’ll have to make time to go to the Great Wall. There are multiple portions that you can visit but the easiest to access is the Badaling portion. Therefore, do not visit that portion. It’s supposedly filled with tourists and the derived industry from it, and you’ll have to walk a significant portion on the wall to lose the infestation of people and focus on the views. Instead go to the Mutianyu portion, where I visited, and let yourself be blown away by the human feat that is the Great Wall. You can take public transportation there, and it’ll cost you only around 20USD one way, although you’ll have to take a couple of bus changes.
For those not informed of the reason for the wall, it was built during imperial times to protect the kingdom from invasion from the Mongolians. You can see multiple aspects of defense aside from the pure fact that it’s a large ass wall. Stairs were built that were almost impossible to climb without breaking a sweat, making it difficult for invaders to make it very far even if they scaled the wall. It’s definitely a workout climbing it.
Guess the Mongolians eventually made it though. This wall and many other parts are unfortunately subject to graffiti, showing the cost of exposure to the world.
If you go eastwards on Mutianyu enough, you’ll reach a portion of the wall that is known as Jinshaling. Although technically ‘prohibited’, I suspect it’s more of a measure to prevent kids from falling off this nearly ruined wall. It’s vastly different from Mutianyu – it is overgrown with shrubbery and the path is clearly narrower because the sides have crumbled in. This then presents the ‘authentic’ wall – not maintained and reeking of age and sincerity. The views are cleaner here, and the hike more adventurous. I would definitely encourage travelers to take a bit more to walk on this portion, but keep your bearings about you and don’t be afraid to duck and jump over obstacles.
The last place I’d strongly encourage people to visit are the hutongs (or alleys). These are the remnants of Old Beijing – where the neighborhood classically identified by its grey roofs transport you to a simpler time.Interestingly enough , and this is a trend I’ve seen in almost all cities I’ve been to, most of these hutongs have been maintained by converting them into a ‘hipster’ district, with boutique fashion outlets and up and coming food stalls. Rooftop bars and cafes are worth a try to see the hutongs from up top. This is Nanluoguxiang – definitely a must visit.
I personally was a fan of this Churros that they were selling, in a paper holder with soft serve ice-cream. Imagine holding that and walking down Old Beijing, it’s almost surreal how old and new come together so beautifully.
And finally must eats in Beijing. There’s a ton of good Chinese food that you can try , including my favorite Mongolian Hotpot Hai Di Lao. But the famous disk is the Peking Duck. I was taken to QuanJude , one of the top places to go for the dish, and honestly I’d recommend spending your value’s worth on this. The duck is almost completely spent on you, with even the carcass being used to flavor a delicious and rich soup at the end of the course. The skin is crispy and salty, and that complements the sweet hoisin sauce that you eat the meat with. Make it in a crepe or eat by itself, the duck is definitely worth the hype. There are a bunch of other brand name duck restaurants out there that I’d imagine are worth visiting so choose freely.
Beijing stands out for many reasons. While a large number of people you’ll see are not even local Beijing residents, you notice a slice of China that’s burgeoning with optimism. They’re excited to see the world and almost figuratively are ready to consume it. It’s interesting how, because it’s like it got shocked into success by jumpstart cables, the government is forced to find a way to match its economic success with cultural education and propaganda like the signs above.
Don’t expect as many tall skyscrapers as Shanghai, or any English speaking assistance , but instead see probably what’s the closest to how China is like in the rest of the mainland out of all the big cities in this trail. There’s no shortage of nightlife though – Wuadaokou is where all the college bars (and cheap beers) are, while Sanlitun has the more upmarket bars and clubs. You can spend a lot less than you would in any of the other cities in these places.
Out of all the cities I visited, Beijing was definitely where I was the least comfortable. But I like that, I like being uncomfortable because you’re forced to learn and grow. I have a lot more stories from this one city, but ask me about them or check my Facebook Album for them – and you’ll be surprised at how much there is to this famous city. Look forward to my next travelogue post on Shanghai.
I’d also like to sincerely thank Patrick, Amy (and your relatives), Peter, Shuting, Gil for making my trip so rich and meaningful. You definitely were great hosts.