It’s the year of the Rabbit! Spring festival was wonderful and I was lucky enough to have spent it with my mother and brother in China. Originally I had planned to fly to Beijing on February 1st, but thanks to a free ticket change and an approval from the boss, I was able to fly to Beijing on the Saturday before.
I arrived in the evening of Saturday the 29th of January to my mom and brother having cocktails in the hotel lobby. I was so excited to see them and we were ready to celebrate being in China together by hitting up food street, or Guanghua Lu for a Beijing dinner. Guanghua Lu is known as food street or restaurant street and for spring festival was covered in red lanterns. So many restaurants to choose from, we took our time walking through the winter cold streets watching the steam waft from the Mongolian hot pot spots and traditional Beijing fare.
The next day we chose to wander the streets of Beijing rather than jump straight into a tourist hot spot so we could get our bearings and see the town. The first stop was Nanluogu Xiang which is an old Hutong that dates back to the 1200′s. Although the street is still ancient, what fills the walls are all contemporary. Small boutiques, cafe’s and artisan crafts it was a wonderful spot to catch up, look around and find a local noodle house filled with dumplings.
Along the walk from Nanluogu Xiang to the Gulou Metro we came across the Drum Tower and Bell Tower. The drum tower marked the center of the Mongol capital and from the top of the sttep steps one can get a great view of the Hutong rooftops.
In Beijing, the city is covered by thousands of old alleys or streets called Hutongs. Some of these ancient streets date back to 900 and many were built throughout the many many dynasties: Yuan (1206-1341), Ming(1368-1628) and Qing(1644-1908). The main buildings of a Hutong consisted of four houses circled around a square courtyard where people reside.
In the past, the city of Beijing was planned out by the Emperors who placed the palace, or Forbidden city, at the center of the city and the Hutongs were built around the palace. The nobel men and aristocrats lived in Hutongs to the east and west of the palace, while the working class and common folk lived farther out to the North and South of the palace.
Luckily, many of the Hutongs have been preserved due to the fact that they still house half the population of Beijing and cove about a third of the city. Small, narrow, angular and originally built around a well, Hutongs were the highlight of our trip to Beijing and are one of the most spectacular sights of Beijing.
Of course, aside from housing residents in Beijing, some of the Hutongs now house shops, cafes and little boutiques for the world of tourism. The most popular streets for this are Nanluogu Xiang, which is a great spot for Beijing crafts and warm little cafe’s and Gulou district which is a little more of a pricey area to shop for souvenirs.
If you want to see a more residential side then chose an alley in the city and get lost. To see the oldest Hutong in Beijing, go to Sanmiao jie which dates back to 900 and is located in the Xianwu district.
Our second day in Beijing brought us to the Summer Palace. Although it is winter and it is January the Summer palace is a magical place and I can only imagine the beauty this place must hold when the trees bloom in the spring.
The Summer Palace is a spectacular compound located in the North East of the city and acted as a refuge from the horrible summer heat that filled the Forbidden City. A large palace which is 75% water from lakes, the palace also contains temples, gardens, pavilions and long decorative walkways.
We opted for bus 375 which we caught from Xizhimen subway station so that we could see an above ground tour of Beijing rather than the underground. We did however get off a stop too early, but the walk wasn’t too far.
Of course visiting the Summer palace in the winter isn’t the most ideal time for the gardens or the flowers in bloom, but it is however the best time to avoid the crowds. We entered at the East Palace gate which leads to Kunming lake through the hall of Benevolence and Longevity. The lake was completely frozen over so the ferries and boats were inoperable, and the crowds of people spent most of their time sneaker ice skating.
We then followed the long corridor which is a beautiful path made from ornate carved wood and is roofed to provide shade. The corridor runs along the lake to one side and longevity hill to the other. After following the corridor to the end, we reached the entrance to the cloud dispelling hall which is connected to the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and leads to the top of the hill where the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom lies. Along this spectacular rise to the top the view is spectacular and the sights and architecture are exhilarating.
As we descended down to the lake we wound our way through the forests, gardens, rock sculptures and marble bridges. One can’t help but day dream about this place in its heyday and picture oneself as the empress walking this fortress alone in the height of summer.
One sight that can’t be missed at the Summer Palace is the Marble boat. The marble boat lies on the shore along boathouses and is completely made to resemble marble though made completely from wood. The empress, completely a lover of fishing, commissioned the boat rather than spend the money to refurbish the Navy.
The palace in the winter is cold, so dress warm and one can only guess is it very hot and crowded in the summer. If you choose to take the subway, take line 4 to yiheyuan which is summer palace in Mandarin.
798 Art District
The 798 Art Zone is located in the north east of Beijing in between the city center and the airport. It is one of the original factory turned art gallery/work spaces in China. Built in the 1950’s as a factory for the military, it was designed by germans in Bauhaus style and was built as part of the socialist unification plan between China and the former USSR. Producing mostly electronics, the factory was closed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The buildings, being completely left intact, left an ample place for an art community to be built in the early 2000’s.
To get to the galleries we took a subway to Dongzhimen station where we caught bus 909 for about a half an hour to Dashanzi Lukounan where the entrance to the factory lies. I was ecstatic at the prospect of visiting this place, but due to the timing of our trip and the Spring Festival approaching, there was only about 5% of the galleries, shops or cafes open. It was still pretty amazing to walk through a giant abandoned old factory and the window shopping and galleries and shops that were open kept us entertained and surrounded by eye candy. We even ate at a little pizzeria, that besides the loud boy bands playing, was quite good.
Many of the shops that were open were small boutiques containing handmade clothing and accessories from local artisans. I have to admit, it was hard to resist and we left 798 with a great selection of crafts.
Like any major art community there is plenty of controversy, including criticism about gentrification and the concern of the community to not be centered around art and of course, the threat of being shut down.
Beijing food is ancient, perfected and world famous. Beijing also contains food from all over the world and from all over China, being the capital of the country and one of the culture capitals of Asia. Needless to say, we ate our way through Beijing, and spent a great deal of time trying and eating everything we crossed along the way.
The most popular dish is Peking or Beijing Duck. After the duck is cleaned and de-feathered, the duck has air pumped under his skin to separate it from the flesh and is then hung to dry for 24 hours. After being smothered with a syrup, the duck is roasted at high heat for 40 minutes where the glaze covering the skin becomes a crispy glass like texture. The duck is delightful and can be found at many restaurants in Beijing.
For our first Peking duck experience, we went to the world famous Quanjude Roasted Duck Restaurant located off Wangfujing Dajie, the famous shopping street. The restaurant is huge, and located on several floors and even filled with large waiting rooms for the more popular seasons. The halls are large, elaborate and filled with gaudy decorations and chandeliers. The staff is friendly and helpful and we were given a full blown lesson on how to properly eat our duck. Aside from the duck meat, this restaurant is known for using all the parts of the duck to cook the rest of the fare. The insides are used to make a broth which is served with the duck, and the vegetables are cooked with the bone to give it added flavor. Besides the duck, we also feasted on a delightful mushroom dish (a black mushroom, the name unknown to me) with walnuts and dumplings. I definitely recommend this restaurant.
Our second Peking duck restaurant was on our last night in Beijing and was also a celebration for Daren’s Birthday. I do not know the name of the restaurant, but I do know that it was located in Da Wang Lu area and it was near a school. Daren’s friends Emma and Joel were delightful and lived right around the corner from the restaurant. Also sneaky those two, they ordered a large ceramic bottle of Bai Jiu even though they themselves do not drink. Besides the duck, we had a plethora of other Beijing dishes, and even got Daren the noodle of life for his birthday. The trick is to eat the noodle without breaking it to ensure a long life.
Both of these streets are located off Wangfujing and contain a large variety of beautiful, tasty, colorful and dangerous foods. Mostly quick street foods roasted on sticks one can eat everything from 3 different varieties of scorpion, tarantula, grasshopper, cocoons and sea creatures, such as star fish and sea anemone. Of course you can also get the usual BBQ as well, such as chicken, pork and squid.
Other favorites along these streets are hot pot, stinky tofu and candied fruits, especially the small candied crab apples which are a famous and popular treat especially for Spring Festival. Of course, I have been rather adventurous in my time here in China with experimenting with food, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the bugs.
There is a great deal of muslim fare to be had here as well, especially lamb kebabs and the flatbread seasoned with cumin. This latter treat became a staple and everyday snack in our adventures.
Another treat that can be found on the street and in any market is the honey yogurt. An influence from the north, Mongolia, where dairy is eaten regularly, this treat is not to be missed. Served in small ceramic cups and covered with a white and blue wax paper, the yogurt is thick and rich and reminiscent of greek yogurt. he containers are however reused, so most vendors will not let you stray from their stand without first returning the ceramic cup. Just pop in a straw and drink it up.
Last but not least, the Mongolian Hot Pot can not be passed up. Due to our timing during spring festival, it was rather difficult to find restaurants that were open during the holiday and there were a few days where we didn’t have the best of luck or the best of experiences. Fortunate for us, on the hunt for Mongolian Hot Pot, we found a wonderful and delicious spot just right across the street from our Hotel. With a curry base, we stuffed our faces with a variety of vegetables and tofu skin, followed by lamb, beef balls and shrimp. Washed down with beer and spicy special sauce, this may have been one of my favorite meals in Beijing.
Tiananmen Square and the forbidden city
When most people hear the name Tiananmen square, they think “failed democratic revolution”, but the square is also a place that positions itself in the center of Beijing, leads to the forbidden city and now holds the remains of chairman Mao, in the Chairman Mao memorial hall. The largest square in the world, it actually doesn’t feel that large when you are standing in it. It is a copy of the North Korean square and was built at such a large scale as a symbol of the size of the Communist party, and has held two major events of significance besides the 1989 demonstrations; parades during the Cultural Revolution and in 1976 when chairman Mao was mourned.
Every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset there is a flag raising a lowering ceremony. On our fourth morning in Beijing we arose early to catch the raising. A group of PLA soldiers exit from the Gate of Heavenly peace, cross Chang An Jie with stopped traffic and raise the flag to the national song which is blasted throughout the city from loud speakers. Since it was early February, the ceremony was held at 7:30 am, so we had some time to kill after before we could enter the forbidden city at 9 am. So we headed out and grabbed some congee to heat us up and fill us with energy for the day.
Unfortunately the Memorial hall of Chairman Mao was closed where one can catch a glimpse of the mummified leader in a crystal cabinet.
Once you cross Chang’an Jie, you must pass through three gates until you actually reach the forbidden city. Cross a short bridge, one of seven, (the center bridge was used only by the Emperor) over the Changpu River to reach the Gate of Heavenly Peace which is adorned with a large print of the Chairman. The second gate is the Duan Gate, and now is used strictly by people selling tourist items. The third gate, is appropriately named the Front Gate. This is the largest gate and was built during the Ming Dynasty and served as the barrier between Inner city and the Outer city.
The Forbidden City is the most most maintained selection of buildings in China and housed Emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties.
There are three main halls to the Forbidden city which lie on a perfect straight axis from north to south, as do most places of great importance in China. Although access to all and any of these halls is forbidden, one can peak through the doors to get a peak and imagine what it may have been like in the past. The first hall reached is “The Hall of Supreme Harmony” and is where the most important ceremonies were held, especially the Emperor’s birthday. The second hall is the “Hall of Middle Harmony”, which the Emperor used more like an office. The third hall is the “Hall of Preserving Harmony” which was used for banquets.
The next three buildings in the North are more significant in meaning. The first is the “Palace of Heavenly Purity” and was once the residence of Emperors. The next is the “Hall of Union” and at the northern most part of the palace is the “Imperial Garden” which is an impeccable maze of a garden and is stunning even in the dead of winter. My only thought is how heavenly this place must be in the middle of spring or summer.
Upon entry to the forbidden city, you may be bombarded by the dozens of people who give tours, but my mother and I opted for the more accessible audio tour. If you are a true history buff you could stay all day, but we ousted an noon due to the holiday, and thought the timing was perfect.
New Years Eve
After visiting the Forbidden City we headed out to the White Cloud Temple in the south west where we heard there would be a fair for the New Year. After a long taxi ride across town we arrived only to find nothing but decorations and no one in sight. Unfortunately my Mandarin skills were still a little too flawed to understand when and if there would be a Temple Faire at some time.
So we went back to the north east in search of a good meal. We headed out in search of the food street again and even asked some advice from the locals on where to go. We walked for what seemed like miles passing men strewn with firecrackers in sheets along the street. The celebration was heating up.
We wandered through a great deal of Hutongs along the way, mostly local residence rather than the overprices tourist sections. The streets were littered with fire cracker carcasses and every minute there was a new strand lit. The more we walked the less we found. Everything had closed completely by 3pm and everybody was setting up what would be a long night of explosions.
So we headed back to the hotel and stocked up on cheap beer from the corner store where my brother and I had now befriended the staff. We watched as the city began to light the sky from our 10th floor room and even made it up to the 20th floor bar to catch a view and a cocktail. We didn’t really know what to expect from the evening and really were hard up for a meal, but with our poor food hunting skills we settled for meager rations and began drinking more beer to make up for it.
By 9pm the sky and city really started to let loose with the millions of fireworks. My mom had found a cubby in the hallway from where she demanded more beer and spent most of her evening looking out over the city. Luke and I decided to be more adventurous and went out into the night and streets with beer, a fellow American and a couple from Holland who were loaded with their own explosives.
After setting of their explosives we set out into the streets and madness to stock up for midnight and catch a glimpse of the city alive and kicking.
I’ve never seen anything like this in my life and would say it was the highlight of the trip for all three of us. Don’t ever expect to experience something like this in America. The only way I could possibly even begin to describe this event is to have you imagine every other person in Beijing setting off a firework all at the same time on every corner and midpoint of a city block throughout the largest city in the world. I think there was a whole hour where we all just stood looking up and hysterically laughing.
If any of you know my brother, then just picture him in Beijing setting off a mortar in the middle of a pedestrian overpass on one of the busiest streets as bottle rockets are shot in every direction and bouncing off cars. Ha Ha, it makes me chuckle just thinking about it.
The Great Wall
There is a saying, “You haven’t been to China if you haven’t been to Beijing, and you haven’t been to Beijing if you haven’t been to the great wall”. So of course we had to see the wall. There are five destinations along the great wall which make for great day trips from Beijing. With little time or care for research on which part of the wall to visit we chose two to choose from; Badaling and Jinshanling. Jinshangling had been recommended by a friend, but was a good three hours away from Beijing. Badaling on the other hand is only an hour away, but it is still the most populated and highly tourist oriented parts of the wall.
Depending on where you want to go and the preference of how you want to get there, almost every location can be reached by bus and minibus. If you prefer to go with a tour Badaling is the most popular option and usually includes lunch and a stop at the Ming Tombs. However, if buses sound daunting and long and tours sound horrible and time restricting, you may choose the taxi option which was our choice. For 400 quay, we had a private taxi for the day and we able to set our own time frames. So we hired a taxi to Badaling for the day and we were given the option of stopping at Juyongguan (which we didn’t take advantage of).
I had heard that Badaling was not the best place to visit the wall, but I thought it was quite nice and the crowds were not too overwhelming because it was February and Spring Festival.
The highest point of the wall at Badaling can be reached by two sides; one by Gondola and the other by a small train. The Gondola reaches the highest point and the train meets up a bit lower down the wall. Needless to say this is the most populated area of the wall especially considering most people go to the wall to take a picture and then go back down the mountain to eat or shop. Once we walked away from this centralized point on the wall we were almost completely alone and able to take some photos without people in the shot.
The wall was built durng the Qin Dynasty when the country was unified and all the separate kingdom walls were attached. The wall took many years and many workers and there are legends that parts of the wall were erected out of the bones of workers. Later during the Ming dynasty the wall was continued and many died. Unfortunately the wall was never very effective and there was a great deal of Manchurian overtake for a great deal of time.
Much of the wall has been destroyed and much of it thankfully has been restored, mostly for the tourism. There have been many problems with locals especially farmers who tear apart the wall so their livestock can have better pastures for grazing. Hopefully the great wall continues on for centuries to come, it is truly an experience and amazing sight to see and it comes to life why this structure is one of the seven wonders of the world.
Prince Gong’s Palace
Through a slight miscommunication and the need to see more things in Beijing, we headed to the residence, compound/mansion . Set in the middle of Hutongs, this residence is the largest in Beijing.
It was very large and very crowded and housed a great deal of tourist shops whose money was placed back into the maintenance. Again, and like most places at this time, it would be a beautiful place to see in the spring or summer when the garden is in full
It was quite an exquisite mix of buildings of which the main buildings shape was taken from a bat of which the first resident had a great love for. Seen from above, one can see the building corridors span out like the wings of a bat.
Located in the North West of the city, it’s a great place to explore after the museum and there is a great dumpling place with orange congee across the street. It’s also a great place to watch ice skating on the lakes in the winter and you can find a array of shops from souvenirs to hand made crafts.