Except for Beijing (and hopefully Xian) I’ve basically written off most of large cities of China (except for my beloved Chengdu). I’m probably not going to go to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou (what is even there?) or many of the other major cities of China. Not because I don’t think they’re worth seeing, but because I don’t have infinite time and there are so many other things in China I’d rather see (Like all of Yunnan province and anywhere Tibetan).
But since the day I signed the contract to come to China, I knew I’d go to Beijing. Its kind of a big deal, in both history and in the modern world. There is SO much to see there from a historical and cultural perspective, food to eat, a wall to climb, and not to mention a lot of western elements that I don’t see around Nanchong too often.
This is a list of my favorite things. I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily “the best”, just what I enjoyed the most. Some of these places I didn’t go into with particularly high expectations but was pleasantly surprised.
1. The Great Wall
I knew I would love the Great Wall. I didn’t realize how amazing the scenery would be. We were able to have the wall mostly to ourselves for the first 2-3 hours which made it pretty awesome. Just seeing such an ancient wall trailing over the mountains made me get lost in my imagination trying to imagine the world that it was built for. It wasn’t just a highlight of Beijing, but one of my favorite travel experiences in my life.
2. The Temple of Heaven
I didn’t realize until I got to Beijing that this is not an actual temple, but a site where the emperor would make sacrifices to heaven . It was beautiful and the surrounding park was full of dancing, tai chi, chess games, and Chinese people enjoying a lovely day. Despite a rather bizarre bathroom experience, I really enjoyed our time there.
3. The Hutongs
The hutongs are the neighborhoods of narrow alley ways formed by the traditional courtyard homes. They are rapidly disappearing from Beijing but there are still enough to wander around and get lost in. They were distinctly Chinese in that they were very communal (shared bathrooms). We actually stayed in a hutong and walked through one that was a shocking mix of touristy things and locals playing games, drying vegetables,
spitting and eating. I loved the mix of modern and ancient china.
4. Beihai park
We seriously almost did not go here, and it was by far one the most enjoyable places to walk around. It used to be an Imperial Garden and now is a public park (you still pay to get in). There is a lake in the center of the park and in the center of the lake is an island with a temple and stupa to climb too. There were temples, relief carving, and many other lovely sites. It seemed to capture the best of Chinese gardens and one of the few places that actually felt peaceful.
5. The Summer Palace
The summer palace was like a castle from a Chinese fairy tale. It was a bit crowded but it was amazingly beautiful and massive. It was hard to wrap your head around the size of it. Around every turn was something new and amazing to see.
6. Wudaoying Hutong
This was a hutong very close to where we stayed, across the street from the Lama temple. I called it “Hipster Street” because it was filed with coffee shops, craft beer breweries, boutique shops and very cool bike shop. I’m not the least bit ashamed of being a hipster and I loved hanging out on this street.
I actually enjoyed Beijing so much it did make me want to visit the other large cities, but I suppose that’s the travelers dilemma, so many places to see and only one lifetime to see them all. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Beijing, if it would feel like China or like a westernized city. What I’m beginning to learn is that Chinese culture is so strong and pervasive that its pretty hard to dilute it or change it. Beijing was certainly a modern city, but it was still quite Chinese. Of course my perspective was just that of someone just passing through, but I quite enjoyed my time there.