It's October now, and I'm finally getting around to catching up on the blog. This year has been a bit wild–full of crazy adventures, a few health scares, and the ability to take part in some truly mind-shifting work. But...no excuses. I'm here now and excited to share with you a bit about what's been on the agenda.
In May, I was ending a work engagement and had the opportunity to participate in a workshop in Beijing. I jumped at the chance, having never been to China, and knowing I had the luxury of tacking a few days of travel onto the end of my trip.
So, almost 7,000 miles and a 14-hour flight later, I landed in the second largest city in the largest country in the world, with a bit of jet-lag and a lot of excitement about what was to come. The first two days of my trip were occupied, but by day three I was out on my own, and eager to see all the city had to offer. Slight dilemma? I only had three days. Here's a peek at what adventure those days unearthed.
Day 1: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven
So first, it was off to The Forbidden City, the spectacularly well-preserved imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty. The Forbidden City was used as an imperial palace from 1420-1912 (almost 500 years!) and since 1925 has been under consistent preservation and documentation of historical artifacts and relics. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 (another to add to my list!).
I wandered the seemingly endless paths and pagodas (there are 980 buildings over approximately 180 acres), getting lost a few times but always finding my way by the many (mostly Chinese) tourists. A quick Google search and I found that there are over 14.6 million visitors each year and the museum, within its walls–the Palace Museum–is the most visited museum in the world. The entire place is exquisitely beautiful, and I especially enjoyed the endless colors and patterns that are everywhere.
After checking into my new hotel a bit further south in the financial district, I ventured to the Temple of Heaven–about a forty minute walk. It's interesting, I felt really safe in China, despite not knowing the language and being a single female (white) traveler. This did not stop me, however, from being precautious the entire time. I always dressed conservatively and was never out past dark.
Arriving at the Temple of Heaven was a sure delight. You pay a small entrance fee (like most tourist sights in China) and are guided through a series of well manicured footpaths, lined with trees. Finally, you reach a large staircase that takes you to the foot of the temple–a round structure with another large staircase–and encircled entirely by beautiful, multi-colored fresh roses. Feeling lucky to be there in the late spring, I circled the temple a few times, taking in–again–all of the colors and patterns (it's the textile lover in me!) and finally climbing the steep staircase.
Next, I wandered the grounds for a few hours, finding hidden gardens and more pagodas. Constructed around the time of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven was an imperial temple visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to celebrate or pray to Heaven for a good harvest. There are altars everywhere, perhaps for sacrifice to the gods for future harvests.
While I wandered, I felt safe, but I also felt a bit lonely. It's difficult to travel alone, and even more difficult when you can't speak the language. I had to get by on the few words I knew in Mandarin or the written words I could look up and show on my iPhone. Despite this, however, I felt lucky to be in a place with so much history, so much beauty.
Day 2: Exploring the Great Wall and getting lost in the 798 Arts District
I woke early on my second free day, knowing that I had a lot to see. While I was on my own now, I had connected with a work friend who had previously lived in Shanghai and explored Beijing a Great deal (no pun intended). She had a few connections in the area and gave me the contact of one of her friends who had a private driver and who offered to drive me to the Great Wall for the day. I had elected to go to the Mitanyu portion of the wall, a less touristy part and known best for its preservation, historic watchtowers, and uninterrupted views of the mountains.
After about a 40 mile drive outside of the city, Mr. Cui, my lovely driver, dropped me off at the entrance to the park. I made my way with a few others up to the gondola that took us up the mountain to the entrance of the Wall. And after purchasing an overpriced water (note to self–bring your own!!), I began to climb.
Rests from the sun were taken in the watchtowers, extremely cool compared to the outside air. Mountains are by far my favorite geographical feature, and everywhere I looked stunned me with its natural beauty and the way this historic, man-made feature, looked as if it fit so effortlessly within the mountain geology.
I made it to the furthest and highest point on the Mitanyu range, stopping to drink my water, and take a breath of what was spread out in front of me. I even met a few Western tourists–from Boston– and we talked for a long time about travel, China, and these incredible views.
Finally feeling like I should head down, I made the trek back to the gondola and back down the mountain, where Mr. Cui was promptly waiting for my arrival. He didn't speak any English but I am sure the grin on my face was enough to tell him that I had thoroughly enjoyed myself.
After driving back to the hotel and resting for a bit, I made my way out again, this time by taxi. I knew where I was headed–the 798 Arts District–but my limited language ability forced me to show my driver the address on my phone. She understood, and off we went.
I had heard about the 798 Arts District from the couple on top of the Wall, and decided to check it out. It's a large expanse of renovated buildings that include art galleries, artist workshops, and small cafes and eateries. Ok, so my heaven. I just wandered, taking it all in, snapping photos, and meeting some of the locals.
I'd recommend this place to anyone traveling in the city. It's a wonderful area just to hang out, get some of that western food you've been craving (or try something new!), and pick up a few souvenirs.
Day 3: It takes an hour to get anywhere!–A performance at the Drum Tower, exploring the Hutongs, and getting sweltered (by the heat) at the Summer Palace
So now, day 3! My final full day in Beijing. I decided to take the subways everywhere I went, as I had a few places I wanted to visit and a lot of ground to cover. The city is huge–in total it covers almost 6,500 square miles. Most of what I wanted to see was concentrated in the center of the city but I was finding it still took at least an hour to get anywhere in the city, especially if you wanted to drive.
And a plus side–the city subways are SUPER easy to navigate–despite not knowing the language. They are a communication designers dream: everything is clearly labeled, the way-finding is effortless, and everything written in Chinese characters is also spelled out phonetically for the foreigner to navigate by ear.
I found my first destination, the historic Bell and Drum Towers. Built in 1272, they have been consistently preserved after two damaging fires. While originally uses as musical towers they transformed to be the time-telling center of the capital city during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties.
In the Drum tower, I climbed the many stairs to the top and was just in time for a performance. About 8 performers came out, dressed all in white, and beat the large, leather covered drums, in unison and to a lively and rhythmic beat. Now, I suppose, they serve both time and musical purposes, as the performances are scheduled each hour for tourists like me to come appreciate.
Next, I explored the hutongs near the Houhai lake. Hutongs are narrow streets and alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences in the heart of the city. They seem to go on forever, endless configurations with endless surprises and a total haven if you're willing and excited to get lost for an entire afternoon.
I did exactly that, and when I finally ventured out, I decided to head to the Summer Palace in the northwestern part of the city. Another hour plus subway ride took me practically to the entrance of the palace. There, I paid a small entrance fee and again, started to wander. I thought about renting a guide or an audio tour, but the heat was high and I was starting to get a bit tired (and didn't know how long I would last). I also enjoy exploring on my own and found that the palace had a number of english translations for exhibits littered all over the Palace. I spend a few hours, and as evening approached, decided to head back to my hotel before dark.
Back at my hotel, I enjoyed my last evening and went to bed early, in prep for the next day's travels home.