Final Days in the Middle Kingdom: Beijing

This trip and this blog ends in Beijing, a fitting culmination to such a journey as I had done over the past few weeks, and a major change from the mountains, steppes, and isolated, semi-modernized or decaying Soviet cities that encompassed most of my earlier travels. Few cities possess such a wealth of historical attractions as Beijing – yet few are also as vibrant and modern. Around every corner was a temple, palace, or other reminder of China’s 5000 years of history, yet Beijing was unmistakably a 21st century city, with the infrastructure, technology, and economy to match (recent economic troubles notwithstanding). Many sites, including the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, have been reconstructed from the original (the former was burned by European forces during the Opium Wars, the latter has decayed over thousands of years and needs refurbishment to be safe for visitors – some of the older sections have no battlements, leaving a straight drop down the mountainside), and much of the greatest artifacts of China are now found in Western collections, yet Beijing still boasts a remarkable snapshot of many eras of history. My hostel was located in the historic center of Beijing, in the midst of the hutong alleyways (though this specific one had been modernized for tourists), surrounded by the Forbidden City and a network of historic mansions, parks, and religious sites that had once served the aristocracy of Imperial China. The hostel itself was arguably the top hostel in China, and I greatly appreciated its free breakfast and piano, both of which I had missed throughout the rest of the trip (the heat and rain which unfortunately marked much of my time in Beijing were less appreciated – though I did avoid the notorious smog).

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View over the hutongs, Beijing skyline in background

Beijing was also different from the rest of my trip in that I spent much of my time traveling with my friend Sang, who had studied abroad in Beijing and knew Chinese. Having him with me really helped me get the most out of Beijing, especially since I was able to try authentic Chinese cuisine that was immeasurably better than that found at Chinese restaurants in America, and much cheaper than in the tourist restaurants – Beijing’s specialties are dumplings and Peking duck, both of which are absolutely stellar at the right places, and I have many recipes I now wish to recreate at home.

While in Beijing, I hit the most famous tourist sites – the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall, as well as multiple smaller (though still crowded) attractions such as the Yonghe Buddhist temple, the Drum and Bell Towers, and the Wangfujing Food Street, checked out Sang’s university campus, and haggled for souvenirs at Panjiayuan, Beijing’s antique market. Of these, the Summer Palace was my favorite due to its architectural wonders and empty western shore, though the Great Wall also provided some amazing views and a solid hike (though it is not a place for those afraid of heights, like me). My tour took me to a section of the Great Wall that is further from Beijing than the usual access point, and due to this distance it was almost empty save for my group, unlike the closer sections which are overrun with tourists and souvenir vendors. The Forbidden City, while impressive in its scale, was less attractive due to the uniformity of its halls, as well as the crowds of tourists everywhere. But while these may have been the top excursions, all the places I visited were very interesting, and I could have easily spent multiple days more in Beijing, as there was far more I did not even try to visit. The fact that most of the other tourists in these locations were Chinese testifies to the development of China’s own middle class and their ability to travel both internally and internationally (Chinese tourists were probably the largest national group in most of the other places I had stayed as well). Interestingly though, while Beijing was the largest city I visited (save for Tokyo), China was the country where I had the least interaction with local people – the language barrier was a large factor in this, though here I also did not stay with a host family as I had in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

The Summer Palace

The Great Wall of China

Forbidden City

Other Sites

Despite the prevalence of certain Western companies and styles in Beijing, there were still signs of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. The only bothersome part of this was the restrictions on the Internet, but the grandiosity of Tiananmen Square (and its monuments to Mao Zedong) definitely showed a totalitarian aesthetic, and the National Museum was over half devoted to pure propaganda – both in art and history. There was also a larger police presence than what is usual in large cities (though not nearly as obvious as in Urumqi). Undoubtedly there are other restrictions that are less obvious to the casual visitor, but overall the government did not seem overly intrusive in the lives of Beijing citizens.

 

My trip is now over, so it is time to put this blog back into hibernation, but a new adventure will always come along, and probably not too far from now. Thanks for reading!