Beijing is a unique city. It is a fascinating place where traditional society and modern China have become intertwined. Old Beijing comprises of palaces and monuments of emperors past and of empires left behind. New Beijing in contrast is made up of modern office buildings filled with the latest technologies, swish 5 star hotels, and a la carte restaurants.
The exotic mystery of the East is everpresent today, however China is beginning toup its doors to the world and offer the West an insight into one of the most captivating civilizations. Beijing offers an excellent place to begin this journey.
Beijing was originally settled around 1000 BC as a frontier trading town. It was burnt to the ground in AD 1215 by Genghis Khan and rebuilt to uphold the vast Mongolian Empire.
Zhu Yanhang conquered Beijing in 1368 and the Ming Dynasty followed until 1644. During this period, Zhu's son, Yongle ordered the creation of many architecturally stunning buildings including the Forbidden City and the breathtaking Tiantan park as well as building the foundations for modern Beijing.
Summer Palaces and temples were built in the Qing dynasty ), many of which were partially or completely destroyed during the various invasions of the 19th century.
In 1911, a revolution culminated in the Republic of China being declared. Warlords remained at the heart of power and rule. Japan invaded China in 1937 and following WWII, China headed into Civil War from which the Communists achieved victory in 1949 under Mao Zedong.
A period of excessive building took place in Beijing between 1949 and 1966 in Soviet style architecture. The Cultural Revolution orchestrated by Mao however put a stop to all this. Universities and schools were shut down, many temples and monuments were destroyed.
In the 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping, modernization of Beijing restarted.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
Beijing is a topical choice for travel this month as February 12th marks the start of the Chinese New Year. This festival is to celebrate the earth returning to life and the beginning of ploughing and sowing. As well as being heavily celebrated in China, the Chinese New Year is a festival that can be enjoyed in Chinese communities around the world.
Preparations for New Year include:
'Spring' cleaning of the house
Repaying any debts
Getting a haircut
Buying new clothes
These symbolize the getting rid of the old and taking in the new for the new year ahead. On New Years Eve, families get together to enjoy a large dinner, houses are lit up and fireworks are often let off at midnight. There are many traditional taboos for New Years Day. These include not using sharp instruments as this symbolizes cutting of good fortune, not washing your hair, avoiding using negative language or mentioning ill health or sickness. The New Year celebrations last for 15 days and are seen as a time of reunion and thanksgiving.
Day 1 - Many people will not eat meat as this is supposed to bring a long and happy life.
Day 2 - A day of prayer to ancestors and to all the Gods.
Day 3 & 4 - Days for son-in-laws to pay respects to parents-in-law
Day 5 - Known as "Po Woo" where families stay home and welcome the God of Wealth. It is bad luck to visit friends or families on this day
Days 6 - 10 - Families and friends are visited and Gods are prayed to for good fortune and health
Day 7 - Farmers display their produce and make a special drink of 7 vegetables. Considered the day that human beings were born
Day 9 - Offerings are made to the Jade Emperor
Days 10 -12 - Invitations are made to friends and family for dinner
Day 13 - Simple rice and mustard greens are served to cleanse the system
Day 14 - Preparations for the Lantern Festival are undertaken
Day 15 - Lantern Festival - Houses are decorated with colourful lanterns and yuanxoia is eaten
The year 2002 is the Year of the Horse or the 'Horse in the Military'. This symbolizes many things but includes the need to exercise caution when judging, recognition of possible undue frustration and anger, and balancing personal feelings with wider good.
With its diverse history and distinct culture, Beijing makes an intriguing place to visit. Three interesting options will be briefly explored:
The Summer Palace
The Great Wall of China
The Ming Tombs
There are 2 separate palaces known as the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace. The original Old Summer Palace dates back to the 12th Century but it did not survive the British and French invasion in the 1860s which subsequently burnt the expansive wooden structures. However some marble relics still prevail and these have been added to with tourist attractions such as the Dinosaur Park and the 10,000 Flower Maze.
In contrast the Summer Palace is an array of lakes, bridges, gardens and Qing architecture. Again some of the Palace was damaged in the 1860s but through the centuries this has been restored and regenerated. Today, although heavily visited by tourists it remains an awesome green hideway close to the heart of Beijing.
The Summer Palace was originally used as a summer retreat from the Forbidden City and had 4 distinct areas; residences, temples, court reception and strolling areas. The temples with their distinctive architecture, symmetry and detailed ornations are an impressive sight. The bridges created to join certain sections of the lake are far more than functional crossings and remain spectacles in their own right. The Palace with its many striking features is a good day's exploration and can be easily reached by public transport from the centre of Beijing.
Continuing out of Beijing, many infamous historic monuments can be found. The Ming Tombs approximately 50km to the North West of Beijing are definitely worth an excursion. Started in 1409 and finished in 1644, 13 out of 16 emperors from the Ming Empire were buried at this location. The first tomb to be excavated was Ding Ling, the tomb of emperor Wan Li. As you approach the tombs and pass through the Great Palace Gate you encounter a procession of 18 pairs of stone animals and human figures. This is known as the Sacred Way and leads directly to the tomb of Emperor Yongle called Changling. Emperor Yongle was buried in 1424 with 16 concubines. This tomb is the largest tomb and the best preserved. The underground chamber is accessed by descending a number of stairs to the cavern below. Currently 3 out of the 13 tombs areto the public.
Further out of Beijing but still north of the city stands sections of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall was started in the Qin dynasty over 2000 years ago. Its aim was to create a line of defense and secure empires from nomads and other invaders. Its total length is over 6000km. Much of the wall has now gone to ruin but some has been rebuilt for tourists and this can be seen at the various locations around Beijing. Some of the spots are more tourist-orientated than others. For a simple, undeveloped view, Simatai is the best option. Badaling and Mutianyu are the most developed sites with cable cars and restaurants on the vicinity.
Juyong is the site closest to the Ming Tombs and although the wall has been restored here it is without some of the razzamatazz of the aforementioned sites. Here the wall is steep, and the climb up the steps to the top of the wall is good work for even the fittest of climbers.
Already 3 must see destinations have been mentioned, yet there are so many more attractions to Beijing including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai, Tiantan Park to name just a few. It would be easy to spend 2 weeks solely in Beijing and still find that you hadn't seen all that you wanted.
Beijing can be visited at any time of the year, depending on the needs of the traveller. Autumn is rated as the most pleasant time to go due to the fine weather and smaller crowds. Although Beijing can suffer from pollution at certain times, this should not reach an extent where your enjoyment of the city is hindered. If you are planning on travelling to Beijing over the Chinese New Year do not be surprised to find a very quiet city. Beijing typically empties out with residents travelling to other provinces to be with family and friends.
Whenever you plan to travel to Beijing, you can be sure that there will be an abundance of things to see and do.