Beijing is brimming with sights both modern and ancient, so it’s not a case of what not to do but what can you fit in!
Unfortunately, the famous Forbidden City lived up to its name – it was literally forbidden to us as we made the mistake of going on a Saturday during school holidays, so by the time we got there, they had sold out of the day’s 2,000 tickets. But we were disappointed only for a minute as there was plenty more to get up to….
This hipster haven for art and coffee lovers in a redeveloped industrial zone curbed our cravings for all things East London! A criss-cross of streets filled with galleries, exhibitions, boutiques, cafes and bars; we let our feet follow our eyes and ears to take in the wild array of sculptures, paintings and people, hanging out with the red worker statues and headless dictators. A perfect place to appreciate Beijing’s modern side, yet you won’t forget you’re in the city thanks to the handful of Chinese restaurants in the area.
Zen rush hour at the Lama Temple
This is not just about seeing the temple, but observing the crowds that flock here to pay homage to Buddha, in particular the largest Buddha in China. Every visitor is given a bundle of incense which they should burn and offer to Buddha, filling the courtyard with eye watering sultry smoke that rises over the tops of rows of bowing people’s heads, with each plume appearing to track every prayer and sending it directly to the sky on your behalf. In the temples themselves (a series of five) people offer fruit, flowers, cakes and money to Buddha, bowing even more at each portrayal of him around the temple. If you can arrive in time to see the monks chanting, dressed in their hats that make them look like regal roosters, it’s a magical moment.
The wondrous Wall
Being one of the wonders of the world (and not visible from space, contrary to popular belief), this hardly needs a recommendation, but it is so iconic it deserves a mention. There are several sections you can visit from Beijing, from the super touristy to parts that are wild, off the beaten track and are for keen and serious hikers. Given my track record with hiking to date we opted for Mutianyu, which provides up to 4 hours of slopey walking but on restored (read: safe) wall. Plus it’s only an hour and a half from Beijing.
If you’re feeling less than energetic there’s a cable car and a toboggan, but we took on the sweaty walk up the stairs to the wall itself, crossing the rocky incline to the eastern watchtower then back in the other direction as far as time would allow before our driver needed to take us back. At the top of the eastern watchtower the restored section of wall abruptly stops, but for adventurous wall climbers, you can jump out the window and explore a short stretch of overgrown wall. Intrepid is hardly my middle name so I was content to watch Phil do this!
As it slopes up and down with individual watch towers offering respite from the heat and humidity, it’s enough of a walk to decide that it’s okay to stuff yourself with Chinese food later. The signs across the wall provide information about its history, when it was built and who by, and how soldiers were stationed at the watchtowers to be on the look out for intruders. The structure seems like it will never end as it snakes across the mountain like an angry old dragon, and just being on it feels legendary.