I chose quite possibly the best day to arrive in Beijing for my Chinese adventure. It was the last night of the New Year celebrations and fireworks were exploding in the streets – a little overwhelming at first, but quite festive once I got used to it.
I managed to find my way to the hostel (The Peking Yard, it came highly recommended from Ms. Jennifer Savory) hidden away down a side street or Hutong in Beijing’s first ring. The city is composed of five rings, the first is the city’s core and downtown moving outwards to financial, business and residential districts. The hostel was quite close to the subway which made daily outings easy, and the best dumplings and soups were only minutes away.
The first night I ventured into the noisy streets to meet up with my friend Ian who is working as a producer in Beijing for an English-Chinese network called BON. He took me to one of the original hutong areas in Beijing close to the Drum and Bell tower where I had my first encounter with proper Chinese food. Following dinner we walked down the narrow streets, getting hit on occasion by a firecracker (ouch!) as our eyes cast upwards toward the colourful night sky.
This is how my week in Beijing began, and the excitement didn’t wear off. I woke up excited and a little nervous to navigate the city by myself the next day. My plan was to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I boarded the subway system (thanks to a “helpful” push from the many security guards working on the platforms) and after only one transfer emerged at the famous square.
Tiananmen Square is home to some of Beijing’s main attractions, the legislative buildings, the National Center for the Performing Arts, Mao’s Mausoleum and the Forbidden City are all located within walking distance. The square itself is a large open space with various memorials erected as a salute to communism. Red flags fly and security is tight with surveillance cameras and police officers keeping watch.
One of the most overwhelming sites in Beijing is the Forbidden City. Now refered to as “the palace museum” The Forbidden city was the Imperial Palace from the Ming to the Qing dynansty and have over 900 buildings within it. The entire city is surrounded by a wall, guard towers and a moat and we off-limits to the public for 500 plus years.
This was my first taste of Chinese history and traditional architecture up close and it was incredible. The pagoda-style entrances, the intricate stone work and the elaborate halls cover 7.8 million square feet and it took me five hours to feel I had even a small understanding of the area’s significance.
It was terribly cold so I mixed the courtyard sites with the exhibits in doors, particularly enjoying the display of clocks gifted to the emperors by various European diplomats and royals during their reign. The clocks were over the top, decorated with animals, flowers and people, each inlaid with precious metals and jewels.
Another highlight was the nine dragon screen in the Forbidden City. While researching the sites in Beijing I grew somewhat fascinated by the dragon screens which illustrate the creature’s many powers.
You see, it’s the year of the dragon and I happen to be a dragon child so I feel a kinship with all things mythical and scaled. I managed to see both of the famous nine dragon screens while I was in Beijing, the other located near by in Behai Park.
Following my visit to the Forbidden City I crossed the street and headed into Jinshang Park. The park is best known for its view of the Forbidden City. After a short but steep climb I reached the top where there is a Buddhist shrine and a look out, where I took in the vastness of the ancient city from above.
I rounded out my first full day in Beijing with a visit to Silk Street and dinner with Ian, leaving me pretty wiped out and eager to flop into my cozy bed at the Peking Yard.
The rest of the week I organized using my trusty Lonely Planet and the advice of the many Chinese students staying in the hostel. I would dedicate a day to the city’s famous temples, one to its art’s district, one to music, one to the hutong alleys and further exploring in Tiananmen Square, one to the Great Wall and one to shopping for souveniers at the various markets.
Now 21 postcards and 473 photos later, I am back in South Korea and will try my best to summarize the experience in a few blog posts. Hope you enjoy!