There are plenty of things to do and places to visit in Beijing, and while it’s impossible to do everything in just a few days we certainly packed a lot in.
The Summer Palace
We spent a day exploring the Summer Palace, easily accessible by the fantastic Beijing Metro. As elsewhere in China we loved the metro – it’s easy to use and quite cheap at 2 RMB per journey. From the metro station it’s about a fifteen minute walk following the crowd, or you can take a tuk-tuk from one of the many drivers hanging about the station. At the entrance there are a number of options for tickets. You can buy an all-inclusive ticket, as we did, or you can pay just for entrance to the park and pay separately for any temples or attractions you wish to visit. In hindsight we probably should have done that as the Summer Palace is massive, and as we were there on a weekend it was very crowded. Still, we managed to visit most of the included sights.
The Summer Palace is amazing. The location is beautiful, on a lake, with gorgeous gardens and pagodas and an extremely long covered walkway.
You can explore parts of the palace at no extra charge, although there’s not a great deal of ‘exciting’ things in those parts. What was interesting was just wandering around the complex. Beautiful wooden architecture overlooks the water, lined most of the way around with giant waterlilies. Families hire paddle boats shaped like swans or tug boats or lilies or any number of things and paddle frantically, moving slowly across the water. Others have brought their picnics and spread out in groups, usually in the way of anyone wanting to move around.
There are a number of expansive and elaborately decorated temples in the park, most of which require an inordinate number of stairs to get to of course. Still, I found each to be well worth the climb. John may disagree, but he’s not as interested in temples as I am! We enjoyed ice-creams in a little gazebo and realised how tired we were of watching women hold their small children up in the middle of EATING AREAS to urinate in the middle of the floor. Where other kids and old men were walking around barefoot. Where three metres to the left there was a garden they could have used.
One thing I found in China, and in particular at the Summer Palace, was that places are given really poetic names. We visited the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures, the Cloud Dispelling Hall, the Sea of Wisdom, the Court of Scenic Pictures and more. Unfortunately the names often tell you very little about the place – for example what sounded like an amazing garden turned out to be a concreted area with seating where the royal family would watch theatrical performances.
Both John and I enjoyed the Summer Palace far more than the Forbidden City. While the name lacks the mystique of the Forbidden City, the setting is in every way superior and it’s easy to spend hours there just meandering, enjoying the beauty of the place. And it still comes with a whole lot of historical and cultural heritage to satisfy anyone looking for it!
Yonghegong Lama Temple
This was by far my favourite temple in Beijing, and maybe in all of China. It was magnificent. The complex is extensive and you can take photographs almost everyone. And, uniquely, the Lama Temple Complex actually holds a Guinness World Record! In one of the temples there is an extraordinarily tall white sandalwood statue of the Maitreya Buddha, which was carved from a single tree. And it’s the tallest in the world according to the Guinness World Record plaque attached to a pillar outside! That was certainly a little bit novel, although the gilded statue is without doubt impressive in its enormity.
The temples, of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, were all so colourful, and although everything above arm’s reach was heavily laden with dust this only added to the charm [although probably not if you’re asthmatic, but then if so you probably want to avoid China altogether]. Every surface was lavishly appointed with silk cloths or painted tiles, brightly painted frescoes and piles of sacrificial items. It was as if nothing was ever enough – someone kept finding more to add, and it only added to the mystical atmosphere. Well-worn cushions for worshippers lay in neat rows before the Buddha statues, and rarely were they not occupied. Strangely, the smell of sandalwood was absent, as burning incense was not allowed inside the temples. Foreign and domestic tourists alike gazed in awe at the decoration of the temple interiors, while young girls posed with fingers outstretched in ‘peace’ signs for photos out the front.
Groups on guided tours flew by, crowding the interiors with guides talking into their microphones and the history relayed through matching headphones. Others studied guidebooks for the history of each temple. I tried to study the individual Buddhas and other statues, thinking of all the differences between this and the dozens of Buddhist temples I’d seen previously in south-east Asia, where they follow a different stream of Buddhism. I loved this temple. It was colourful, full of history, and yet still alive – monks live in the complex and study, and while it’s very open to visitors it also draws worshippers to pray despite the interruptions of tourists.
The Confucius Temple & Guozijian Museum
Just down the street from the Lama Temple is a Confucius Temple and museum, and it’s far less frequented than its grander neighbour. While the Lama Temple was crowded and almost raucous, the Confucius Temple was barely patronised and far more peaceful. In the centre we found a beautiful pagoda set inside a moat, although we couldn’t enter it. The front of the complex holds grassy lawns and huge trees, and you pass through a huge arched gateway.
To the east of the complex is a museum housing hundreds of stone stelae, many hundreds of years old and documenting a variety of things. Some are so old that the inscriptions have almost completely disappeared while some are so well preserved that it looks as though they were carved yesterday. I managed to obey the signs warning you not to touch the stelae, despite my intense desire to run my fingers over the beautifully engraved script. I’m a very tactile person, and being able to touch things enhances my experience and connection to a place I visit.
Lamb BBQ Lunch
I’d found a place in Lonely Planet that wasn’t far from the Confucius Temple, and sounded appealing. A local restaurant, serving roasted legs of lamb on a spit over a barbecue built into your table. I was pretty keen on the idea of roast lamb. The restaurant itself looked nothing special at all, and could be easily missed if you weren’t looking for it. We grabbed a table and tried to order some lamb – our information said you ordered in chunks of 500g. However, it’s actually based on whatever size legs of lamb they have, and the smallest was almost 2kg. We were a little concerned as this was going to be way too much for two people! And then two Dutch women walked in and appeared equally confused after trying to explain to the waiter what they wanted without speaking any Mandarin. A solution appeared – we’d share the lamb we’d ordered, it would be the right size for four people! And so it was.
We had a wonderful time chatting with our new friends, a girl about our age who was travelling with her grandmother. Soon the lamb was brought out, partly cooked. It was our job to cut bits off the leg on the spit with a knife on a long handle and what looked more like a poker. It was a challenge! We then laid the chunks on the grill to finish cooking before dipping them into the variety of dried herbs and spices they brought out to us. It was delicious! So delicious, in fact, that I even chewed on the bones. And I hate doing that.
Our day ended with a wander through the Beihai Gardens. We’d heard they were beautiful and there was also supposed to be a geocache there with some travelbugs that I wanted to find. Unfortunately despite our best efforts were were completely unable to locate the cache. We looked everywhere with absolutely no success.
It was our last day and we were exhausted, and John’s feet were killing him. It was time to head ‘home’, back to our little room in Lucky Family Hostel, for the last time. We wandered through some of the hutongs on the way back, including the popular trendy one with lots of pretty shops. I am unable to explain the painted ceramic penises.
We planned to go out for Peking Duck but by the time food was on the agenda it was pouring with rain. Instead we ordered from a menu in the hostel and had some seriously delicious food delivered without having to leave the comfort of the couch.