November 7, 2017


Being a tourist in Beijing - a story about my trip to the Chinese capital.

Beijing is some 1200km / 745miles from Shanghai. That in account, my initial idea was to get there by plane. However, after experiencing a few local flights - each with a good-sized delay, I opted for a connection by a rail. There are many choices ranging in price, comfort, and time - from the fastest CRH trains taking about 6 hrs, to old carriages lasting some 24h. I went with a compromise, which took roughly 12 hours. This was convenient, as I went overnight, saving on accommodation.

The train arrived at Beijing South station at around 10 am, I locked my backpack and went to see the neighborhood right away. Just a block from the station, I've noticed a parking garage. This might sound like an odd place to begin a vacation - but, like if I could care less. I let the visuals talk.

From here, I went to the Tao Ran Ting Park. It was a slow start; I guess, but while the train journey was decent, it still left me a tad broken - so a small refreshment in a park was rather useful. The views weren't bad either.

There were no other tourists, but a good number of locals practiced dancing or Taichi.

According to one lady I spoke with, it is a very popular place to do so. As we talked, I mentioned the following location on my to-do list: the Summer Palace, and got recommended that the best way to see it is from a boat. All right then, I went to check it out.

The Summer Palace is on the other side of the city, but getting there was a piece of cake thanks to the subway network and the same convenient bike-sharing system as in other major Chinese cities. In a while, I exchanged the bike for the boat, and soon the palace was in sight:

Longevity Hill, as seen from Kunming Lake.

The area covers over a square mile of gardens from Qing Dynasty, temples, and the lake. After observing it from the water, I explored it on foot.

The way it is situated, one can admire the ancient structures complementing with steep hills in the background. This disposition is very visually attractive.

selfie in front of the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

marble boat

After this set of goodness, I biked to the Peking University, to see the friend I met in Suzhou, who happens to study there. He then gave me a tour of the campus of the famous uni, which includes this pagoda..

Weiming Lake with the Boya Pagoda in the background. The campus is also placed on formed imperial gardens from the Qing Dynasty.

Then we decided to get on the top of CCTV tower, one of the tallest TV towers in the world and once the tallest structure in Beijing (405m / 1329ft). Getting bikes again, finding the entrance, "is it even open?" I was wondering after my unsuccessful attempts to get on the top of TV towers in Nanjing and Shenyang. It was! Excitement, ticket, let's go.

The observation deck is in 238m /781ft, it offers a great view, and it is open air - asking for some picture taking. Speaking of air, I've noticed that the visibility was actually quite decent, and I wondered where's that notorious Beijing's smog everyone is talking about? Well; as it turned out, there was some military parade scheduled for the following week - and every time there is some important public event like that, the government shuts down all the factories around the city around two weeks in advance, which results in a big improvement in air quality - so when world's media get footage of the city, it looks better than it actually is. I didn't know about this pattern when I planned the trip, it was pure luck.  Later on, many people I spoke during my stay confirmed that this was, by far, the best air Beijing has seen in a long time. yey!

So we enjoyed the view; unfortunately, a moment after we got to the top, they turned on the lighting system the tower has. It's formed by strong led lights that point right into the deck, making you feel like if you'd stare directly into the sun. Um, there goes that.

It was still nice, and even with the lights on, it was fun to do some photography.

However, there was another aspect annoying as hell. They put a massive tube there, amplifying any voice input. The concept is that you "can shout to the city;" but in fact, the tube is positioned before the viewing platform - so instead "into the city" it propels the voice straight into the visitors' heads. And since this attraction is much more popular among the young audience, it means that every few moments there's some 10 years old screaming their high-pitched lungs off. Oh, such pleasure. Seriously, the management clearly strived for the "best ways to ruin the user experience" award. So after not too long, we went down, where we saw a propagandist movie and a nice calligraphy show.

This marked the end of my day programme, and I went to get accommodation, supper, beer, discussion with other travellers, bed. I think that was the order.
After yesterday's "warm/up," I was off to see Beijing' ancient center, the Forbidden City. To get there from my hotel, I had a way across the Qian Men and Zhengyang Gate, which then leads on Tiananmen Square.

The square itself was one odd experience: First, the physical properties of it are colossal (this turned out to be a pattern of the day). Second, just to get there, you need to walk a lengthy metal corridor that supposed to deal with queues and leads to a security checkpoint. Or you can try your luck and cross a small section of the fence to avoid above. This can be tricky as the military and police officers are everywhere, but somehow I think it's possible. Third: once on the square, I could not stop thinking about the events that happened here in 1989. A crowd of expressed their disagreement with the political situation, and the government responded by killing a good portion of involved. Obviously, there's no memorial or any sign to remind any form of disobedience. Instead, there's Mao's mausoleum, and on the north side is the Tiananmen gate portraying the former leader.

It's possible to visit the gate, which offers a mix of communistic propaganda and ancient items. Due to its ties with the government, every few meters were special police guards.

After the gate, it was only the matter meters to the Forbidden City's entrance. This was a part I was a bit afraid of, as I was warned that it's common to wait a couple hours just to buy the tickets, but after some 30-45 minutes, I was all set. Coming in the morning paid off.

I started to explore the southeast corner of the complex, looking at the impressive architectural details..

Time flew by, and I was excited about the progress. However; then, after about an hour, I looked into the map and found out that I have seen around one eight of the property. "what?" I've realized the size of the palace, and increased my speed.

At the time I left the place, I was truly overwhelmed. Man, it is massive - I needed a break from any ancient structure. So instead of another temple, I went to see the site of the 2008 Olympic Games.

The central section of the Beijing Olympic Park, Water Cube to the left, the Bird's nest to the right.

detail of the Water Cube aka National Aquatics Center

The buildings of the park are great, with plenty of features to admire.

National Stadium, designed by Swiss' Herzog & de Meuron.

..mainly the Bird's Nest; oh, a joy to walk through. At the time of my visit, there was a soccer game. So I got a ticket and was able to see the stadium from the inside as well.

The attendance of the match didn't really match the capacity... From the back seats, you'd need binoculars to notice the players. But still, at least they make some use for it.

the structural details are top.

However, the overall impressions were inconsistent, due to the user-friendliness of the place.  As in most Chinese parks, it's prohibited to sit or walk on the grass. The installed water fountains might look neat at first glance, but at the closer look, you'll find out that they actually ripped out the pipes after the games, leaving the sinks as useless sculptures.

It's not that they wouldn't have the money or technology - on every other step you see columns with speakers and big-screen TVs, wasting electricity playing unnecessary music, and thirsty visitors are forced to buy water in overpriced bottles. Not a fan of this approach.

Anyway, the park served well as a relaxing point and as the evening was near, I went to  Jingshan Park, which has a hill with some sweet views..

even with the factories shut down, the sky was far from clean..

..but nevertheless, the views were great

forbidden city

Once witnessing dusk here, I biked to the National Centre for the Performing Arts..

..then back to Qian Men and then to get some sleep.


Day three I began at another "must-see," the Temple of Heaven.

It's a complex of religious structures and an extensive park, with a history dating to 1420.

The unique shape of the temple, rich decorative details, and pleasant weather contributed that, this was the most enjoyable ancient structure I've seen in China. Such a great piece, really.

Once I finished my tour of the temple, I moved to the north-east tip of the city to see some jewels of modern architecture.

The main goal of my visit was the Wangjing SOHO, an office/retail space by the Zaha Hadid Architects. What a beauty:

As a curious person, I checked if I could see the interiors. And luckily enough, not only I saw the offices, I was also allowed on the edge of the windowsill, which had an appealing view of the surroundings. Happiness, right there.

The following destination was the nearby placed 798 Art District, the former site of the North China Wireless Joint Equipment Factory, nowadays a maze of galleries, art studios, and fancy stores.

As I love such conversions, walking through and experiencing the purely industrial environment pulsing with new life was truly exciting.

The excitement lasted as I moved towards Beijing's central business district...

..where I wanted to see the CCTV Headquarters, the second largest office building in the world, warped in rather interesting shape.

Like many famous contemporary buildings in China, it was designed by western studios. This particular one came from Dutch's OMA.

The construction on the right is the CITIC Tower. Once finished, this will be the tallest building in Beijing, at the height of 528m / 1732ft. (also a foreign design, by the way)

talking about a golden age for construction..

This was the last stop of my trip, all I saw later was a restaurant and the departure hall at the Beijing South railway station.

See my other articles about China, and follow me on FacebookTwitter or Instagram for upcoming posts. Thanks for reading.

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories