Posts tagged: tour

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Things to See & Do

By , April 22, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

The Forbidden City is a must see, but here are som other recommendations

Few cities have seen as much change as Beijing. When I lived there in the late 1990s, farmers still entered the city with mule-drawn carts to sell their harvest on some random corner in downtown Beijing. They could do that then because many of the farms were just outside of the fourth ring road. Today, fruits and vegetables are largely bought in supermarkets. Flashy office buildings fill the skyline and luxury cars line the roads. In less than two decades, Beijing has transformed from a sleepy capital city into a major, modern metropolis.

But echos of the past still fill the streets and tourists – if they know where to look – can still see customs that are centuries old. Old men still walk their birds every morning; candied hawthorn sticks are still hawked by street sellers; and women practice their taichi early in the morning in Beijing’s various parks. For a first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy thinks should not be missed.

Jingshan Park at Dawn

My Dad, first timer to Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Here is a secret about Beijing. Although it is a city of over 21 million people, you can have a little bit of it to yourself very early in the morning. So learn to love your jetlag and just get up when your body tells you to, which, for most people traveling from the United States, will be around dawn. One place you want to visit that early in the morning is Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park sits right behind the Forbidden City. The hill that is the park’s defining feature was created from the dirt that was dug up to make the Imperial Palace’s moat, and it offers some of the most spectacular views of Beijing. As soon as you enter the park, follow the signs that take you to the top of the hill. In a few hours, the hill will be a mad house but at 7 in the morning you could easily be the only one at the top. Enjoy the silence, the view and the light breeze across your face. Just to the south you will see the shimmering yellow rooves of the Forbidden City – on a sunny morning, the rooves will glow. But even on a cloudy or rainy day the view is not to be missed. And don’t forget to look at the other views – on the north side you will see the Drum and Bell towers; to the west will be the white pagoda of Houhai. Enjoy it for as long as you like, knowing that for hundreds of years, others have shared in this view. Then walk down and watch the senior set doing their taichi exercises.

Walk the Hutongs

My Dad, enjoying the Beijing hutongs

Hutongs – the alleyways where Beijing residents have lived since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – are unique to northern China. No other place in the world has such architecture and it is a pity to not spend some time exploring these lanes. At one point the entire city was made up of hutongs but unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s desire to make Beijing into a “modern” city for the 2008 Olympics, many of the hutongs were demolished for large, non-descript apartment housing. However, there are still some hutongs left to explore where you can see how everyday life has been lived for centuries. One hutong area is the between the Drum Tower and the Lama Temple. This area has become westernized and you will find bars, coffee shops and high-end restaurants that cater to the expat crowd. But I do enjoy sitting in Café Confucius, having a nice latte with their cat, and watching everyday life pass by. If your travels do not take you to that area, you can also explore the hutongs just south of Tiananmen known as Dashilar. While a much more commercial district, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.

Inside Mei Lanfang’s siheyuan home

Do remember though that people still live in these hutongs. And while it is completely fine to wander the alleyways, it is not fine to enter into the courtyards where people live, even if the door is open. If you would like to see a traditional hutong home – known as a siheyuan (“four connected wall garden”) – check out the Mei Lanfang Museum over in the Huguosi hutong area, one of my favorite hutong areas. Not only will you be able to walk through a siheyuan home, but you will learn about a rather interesting and charismatic figure in Peking Opera and Chinese history.

Huguosi Hutong Area at night, Oct. 2018

Great Wall

Yes, you should go to the Great Wall. It’s mesmerizing to stand atop the Wall and look as it stretches endlessly into the distance. The only real question is, which part of the wall to see. Should you see the is the reconstructed wall or the “wild wall?”  I generally recommend the reconstructed wall for a first-timer. And if reconstructed is what you choose, the section to go to is Mutianyu (which if you walk in the direction of watchtower 23, you will hit the wild wall). If there are two or more of you, then hiring a driver to spend the day out there is worth it. The driver generally knows to leave early – the wall opens at 8 AM and, on a weekday, if you are there at 8, you will have some of the wall to yourself. As I mentioned yesterday, I have used Miles Meng’s service the last two times I have visited the Wall and find it well worth it.

Dad & me at the Mutianyu Great Wall, Oct. 2018

If you want to do the “wild wall,” do not do it alone.  I can’t stress that enough. Do it with a group so that you have a guide in case there are any accidents. Sprained ankles are probably the most common, but there are significant drops in certain places where the path narrows. I recommend signing up for a trip with Beijing Hikers. Usually it is a group of 10 to 15 people, with a bus pickup in downtown Beijing. If you are doing the wild wall, do wear hiking shoes.

Summer Palace

After the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is perhaps one of the most extraordinary tourist sites in Beijing. As its name connotes, it was the summer home of the Qing emperors after the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 (with some of the most prized antiquities of China carted off).  While the Summer Palace certainly has buildings that are must sees, it is more than just a palace. It is a massive, beautiful park where you could easily spend a whole day if you have the time. People may say that you only need two hours to “do” the Summer Palace, but this would be a mistake. After seeing the major sites in the park, go off on some of the side paths and enjoy the peace and quiet with spectacular views of the lake and Beijing to the southeast. Bring your lunch as the Summer Palace is a great place to picnic, relax and just have fun.

Beijing’s Summer Palace on a clear October day

Lama Temple

Beijing has quite a number of impressive Buddhist temples but the Lama Temple outshines them all.  Originally built as a residence for one of the Qing Dynasty princes, the building was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 1744 and has remained one ever since. It is still a practicing monastery and if you get there early enough, you might be able to see the end of the morning group prayers. It is something to listen to rather than to watch. In fact, much of the experience at the Lama Temple is about your other senses. Through out the temple complex, the sweet smell of incense will fill your nose and even though it is often crowded, it is quiet enough that you can hear the tinkle of the small bells hanging in the breeze. It is this feeling of peacefulness – in the heart of Beijing – that will be a more lasting memory than any picture.

Burning incense inside Beijing’s Lama Temple

The World Trade Center’s 6th Floor Terrace

Now that you have seen the old, it’s time to bask in the new.  The place to do that is China’s World Trade Center (Guomao – 国贸), a massive complex of office buildings, hotels and a multi-floored mall in the southeast corner of Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The two, glass brown buildings at the south of the complex, the ones that look very 1970s, were the original World Trade Center buildings that opened around 1990. I actually worked in one of them in 1999 and at that time, those two towers were surrounded by shanty towns. Today, those towns have been replaced by some of China’s most impressive, glittering architecture, including the imposing CCTV tower. And there is no better place to view Beijing’s modern architecture than from the 6th floor terrace of the World Trade Center mall.  If you find yourself getting lost in the maze of a mall, just follow the signs to the Blue Frog restaurant. The terrace shares space with that restaurant. But no worries if you are not up for a bite. Fortunately, most of the terrace is free and open to the public. 

Viewing China’s present from the 6th Floor Terrace at World Trade

These are just a few suggestions of what to see in Beijing. The most important thing is just being there, in the heart of this vibrant city that is changing the world. Was there something else you did in Beijing that didn’t make the list and should have?  Please feel free to comment below about your favorite Beijing experiences. And join us tomorrow as we conclude this series with the all important “what to eat” in Beijing. 

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Know Before You Go

By , April 21, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Getting Ready for the Flight to Beijing

Beijing has long fascinated the Western mind. Since Marco Polo published his travelogue of China in 1300, Westerns have been inspired to visit Beijing and have rarely left disappointed.  And rightfully so for the emperors of China knew what they were doing when they built the city. On a clear day, Beijing’s imposing, ancient architecture, with its blazing red walls and shimmering gold rooves, pops against the bright blue sky. Even with some of the city’s destruction during the Mao era and, more recently, for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is still a city like no other in the world.

But for a first time visitor, this city of 21 million people can overwhelm. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to eat. How does one prioritize?  China Law & Policy is here to help. In this three-part Just for Fun series, we give some pointers – based on our own experience in Beijing – on what a first time visitor should look to do. What should you see?  What should you eat?  Today, we start with some preliminary matters to take care of before you even get on your flight to Beijing.  For those of you who are regular visitors to Beijing, feel free to share in the comment section what you think is essential for a first-timer needs to prepare for his or her trip.

Virtual Private Networks

Before you get to the Great Wall, you will encounter the China Firewall

As soon as you arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport, you will be behind “China’s Great Firewall.” Those websites you visit daily – the New York Times, anything Google related (think gmail, maps), Facebook, Twitter – are blocked by government decree. But there are ways around it; one way is the use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). Technically, accessing the internet through anything other than access points provided by the Chinese government is a violation of 1997 temporary regulations that are still in effect. And Chinese citizens have been fined ($150) during a recent government campaign against VPN usage. But most tourists that visit China use a VPN and here is a list of VPNs that usually work in China.  Here though is the clincher – if you are going to use one, you have to download it on all your electronic devices before you leave for China. Because VPN’s are essentially illegal in China, their websites are blocked in China and app stores are not permitted to offer VPNs once you are in China. So be sure to download them on your cell phone, laptop, etc., a few days before you leave and play with them so you know how to work them. A VPN will run you between $12 to $15/month. Almost all of the VPNs require automatic renewal on your credit card, so mark your calendar to terminate your subscription once you return.

Your Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It

You will need your passport to get on to Tiananmen Square

Second thing to note is that you need to travel with your passport on you at all times (and in case you missed it in preparing, you need a visa to get in). The U.S. Department of State recently reminded tourists traveling to China to always carry their passports. Additionally, you will need it to get through security checkpoints at certain tourist sites, such as Tiananmen Square. More importantly, for those traveling to China in their golden years, some tourist sites give a discount – sometimes as much as 50%! – to anyone 60 years and older (Forbidden City, Summer Palace are two such places). But the only way to verify that fact is by showing your passport. So don’t miss out on that deal.

Cash is King, At Least for Tourists

For tourists, China is still very much a cash-based society. China sort of skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile payments.  At a small, hole-in-the-wall shop on some random street in Beijing, you will see Chinese people just flashing their phone at a machine to pay for their water. Fortunately for tourists, these shops still must accept cash. But they won’t accept credit card. For sure you can use your credit card at your hotel, for dinners at more established restaurants, and in fancier shops. When it comes to everything else, you will need cash. So you will be going to the ATM. . . a lot.  You should be able to use your ATM card at the major Chinese banks – Bank of China, China Construction Bank, ICBC, and China Merchant Bank, all of which are common around the city.  And remember, you cannot purchase Chinese money outside of China.  So as soon as you get out of customs at the airport, make a stop at one of the many ATMs that are in the airport and withdraw some cash. How much you need for the trip all depends on what you plan to do and what you plan to buy.

How to Get Around

Now, for taxis. It will be almost impossible to hail one off the street and Uber and Lyft are not really used by Chinese taxi drivers. They use DiDi, which does now have an English version but I have yet to use it. So if you don’t use Didi, empty taxis will drive right by you – even with your hand held up trying to hail them. For some reason, taxi drivers prefer a DiDi fare over a hail. So if you don’t want to download Didi on your cell phone, then your best friend is going to be Beijing’s extensive subway system which is a great way to experience Beijing as a Beijinger. But try to avoid rush hour when the trains are packed. Also, some stops are not terribly close to the tourist attraction and often there is a long walk to transfer trains.  So if you are traveling with someone who has challenges walking a lot, investing in a car service is a good idea. For the past few years, I have used Miles Meng (click here for info – just email Miles and he will set it up and give you the price) for airport pick-ups, driving to the Great Wall, and heading out to the Summer Palace. The driver drops you off and then tells you where to meet for the pick-up. It is more expensive than the subway, but when I was traveling with my Dad, a senior, it was a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time without tiring him out.

Toilet Paper – Don’t Leave Home Without It

Some things never change – a view of the Forbidden City at Sunset, Oct. 2018

When I first went to China in 1993, my roommate, who had lived in China before, immediately told me that I needed to carry a roll of toilet paper with me. Twenty-six years later, that advice is still applicable. Beijing is great in terms of public toilets. It’s just that the public toilets don’t supply toilet paper. Which makes sense in a city of 21 million people; imagine how much of the city budget would be earmarked for toilet paper. While you could carry pocket tissues and they would do the same job, in the end, I just end up throwing a roll in my backpack. And you can buy very nice toilet paper in local shops and supermarkets when you arrive – no need to bring that from the U.S. And in terms of public bathrooms, most now do offer at least one stall that is a “western” toilet and not a squat toilet. Although in more dubious bathrooms off the beaten path, I choose the squat toilet over a sit down.  Now that you have the preliminary matters down, it is time to start planning the itinerary!  Join us tomorrow when China Law & Policy shares some of its favorite things to see and do in Beijing.

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