China is an amazing country and anyone planning to attend the Olympic games in Beijing should make sure to travel to as many of the outlying regions as possible.
INSIDE THE FORBIDDEN CITY
Beijing itself is not as busy as one might expect given the size of the population. My husband and I stayed at the Crown Plaza Hotel on Wangfujing Dajie. The hotel is 5 star and within walking distance to the very popular Wangfujing mall, Tianneman square, the Forbidden City, and Jingsheng Park. The streets were exceptionally clean and seemed quite safe, although the university students who will engage you in conversation and try to whisk you off to buy some dubious artworks were quite annoying though relatively harmless.
A great walking trip is to head south up Wangfujing Dajie, then right at the famous Beijing Hotel. This will take you to Tianneman Square and the Forbidden City. If you exit the Forbidden City at the rear then you can make your way through Jinsheng Park and continue on through some of the older parts of Beijing before making a full circle back to Wangfujing Dajie.
THE MALL AT WANFUJING DAJIE
While Tianneman Square is impressive you won't need to spend too much time there in order to see all the sights. The Forbidden City on the other hand could take an entire day to explore with its many palaces and courtyards covering many blocks of the city. It is possible to buy an electronic guide on the way into the city which activates as you walk through. I found the guide annoying and spent more time trying to read the electronic map and figure out where I was. It's best just to walk through and read the descriptors that are situated at each location and tell you the same information that the guide does. This way you can wander randomly and take your time to read the history and take in the sites at your leisure. The city can be followed straight through to the rear exit near Jinsheng Park or you can diverge left and right to other compounds before leaving.
Jinsheng Park is both peaceful and beautiful and is the scene of local line dancing during the middle of the day. Its most famous spot is the tree where one of the Chinese ministry hung himself. This is duly signposted. The Chinese are not shy when it comes to exercise and most parks have equipment to assist the elderly while they stretch and practice tai chi.
If you are hungry and feeling adventurous you can turn right before you get to the Beijing hotel and try some of the more exotic foods displayed in Snack Street. This laneway is full of the most unusual dishes you could ever wish to eat - including a variety of skewered bugs that seem to be a delicacy with the Chinese. Or you might wish to turn left at the One stop Print shop and dine at Quanjude - a restaurant famous for it's Peking Duck. This restaurant is also not for the fainthearted as they serve every piece of duck as part of a banquet. We were not too keen on the duck hearts or tripe but the Peking Duck itself was divine. If you like something a little less adventurous then the many Western hotels in the area cater quite nicely for the gourmet traveller.
About 2 hours out of the city by car you can find the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Most tourists head to the Great Wall at Badaling, which is closer to Beijing itself but far more crowded. The Mutianyu section of the wall is set amongst beautiful mountain scenery and is close to the Ming Tombs. The wall is reached via a cable car (although you can walk the first section if you are feeling fit) and the climb takes a good hour and a half to complete. It is a little taxing on the calves if you aren't used to climbing stairs as it is quite steep in some sections, particularly at the end where the stairs go straight up to a lookout. To reach the cable car you need to run the gauntlet of vendors so if you don't want to buy any cheap souvenirs then the best advice is to keep your head down and just keep walking. Browse and you will inevitably end up buying. Take some water with you as the climb is quite strenuous. We rode in the cable car that Bill Clinton took when he visited the area. Mutianyu is quite breathtaking for its scenery and the drive through the mountains was a pleasant break from the fumes and traffic of Beijing.
From Mutianyu it is a short trip to the Ming Tombs. We visited the underground crypt at Ding Ling which turned out to be a large empty cavern but the architecture there was quite amazing and the gardens really beautiful. There were many other tombs in the area, apparently more impressive, but I think our driver was in a hurry to get back to Beijing so he bypassed the others.
Another short drive from Beijing is the magnificent Summer Palace. We spent 3 hours here but it really needs a full day to take everything in properly. The palace is situated on a large lake, with many bridges and smaller buildings placed strategically around the lake. The walk around the lake alone took 2 hours, with its many temples and souvenir shops. The main palace has been lovingly restored and is resplendent in vibrant colours. A walk to the upper most story of the palace reveals some magnificent views and each section displayed items of furniture and jewellery amongst other precious pieces.
The history of the palace and the Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced Shi Shi) is fascinating and I found this more impressive than the Forbidden City. During the warmer months it is possible to take a paddle boat out on Kunming Lake and to picnic amongst the weeping willows which line the banks of the river.
SUMMER PALACE ON KUNMING LAKE
A taxi ride to the Summer Palace, which includes the driver waiting for you and returning you to your hotel many hours later costs about $45 Australian and is great value. Buses run regularly through the city but the fumes and the traffic delays were real headache material and the faster you get to your destination the better.
The best way to see the old and new parts of the city is to take a Hutong tour. This involves travelling by rickshaw through the laneways where original housing still exists. On our Hutong tour we visited the palace of Prince Gong. These fabulous grounds are situated in central Beijing and are luxurious by any standards. We also visited the home of a local couple to see how the average Chinese citizen lives. These people had one child only as prescribed by the Chinese government and lived modestly by opening their home to tourists. The husband was a retired bottle painter, a craft which is practiced all through China and the wife was an ex model. The house was a small fibro style bungalow and was situated amongst five other homes behind a gate way which led off an alley in the middle of the city. These small communes were very close knit and the residents made sure they were each taken care of - kind of like an elderly citizens village. The Chinese are very superstitious and every gate had banners on each side of it with symbols of good fortune.
Walking is probably the best way to navigate the city as long as you get the name of your hotel written down in Chinese just in case you get lost.
The former capital of China is far more picturesque than Beijing. The town is surrounded by the ancient city wall with a gate at each of the north, south, east and west points of the city and with the ancient bell tower situated at the heart of the town on a roundabout.
We stayed at the Bell Tower Hotel which sits directly opposite the Bell Tower and is therefore central to all the sites that the city has to offer.
A 15 minute walk from the Bell Tower in any direction will lead you to the fortress that is the city wall. Steps lead to the top of the wall which is at least the width of one street. The walls are made of blue stone blocks and are lined with red lanterns. They afford a magnificent view of the town itself. A beautiful river flows from the East gate around the wall and past the south gate. The river has been lined with parks where many residents spent time with their children and the elderly played games and performed their exercises.
Xian is most famous for its Terracotta Warriors (shown here). These life sized statues were unearthed by a peasant farmer who was digging a well and who uncovered the head of one of the statues. He took his find to the government who then began an archaelogical dig which was to extend for miles.