I went to China for a week in 2010 and hit up some key sites: Beijing, the Great Wall, and Xi’an. I aim to go back and explore more of China in the future, but below are a few highlights of eastern China.
I stayed with a friend in Beijing and pretty much followed his lead on restaurants, nightlife, etc. I was impressed by the diversity and energy of Beijing — it’s a massive, sprawling city, but it somehow feels manageable. The numerous parks are great respites from the busy streets, and you’ll often see large groups of people doing choreographed stretching and exercises in various parks throughout the city.
First things first, the Forbidden City is an essential part of any visit, with its Palace Museum at the heart of the area. Once you pass through the grandiose Tiananmen gateway entering the city, you’ll be overwhelmed with culture and history! It has an outstanding collection of palaces and artifacts from several Emperors from the Ming to the Qing dynasties (early 1400s – early 1900s). There are some beautiful temples nearby, as well, such as the Imperial Ancestral Temple located just outside the Meridian Gate.
Note that this complex is massive and worth investing a bit of time on. If you’re able to give it a full day, all the better.
Scam Alert: 1) I used a legitimate, major-brand atm inside the lobby of a building (with no weird skimming devices or signs of tampering) to take out a bit of money, and $1,000 was instantly deducted from my account — from Moscow (…go figure). Anyhow, my bank’s fraud department credited me the amount, but just a warning to check your account after using ATMs. 2) Before going, I was warned about a scam where ladies at the Forbidden City would invite guys to have tea, in order to practice their English — and you later find out that the tea they ordered (in cahoots with the tea shop owner) is purportedly a rare $500 variety– and they threaten to call the police unless you pay up. (NB — Nobody did that to me, but just flagging that scam for general awareness. Perhaps it happened to one guy and it became an urban legend).
Just outside the Forbidden City is the Tiananmen Square, as well as the adjacent, massive Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress meets. It’s worth taking a tour or exploring the Great Hall, even it just to see the gigantic halls and decorations. Also in this area is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, as well as some large, beautiful parks in the surrounding vicinity. The gigantic Zhengyangmen gatehouse dates back to 1419 and is quite impressive!
Further south in Beijing is the Temple of Heaven, a complex dating to 1420, where the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors would pray for a bountiful harvest. The surrounding park is huge and hosts several exercise groups, and food vendors, as well as the Museum of Natural History. On the northern side of town, the Temple of Confucius is another impressive site worth a visit.
The Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods, which are not only scenic but have become popular for hosting shops, restaurants, and bars. The Shichahai District is one such area. I took a cooking class at the Black Sesame Kitchen in the Zhonglao Hutong, which I highly recommend. The course I took was pretty basic (a fried rice dish) but it was delicious — and a lot of fun!
All the food I had was delicious! I especially recommend trying hot pot (where they bring you raw food to cook to your liking at the table). Also, don’t miss Peking Duck — with hoisin sauce, spring onions and thin pancakes. Finally, be on the lookout for Mapo Dofu — a baked tofu stew with plenty of Sichuan peppercorns that make your mouth a bit numb. It’s a tasty and unique dish!
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is one of those world-famous landmarks that is worth the the hype. Walking along the sprawling path that winds its way through the mountains, you can’t help but be impressed by how much work went into building 5,500 miles of walls! While different sections were built in different periods (from the 7th – 2nd centuries BC, and later in the Ming Dynasty– 1300s – 1600s), it forms a long defensive line of fortifications along the historical northern borders of the early Chinese state.
The section I visited was about a 1.5 hour drive from Beijing — an easy day trip. There are plenty of tour companies in Beijing if you’d like to go with a package tour. I hired a driver for the day, who dropped me off at an entrance point of a section of the wall. I spent the better part of the day hiking along it, exploring the guard houses along the way and enjoying the scenery. The mountains made a great backdrop for a day hike, and the portion of the wall I was on was well-maintained (at first). Some sections were quite steep! As you’d expect, it’s important to wear good shoes, and you may want to bring water, although I found a couple people selling drinks on the wall.
At first there were a good number of tourists, but the crowd thinned as I continued along the wall until there were few. I eventually made it to a point where the maintained portion of the wall came to an end. Beyond that, the wall was completely overgrown by trees and shrubs, with some portions crumbled or decaying. As the path disappeared, it turned into full-on bushwhacking, but the rustic surroundings and the mountain scenery made the hike worth it!
As my friend told me, “you’re never going to look back and regret going to see those terracotta warriors.” I hopped a flight to Xi’an from Beijing (about two hours) and arranged a driver, who met me at the airport. Our first stop was Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Museum, the excavation site of the Terracotta Army, east of Xi’an. The army is a life-size grouping of approximately 8,000 warriors, along with horses, chariots, and Calvary, dating back to 210 BC– sculpted as funerary objects to accompany the first Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang) in the afterlife.
There are several halls where the sculptures are still being excavated, and the sheer scale of the project is astonishing! Like the Great Wall, it’s hard to imagine how much work went into making these statues. After admiring the statues, it’s worth wandering around the well-manicured grounds in the surrounding area. You can buy life-size replicas as souvenirs, but as much as I wanted to bring home a full-sized terracotta archer, I opted for the smaller set that fit in my carry-on bag.
After getting my fill of terracotta, I went on to the Huaqinggong Relic Site, only a few kilometers away. It is famous for its hot springs and being the site of the palace of several Chinese emperors. The palaces and grounds are very impressive, and it’s worth spending a couple hours walking the grounds and admiring the various temples and landscapes. It’s quite popular with domestic tour groups.
I then went into downtown Xi’an and visited the Old City walls– a sturdy, impressive fortified wall that is open to the public and surrounds the perimeter of ancient Xi’an, complete with paths for walking and biking. The walls were started in 1370 and have been refurbished multiple times over the years. They’re topped with ornate guard towers, flags, and old cannons, giving it an imposing and historic feel. If I lived here, that’s where I would go for my morning run!
Xi’an also has an excellent downtown shopping area (which becomes a night market). In addition to restaurants and food stalls, there were several souvenir shops selling art and noteworthy products like intricately-designed shadow puppets. Fortunately, pomegranates were in season and prevalent all over the place. I also had some of the best dumplings ever at a restaurant in the night market (I’ve been told Xi’an is famous for it’s dumplings).
Something for Next Time: There’s so much I still need to see in China, it’s hard to prioritize. But for a quick short list of five spots, I’d say: Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Urumqi (to get a taste of the west), and Lhasa / Tibet. As a bonus item, there’s also the Leshan Giant Buddha!