International Travels, China

Beijing Memoirs 1: Great Wall, Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square, Ming Tombs, Lama Temple and Beijing Zoo

Exploring Beijing is like traveling back in time to about 3000 BC. The temples and other infrastructures were preserved, and others, beautifully remade you wouldn’t know the difference.

True, it is difficult to communicate in English when you’re just walking the street and asking for directions. It is also quite amusing to buy something from a bakery where the only English phrase the lady knows is “very good” – I’ll tell you more about that in a different story altogether. And that was why we chose to get an English-speaking tour guide from Travel China Guide (more on pre-departure research and decision-making).

Long before we left Manila for Beijing, I have been researching and constantly monitoring the weather there for two things: watching out for any smog alert (I didn’t want to have to buy bottled air) and the temperature. This is going to be Mary’s first “freezing” temperature travel and I wanted us to be well-prepared. So we already expected temperatures from a high of 6 degrees Celsius (42 F) to about -6 C (20 F).

Beijing Memoirs: Must-haves in a cold country: Coat, inner sweater, heat tech under garment, gloves, muffler / scarf, bonnet/cap. This photo was taken at the Sacred Way leading to the Ming Tombs

We each had one pair of Uniqlo extra warm heat-tech under garments, gloves, mufflers, warm jackets and inner sweaters. At one point, when we climbed the Badaling Great Wall, I had 4 layers – heat tech, shirt, sweater and a warm jacket. It is always best to wear layers as the cars have heaters and it gets warm inside, and even when inside establishments. We brought a hot tumbler of tea or coffee anywhere we went. The reason I discuss this first is, you would sadly not enjoy the scenery if you’re freezing.

1. Great Wall in Badaling

After descending the Great Wall, and carrying 4 layers of clothes, here's a jump despite the cold! Photo taken using an iPhone 5s
Beijing Memoirs: A triumphant jump amidst 4 layers of clothes on that cold March morning

It is known to be the most-preserved and most-visited section of the Wall (I like saying “the wall” makes me feel like I’m a part of GoT). It is also easier to climb because the steps are not as steep as the others, and handrails have been erected there to assist climbers and believe me – they proved to be very helpful on our trek up the wall. The total length of the Badaling Great Wall is about 12km and may take a total of 3 hours to trek and gazillions of energy in that cold March morning.

The steep steps at the Badaling Great Wall, looking at the Watch Tower where we stopped next. Photo owned by the blogger.
Beijing Memoirs: The steep steps at the Badaling Great Wall, looking at the Watch Tower where we stopped next. Photo owned by the blogger.

We walked at our own pace, some where faster, some were slower than us. Kids, elderly, couples, and groupies. Most of the visitors that day were Caucasians. We ended our own journey at the store that sells keepsakes and hot choco or coffee for those who’ve been bitten by the cold. At the end of the trek, we were greeted by our guide who already had our “Great Wall Booklet” ready. It’s got a picture of us before we ascended the wall, and the many faces of the wall across all seasons of the year – Only at 100 Yuan (700 PhP).

2. Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square

At the time of our visit, there were world leaders at the Tiananmen Square and it was bumped off our itinerary, but we still chose to at least walk by it, since it was only about 5 minutes from the hotel we were staying at. And besides, I promised my mother a picture of the Chairman.

Beijing Memoirs: Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao

We weren’t sure if it were just for the dignitaries, but man, the place is well guarded. Even when we were walking the opposite direction, and farther from the Square, there were guards (or soldiers on standby) in every block on top of those in roving vehicles. Any citizen who goes to the Square is required to show his national ID. As foreigners, we were ready to hand our passports but the guard just waved us in. We were not even inside the Square yet. That’s just to get closer to the gates.

The Forbidden City is also one of the most-visited, most recognizable icon of Beijing, if not of the whole country. It is so called because in the ancient times, only the emperor and his wife and concubines, his workers, and guests were allowed to get in the 180-hectare complex.

Sundial at the Forbidden City - it never gets old. It still tells the time no matter what modernization happens to mankind.
Beijing Memoirs: Ancient and still accurate – the sun dial at the Forbidden City

10,000 is believed in the ancient Chinese times as the “Divine Perfection”, and so as invincible and powerful he believes him to be, the emperor has ordered to have 9,999 rooms created in the Forbidden City to show that he is next only to the supreme being. Also, only an emperor can use the number 9 in anything – 9×9 golden nails at the gates, 9 animal-guardians on top of the roofs, 9 dragons, and so on.

Beijing Memoirs: Forbidden City

The complex is surrounded by a moat (originally for defensive purposes) and its roofs are colored yellow (the color of emperors) and red (lucky color).

Forbidden City and its 52-m wide moat
Beijing Memoirs: The moat outside the Forbidden City
The south exit of the Forbidden City with a picturesque pagoda nestled on top of a hill.
Beijing Memoirs: The south exit of the Forbidden City with a picturesque pagoda nestled on top of a hill.

3. Ming Tombs

Is it creepy to be visiting tombs? Not while we were on our way there. But leaving it? Jerry, our guide, had us cross a gate upon exiting while saying a Chinese phrase that meant, “I’m leaving” or something like that so that the emperor’s spirit won’t keep our souls captive. We weren’t allowed to look back.

The Sacred Way (get this – the first time I typed the word – I miss-typed it into scared), the road leading to the Ming Tombs, sometimes called “Spirit Way” or “Divine Road” is a road of 7 kilometers ultimately leading to the necropolis, housing the Wangli Tomb, which is the only one open for visitors. The Sacred Way itself is guarded by 18 pairs of marble larger than life statutes. The tomb was a site chosen very carefully by Yongle Emperor for Feng Shui purposes.

Beijing Memoirs: The mythical creature, Qilin, usually means good omen bringing about Prosperity, Longevity and Serenity. This one is located just outside the Ming Tombs, but can be seen on most tourist spots in only in Beijing but in the whole of East Asia.

During the excavation in the 1950’s, a lot of treasures and artifacts were recovered and are now on display at the National Treasury at the Forbidden City. Sadly, not all of the tombs can be preserved so they only opened one for tour purposes. Even the tombs were replicas, but the underground structure is still worthy of admiration. It was a dome from the outside, and a really big space down below.

Ming Tomb - the underground mauseoleum of Yongle Emperor
Beijing Memoirs: After descending the Great Wall, and carrying 4 layers of clothes, here’s a jump despite the cold! Photo taken using an iPhone 5s

It is along the way coming back to the city from the Badaling Great Wall so it’s not a waste of time to visit. However, if you’re going out of your way just to see the tombs (meaning, you’ve gone to a different section of the great wall and you’re not headed to Badaling), you can skip this altogether.

4. Lama Temple

Getting a glimpse, a fleeting feel of a Tibetan Buddhism in the midst of Beijing is a what you get when visiting the Wanfuge (means ten thousand happiness) Lama Temple. There were monks when we visited, and we were given joss sticks and while we admired the place, our guide whispered his prayers to the Buddha.

It was said that the 7th Dalai Lama gifted Emperor Qianlong with a 26-meter high statue of Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), made of sandawood.

Beijing Memoirs: Wanfuge Lama Temple – Monks, Buddhas, Joss sticks

5. Beijing Zoo

Since we missed the Pandas while in Macau for Mary’s birthday last year, I made sure when preparing the itinerary that this was part of the trip and wow! Not only was it a part, it was the first stop-over!

While pandas are known to be asleep 49% of the time, they only spend 2% of their time awake and wandering – that explains why most of us get frustrated when go to a zoo and find they snoozing. But nope, not this time. They were all hungry at about 930 in the morning. While the zoo houses many other animals endemic to the country, and those that we often see in zoos, we only stopped to see the pandas as we had a full day ahead.

Beijing Memoirs: First order of business is the Zoo to meet the Pandas!!!

I know, people always say pandas are the greatest example that you can choose to eat leaves only (their diet is 99% bamboo) and remain fat. Blame it on their metabolic rate and a sedentary lifestyle. Imagine if they only spend 2% wandering, then that means 98% of the time they’re either eating OR sleeping.

But, Mary’s day just got jump-started when she saw her favorite animals (next to cats, I must say). Don’t miss it when you’re in Beijing, or Macau, or Tawain.

Beijing Memoirs: A happy Panda eating his bamboo leaves away at the Beijing Zoo

While I’ve been a fan of DIY trips like Hong Kong, Macau and Tokyo, and believing that getting lost is part of the fun, the Beijing trip was different. It had to be organized, we had to make sure we didn’t break any laws, and that we had an English-speaking guide. Most of the time, his tips on who not to talk to and what not to do proved to be really helpful.

On the next Beijing blog (which hopefully doesn’t take months to finish), I will blog about Summer Palace / Temple of Heaven / Hutong / Days Inn Hotel and the third one will be on tips in preparing a Chinese Tourist Visa for a Philippine Passport Holder.

Beijing Memoirs: Before ascending the Great Wall in Badaling.

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