On this trip I travel far into the Eastern sun and land in Beijing the capital of China where I discover the fascinating history of the Forbidden City and get to climb a (small) section of The Great Wall of China. And discover that as well as great food everywhere China is the land of the selfie!
I travelled the northern route to get to Beijing via Helsinki on one of Finnair’s splendid new A350 XWB aircraft. It’s an experience I’ve already written about in some detail so I won’t go on too much here but needless to say the 25% cabin noise reduction and the superb hospitality on offer in business class ensured a smooth and comfortable journey.
As you approach the 23 million strong capital of China the vast swathes of landmass made up of frozen lakes and mountain ranges give way to the miles of urban conurbation. Beijing Capital International Airport is 40 minutes drive north east of the main city. I had checked into Hotel Rosewood for a guaranteed relaxing stay and their fantastic breakfasts.
In addition to the 23 million people who live and work in Beijing there are five million cars. Buying a car is a lottery, literally as you have to take part in a draw to be entitled to buy one. This system is designed to keep the traffic numbers down. I saw no evidence of this working at all. There are cars everywhere 24 hours a day.
With only 48 hours to play with in Beijing I had to decide what I could realistically see in this cornucopia of stimuli. My first big decision was to see the world’s largest gathering place, Tiananmen Square, which is in the centre on the city and not far from my well-placed hotel. On the north side is Tiananmen Gate, part of the old Imperial City and the entrance to the Forbidden City. It was there in 1949 that Mao Tse-Tung declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Capable of holding a staggering one million people it is 109 acres in size. It is vast and staggering in scale. It is hard to distinguish any detail across the square like people’s faces or even types of car. There is a strong military presence with splendidly ceremonial uniformed soldiers marching around with big fur hats. I should mention that my visit was in early January and while I delighted that the skies were blue and free of smog it was very cold.
Flanking the square on the west side is The Great Hall of the People and on the east the National Museum of China which focuses on pre 1919 history of China. Trees also run along these sides but the square itself is empty.
Through the large gate at the north end I entered the Imperial Palace or Forbidden City, as it is now known. Once home to the Ming dynasty is was the seat of power in China for nearly 500 years ending in 1912 with the last emperor Henry Pu Yi being forced to abdicate during the Xinhai revolution. Now the Palace Museum it was recognised in 1987 as a heritage site by UNESCO as the world’s largest collection of preserved ancient wooden buildings. Originally numbering nearly 1000 buildings it covers 180 acres. Housing art collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties it is impossible to see everything in one visit. It is worth noting that you need to keep your wits about here as selfie sticks are very much in evidence … everywhere!
Each enormous square leads on to another equally impressive building. Once housing the emperors and their 100’s of concubines there was a strict hierarchy for the inhabitants with everyone trying to favour the current ruling emperor. It really was cut off from the outside world with a 26ft perimeter wall to protect its inhabitants and the unbelievable treasures inside.
As I moved north through the complex labyrinth my guide explained the functions of the courtyards and buildings, the Palace of Heavenly Beauty for example was once the home to the emperor and then after his death Yongzheng Emperor moved to a smaller building out of respect for him and it them became an audience hall. I would highly recommend having a guide, as there is so much to take in (and it’s easy to get lost). The course from the southern gate to the northern palace is nearly 1km there is gorgeous garden at the end worth spending time in.
Eating out in Beijing is really good fun and rewarding. I tried out Donglaishun Hot-Pot in Dashailan Street a Chinese Muslim restaurant established in 1903 it specialises in Mongolian hot pot cooking. Placing thin slivers of mutton on skewers you drop the meat into a pot of boiling water. The meat is pre seasoned so after a minute or so it’s ready to eat. I ate with a table of ten or so with a multitude of other dishes served as they became ready.
This is the land of the Lazy Susan turntable. Totally practical it makes for a good icebreaker as well. The first known appearance in an advert is 1917 but it is believed that they existed long before then. We couldn’t have managed the meal without it (or rather without all of us getting up and walking around the large table all evening). It does require a certain amount of diplomacy when you spot a dish you would like disappearing onto somebody else’s plate. There is a temptation to ‘spin’ it your way but this is considered bad form.
I couldn’t have gone all that way without getting a glimpse of The Great Wall of China. Located north of Beijing it is possible to go on any number of tours to visit various sections of the old east west border of China. Started 7th century bce and continuing in various forms until the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 when the invading Mongolian tribes breached it to conquer northern China. Presidents and prime ministers have made the most of visits to this iconic location but I went with a guide on a two-hour drive to a lesser-known section at Matianyu.
It is a staggering feat of engineering at its height there were 25,000 watchtowers, garrisons of soldiers, border controls and duty stops for the Silk Road traffic. The wall itself is wide enough to take horses and was used as a supply route. The crisp clear air at the wall made it easy to imagine what it was like to be stationed there. Inhospitable winters saw many casualties.
These days many tourists come to see this spectacle originally extending over 6000km in length but also it has become popular to ‘camp’ along the wall travelling a few km a day then setting up for the night. There are many guard’s huts that can provide rudimentary shelter in the warmer months. The highest point is 1800m above sea level so if you were to spend any length of time there I’d recommend you dress appropriately. Understandably it is the most popular tourist attraction in China and has been seen by millions of people but not from the moon as has been claimed.
The wall is like a ribbon unfurled in the breeze and landed casually draped across the mountainous landscape. It is hypnotic to look at, difficult at times to travel along and at various points it is almost vertical and stone steps have been carved to assist progress. Before the brick version in existence today it was mainly made of rammed mud, wood and stone. Eroded in many parts but replaced with stone over the years and that is what remains. The section I visited at Matianyu was fully restored in1987. To get up to the wall you have to take a cable car and then hike a few 100m up a steep hill. It’s quite tough especially with the altitude but well worth it.
A visit to the Chinese capital wouldn’t be complete without a taste of the eponymous crispy Peking duck. One of the best places to try it out is at Da Dong a stylish two-floor restaurant that moves at a frenetic pace. We had our own dining room that was constantly being visited by silent waiters with new plates of food.
The ever-present Lazy Susan was there of course and very useful too. Sweet and sour fish, dates with pork, stuffed tomatoes came my way and were delicious, but the main event was the crispy duck. It arrived on a trolley with a chef and a very sharp knife. Toffee apple brown and crispy to touch the duck was held in place by the chefs hand while with the other one he expertly carved away producing equal portions with meat and crispy skin. The pancakes were already in place so it was a matter of assembly and eating. It tasted absolutely divine.
Other great dishes were on the ‘Susan’ for spinning too. One of the more unusual was an orange soup served in a hollowed out orange. A kind of palette cleanser it proved very tasty and refreshing. Scallops and some superbly cooked beef and prawn balls should also get a mention.
My all too short stay was coming to a close so on my last morning I decided to have a real blowout Asian breakfast. The trusty Rosewood Hotel chefs never seemed to sleep and were there at all hours preparing dumplings, rice, chilli sauce and wantons. All were superb so I had a great selection of spicy breakfast nibbles followed by an equally well-prepared European platter of coddled eggs and bacon.
The early morning journey to the airport didn’t take too long and again I was treated to crisp blue skies and sharp sunlight. China is a vast nation and offers so much diversity. I only glimpsed the smallest of its potential to the visitor. But Beijing is a riot of culture and style wrapped up in millennia of history with epic food and charming people.
On my return flight to London sitting in Business class on the Finnair A350 XWB I started to look at the pictures I had captured on my visit. As I worked my way through them smiling at the memories already I suddenly noticed how many Chinese were taking selfies, their sticks protruding like abandoned cocktail sticks. I had been aware of it at the time but just got used to it as we all have in European cities, but there was fervour in their excitement and enjoyment of the participants. I wondered if I was missing out on a cultural phenomena, then was gently woken up by a charming flight attendant with some food and drink. Such is the comfort of those seats that I really couldn’t distinguish between sleep and being awake. Selfies will never be on my bucket list of experiences but I can see that if it brings enjoyment at no cost to others, then why not (just mind where you point that stick please).