When planning our trip we had decided to dedicate only 48 hours to the metropolis of Beijing because we expected it to be crowded, stiflingly hot, humid and smoggy. To mitigate these effects we chose a sanctuary of cool tranquility in which to stay; a beautiful courtyard hotel in a quiet, tree-lined hutong. It was way out of our normal budget for this trip but it was our gift to ourselves and, as it turned out, worth every penny as the city lived up to its intense reputation.
The vibrant hutong are, literally, the narrow streets of old Beijing, barely wide enough for a car, the traditional heart of the city. We spent many hours walking these alleys with their hidden courtyards and cool shaded squares. It is here that the senior members of the community gather in the afternoon to play mah jong, cards and one or two other games we did not recognize. Other areas of hutong have become trendy, pedestrianised shopping areas and another had a craft brewery with great beer. However, for us the aim of walking the hutong was to find the hidden gems of a bygone China.
Located in one of the hutong and not far from our hotel was Prince Kung’s mansion. This museum is a beautifully preserved 18th Century palace with exhibition halls, buildings, pagodas and shaded gardens. Kung himself was a favourite younger brother of Emperor Xianfeng who gifted the mansion to him in the mid 1800’s.
This seems to be a popular stop on the tour circuit and even at 8.30am the gardens were busy with tour groups. However, we managed to find a few spots to enjoy the shaded flowerbeds, rockeries and fountains. The exhibitions in the buildings were all in Mandarin so we breezed through those before heading back out to the hutong.
The Lama Temple is the only Tibetan Buddhist temple in the city and is a busy place of worship as well as a tourist destination. It is an incredibly photogenic place, set in a series of courtyards and it is hard to believe it is right beside one of the city’s main ring roads. Once inside, the temple boasts traditional painted curved roofs, intricate embroidered drapes, strings of colourful prayer flags, stone architectural arches, copper-coloured prayer wheels and two of the largest temple lions you are ever likely to see. The whole temple is constantly enveloped in a cloud of incense lit by the praying faithful, making it an authentically atmospheric place.
The highlight is an 18m carved effigy of Buddha standing tall and proud, reputed to be made from a single piece of White Sandalwood (and impossible to photograph!).
No trip to Beijing would be complete without visiting the infamous Tian’anmen Square. It is the world’s largest public square and is a remarkable space, vast, imposing and incredibly busy. Despite the square being bordered by imposing buildings on all sides, the best known of which is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, the gardens were colourful. We decided not to visit the great man having had our fill of pickled leaders in Red Square some weeks before! We took a few pictures of our own and then watched, fascinated by the Chinese mass tourism machine in action. Efficient and professional photographers stood stationary and rotated members of the tour groups around them north, south, east and west so that everyone had the same four shots.
From here we headed into the Palace Museum, otherwise known as the Forbidden City. It is so called because it was off-limits to normal people for over 500 years but, ironically, it now is the most popular museum in the world, with an incredible 16 million visitors in 2017.
It is, without doubt, an amazing place. Two dynasties of Chinese Emperors ruled from within the famed walls and everything about the structure speaks of Power and Wealth. Approaching supplicants could see the golden throne from several hundred meters away. No doubt palace courtiers and guards would have lined the route and it must have been a very intimidating and grand place filled with riches. But to be honest we didn’t really like it. Perhaps it was the fact that it was very hot and we felt the oppressive weight of the city’s famed smog for the first time. Perhaps it was because we felt like we were on a conveyor belt of people passing through. Or perhaps we were burnt out and tired after several long days of hiking and sightseeing. The only respite from the heat and crowds were some of the outlying buildings such as the opera house that offered a chance to enjoy the architecture from a shaded spot with only a hundred or so other people around us. We couldn’t wait to get out!
The final stop on our bare-minimum tour were the Drum and Bell Towers. These lie directly north of the Forbidden City on the south-north axis line of Beijing and were the timepieces of the ancient city. The sound of the drums and the bell would resonate throughout the hutong and down to the palace. Nowadays, the bell is silent but there are still impressive performances on the huge drums and there is an excellent exhibition of the ingenious timekeeping practices of the ancient Chinese.
Later that night we gratefully shut the door on our Deluxe Soft Sleeper compartment on the Beijing to Xi’an train, pleased to be leaving the capital behind. Even our bare minimum tour had been taxing.