I arrived in the capital amidst a feeling of elation. I’d enjoyed my relaxing time in Pingyao and had regained some energy in order to be ready for what the third most populous city in the world had to throw at me.
I knew there were a few things I wanted to see when I arrived there: the Forbidden City, the Olympic Village, and the Great Wall (though I’d already seen it back in Jiayuguan, I wanted to see the more recognisable and lesser preserved wall). I had about a week in mind for the huge city, and so had no real rush to see anything on my first couple of days.
My first day was spent pottering around Beihai park which is just to the north west of the Forbidden City. Not only did I feel myself relaxing as I circled the central lake, but in the distance I could see the tips of some of the buildings in other areas of town that I thought I’d head to later that day. Now, I knew that there would be some impressive architecture in town, but I didn’t know that some of the most famous pieces call Beijing their home; the CCTV headquarters for instance is a staple example of deconstructivism and, to me personally, is extraordinary from every angle.
Whilst in the area I headed to what seemed to be some sort of park that was built as part of the 2008 Olympic games legacy.
Chaoyang park, though nice enough in some areas with beautiful gardens and lakes, also came across as a forgotten part of town.
It was nice to see that there were people making the most of the designated running routes, the boats on the man made lakes and rivers, and the volleyball court, but one area struck me as a huge misstep; an area seemingly like a failed Disneyland attempt.
The long disused rides and stalls made me feel genuinely uneasy, and the very few rides that were actually open were more than likely for the sake of at least an attempt at saving face.
However, one area, the fountain square, lifted my spirits slightly as I bumped into a soon to be married couple who were having their photos taken professionally; they had no qualms with allowing me to take a snap or two and so I cracked on before moving on; it’s these small social interactions that often keep me going when travelling, and I make the most of them when I can.
If you are planning to see the capital, then no doubt the Forbidden City is high on your to-see list.
Now, I don’t mean to put anyone off heading to it as it is a world famous landmark; however, it is somewhat disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s the name that gives it a mystical impression but, given the history behind it compared to the amount of renovation work carried out, it feels almost like a modern attempt at recreating a heritage site.
Naturally the experience is better if you manage to go when there aren’t so many natives flocking the place, but even when quiet, there’s something about it that just left me feeling shortchanged. Maybe it’s some sort of curse of the traveller? The idea that the more places you go to, and the more places you see, the less you see that actually impresses you. Don’t get me wrong, the city is impressive and I’m very glad I visited, but I think my money could’ve been spent better elsewhere…like the bar.
However, disappointments aside, one thing that did get my blood flowing was a visit to the Olympic Park. A 20min metro ride takes you north and leads you into the heart of a simply huge feat of Chinese planning.
The park really is impressive, there’s no two ways about it; the walk around the Bird’s Nest actually had me wanting to take up running again, and the hour I sat taking in the Aquatics Centre was equally as inspiring.
Having never been to an Olympic park before (even when I was in Barcelona-which I regret), I had a strange communal feeling knowing that for a few weeks not too long ago, the world was focused on this 4.5sq mile plot of land in a country that, even today, is veiled with a slight shroud of mystery.
One thing that I noticed, and didn’t seem to remember from watching the games, was the Observation tower; this 247m tall, tree-like design can be seen from the centre of the city and was somewhere I felt I had to visit.
The near silence inside, coupled with the design, actually did evoke the feeling of being inside a tree; all working parts (lifts, supports, workers) seemed to effortlessly and efficiently carry out their given job but, as with the Forbidden City, I was left hugely disappointed.
The height of the tower was unnerving to view from, and though I could see the park relatively clearly, it was nevertheless sat on by a layer of smog, something that by this point had really started to grate on me so, after getting my money’s worth (if it was actually possible), I called it a day.
As mentioned earlier, I’d already seen the Great Wall a few weeks prior to this whilst in Jiayuguan and, though impressed, I really wanted to see the more formidable and lesser preserved sections of the wall, and so I made my way to Jinshanling.
There are many different areas of the wall to visit in China, and many of the most famous of those are in the area surrounding Beijing but, if you want the wall pretty much to yourself, I strongly suggest this area. I managed to get dropped off by a passing bus about 2km away from the actual wall at an entrance that, by the looks on the ticket officer’s face, hadn’t seen visitors for quite a while.
I walked through the sweltering heat with only the sound of crickets to keep me company; it was only when I reached the top of a particularly steep set of crumbling steps that I could see the wall ahead of me, with only a small valley of trees keeping us apart. My heart genuinely fluttered. I could see the near silhouette of the wall tracing the top of the hill, and followed it for what looked like miles…I couldn’t wait to get to it. I picked up my pace and, though covered in sweat, I reached one of the watchtowers.
Without gloating, I’ve seen some incredible things during my travels, but this has got to be in the top 5. The sight of the ancient wall, flowing over the peaks of hills for miles and miles, before disappearing from view is simply breathtaking. I can’t lie, I took great pleasure in the fact that I was there. I caught my bearings and worked out that the way to walk was east so, after taking a few snaps, I headed off.
There were expectedly a few people knocking about, including people selling water and other small goods, but in terms of actual tourists I saw maybe a dozen; it was surreal that the place that I’d been told would be pretty much mine really was pretty much mine!
One thing I will say about the wall and its gates and towers is that the walk isn’t for the elderly or unfit; the steps at times are extremely steep (to the point that I had to use my hands to stop me falling backwards), and so I wouldn’t recommend any families attempt this area, which is probably why so few people were there.
There is definitely something awe inspiring about the wall and no pictures can ever do it justice; it is one of the rare places I’ve been where in order to catch the atmosphere you really do have to be there. There’s no sound in the area, no smog, and the only things visible in either direction are the rolling green hills and the snake-like wall trailing across them.
Up to this point, China has been great, though with a few hits and misses, but walking the wall rejuvenated my feelings for the country…
All in all, Beijing, sadly, is somewhat underwhelming. I’m glad I saw the old city of Peking, but other than the Great Wall, which you can see in many places across northern China, I wouldn’t recommend a visit. Maybe by this point my energy for travelling was wavering and I needed to settle for a while, or maybe Beijing really was a city setting me up for a mediocre time-who knows?