After a short flight from Guangzhou, we found ourselves essentially teleported to China’s capital, Beijing.
With our limited exposure to China in the Western media, here’s what I expected to see when we arrived in China:
Yes, bicycles! Who doesn’t think of bicycles when thinking of China?
Our visit to China, and particularly Beijing, certainly changed my views on the modern day city. The skyline is modern, rivaling those of any Western city with tall skyscrapers of glass and steel.
The infrastructure is modern and efficient, built to move the 21 million residents of the city. Busses and Metro trains are constantly running and give great access throughout the city. As for cars, it was not uncommon to see “main” streets being 10 lanes wide, 5 in each direction – 3 lanes for cars, 1 lane for busses, and 1 lane for bicycles. The city was also much cleaner than I had expected. Smog can be an issue there, and I learned that you are allowed to drive your vehicle on a particular day based upon the last digit of your license plate. For instance, if your license plate ends in “5”, perhaps you are not allowed to drive on Wednesdays. Each day, approximately 20% of the total number of cars in Beijing are not allowed to be used.
Bicycles are still used, though it does not seem to be as heavily as in past days. Still…
If not traveling on a bicycle, you could be using…
Despite the modern look and infrastructure, Beijing still has the a lot of history which is literally at the heart of the city.
Made famous – or infamous – by the use of the military to quash student protests in 1989, Tiananmen Square is found in the city centre. It is a huge – and by huge I mean enormous – open and paved square leading up to the Forbidden City. The whole square is surrounded by barriers, so you can only enter through specific security points.
The square is lined on one side by the country legislature The Hall of the People.
I learned that across China there are 4000 representatives who are elected to represent their constituents, and every 10 years they come together to select a new Chairman for the country.
The second side has Mao’s mausoleum where Mao Zedong’s remains have been kept.
In front of Mao’s tomb is The Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Opposite Mao’s tomb is the Tiananmen Gate, entrance to the Forbidden City…
The Forbidden City
Located right in the centre of Beijing, the Forbidden City was once the Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Quing Dynasty. Built between 1406 and 1420, the palace was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
Again, a huge place (180 acres!) for one family and their household staff to live!
Access to the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square is gained through an external gate (with the photo of Chairman Mao) and an internal gate. The internal gate has 3 entrances. The centre entrance was only used by the Emperor…though the Empress was allowed to enter through the gate once – on her wedding day.
The entrances to the left and right were only used by people who had titles or official positions.
Once through the exterior gates you enter one of many courtyards to come…
Throughout the city we saw statues of lions, which were considered to be symbols of power for the Emperor.
On the left side as you’re walking towards the entrance is a statue of a male lion, representing the Emperor. Underneath the lion’s foot is a globe, signifying the Emperor’s power in the world. On the right side is a statue of a female lion, representing the Empress. Under the lion’s paw is a lion cub, showing the Empress’ power to grant the emperor an heir.
Our visit through the Forbidden City took a couple of hours…and there was still more to see. All over were beautiful buildings with intricate inlays and colourful tiled roofs.
There were some distinct differences between what the Emperor saw as important versus what the Empress wanted.
The Emperor was all about power and intimidation. Within the main portion of the Forbidden City there are no trees or greenery. This was meant to intimidate visitors so they did not feel comfortable.
Now compare to what the Empress had created…an oasis with lots of plants and trees.
The Forbidden City was impressive in its size. Thinking of some of the other places we visited – such as Versailles, Buckingham Palace, or the Agra Fort – none of them even came close in terms of sheer size.
If the Forbidden City was for the Emperors while they were alive, where did they go when they died?
The Sacred Walk
A short way outside of Beijing you can find the tombs of the Ming Emperors. There are 13 emperor tombs and 7 concubine tombs though not all are currently accessible to visitors. Again we see the excess of the Emperors with their tombs covering an area of 80 square kilometers!
We did not enter the tombs, but took the path towards them, called The Sacred Walk.
This pathway is quite a serene way to get to the tombs. There is a lot of greenery, and the beautiful willow trees provide a virtual archway through beautiful parklands.
Lining the path are a number of statues, both of people and animals. The people included meritorious officials, civil officials and generals.
Further along the path were animals…
At the end of the walk is the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion. Inside is a statue of a 50 ton tortoise with a 10 m tall stone tablet.
Carved into one side of the tablet is a 3,000 word article composed by Emperor Zhu Gaochi of the Ming Dynasty outlining the lifetime achievements of Emperor Zhu Di. The remaining surfaces of the monument are carved with the poems of Emperor Qianlong and Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty.
The days of the Emperors are over, that’s for sure! While the former palaces continue to be impressive and draw tourists, the “new” China with its modern skyline and advanced infrastructure is paving the way for China to continue to be a driving force in the world for years to come.