Beijing: what the guide books don’t tell you

If there was an addiction I suffered from, it would be book hoarding. I cannot seem to give away books, to the point where I cannot borrow books because I won’t want to return them. I have suffered with this condition for as long as I can remember. Amazon should give me loyalty points.

The one type of book I collected the most would be guide books. I love them so much so I even have multiple editions for the same country or city. Well, you can imagine how I reacted moving to Beijing. It was the top of my shopping list.

I landed, guide book in toe.

Over the first couple of months, while settling into my new job I tried to tick off a few must-dos spots. These were the first places I saw and the ones I would most recommend if you’re only in Beijing for a short time. Enjoy.

Forbidden City

Yes, it is a cliche, being at the top of any list about Beijing but it truly is amazing, awe inspiring.

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It sits within a walled rectangle, a city completely impenetrable from the outside world. It is like stepping back in time, imagining the emperor and his court strolling through the narrow alleyways and under the beautiful, ornate arches. The architecture epitomises the western image of China.

The entrance is along the southern edge to the rectangle. The whole ‘city’ is organised walking from building to building each becoming more grand and decorated. As you walk through, from courtyard to courtyard, you walk north towards the emperor’s inner sanctum. Originally, only reached by his most powerful and respected courtiers.

One noticeable aspect about Chinese sites is the lack of information, it is the same at art galleries or museums. Unless you buy the audio guide, there aren’t any plaques displaying information about the exhibit or object of interest. For me, I had my trusty guide book to help me along the way, just don’t rely on information signs beyond the name of the building or object. I would recommend buy the walkie-talkie guide or making sure you have a comprehensive guide book to help. Bear in mind there is generally a deposit that needs to be paid in cash for the audio guides.

Jian Shun Park

A short walk north of the Forbidden City gets you to a very underrated park exactly in the centre of the city. It is marked by a metal circular tile displaying the various sites at each compass point. The tile sits on a large mound complete with beautiful pagodas and wonderful trees and flowers in the spring. However, the trek up to the top of the mound is not for the faint hearted as the walk is just built by steep, piled rocks.

Jian Shun Park, North view of Forbidden City.

The view from the top is breath taking with a panorama over the whole city. Much of Beijing is not built up, with areas still dating back hundreds of years. The mixture of new and modern combined with the ancient is truly breath taking from the top of the pagoda.  Looking south there is a spectacular view of the Forbidden City clearly showing the layout of the inner buildings.

The majority of apartment buildings are only six floors high and therefore from a height it allows you to see for miles on a good day. Alternatively, there are hutongs, which only cover the ground floor, within a small compound, which might share toilet and washing facilities. There will be a local fruit and veg shop and many other conveniences. These days some of the hutongs have been converted into modern restaurants or bars, but they still retain the spirit of olden day China. A walk down the labyrinth of narrow streets is an essential on any visitors itinerary. There are the most popular hutongs of Gulou or Lama Temple where locals are used to seeing foreign face or the more adventurous can wander around the hutongs further out the city. There is no shortage of these types of housing or compounds so finding them will be easy.

Lama Temple

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Lama Temple, Beijing

One of the most popular hutong area is Lama Temple, these have been largely modernised, some even being converted into quirky bars and restaurants attracted a mixed crowd of locals and foreigners. This area sits north on Line 2, the inner circle line. It’s named after the large Yonge Temple, it is an important and interesting visit. Originally, built as an imperial home it was later entirely converted into a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks, who still visit the site. Though it has been converted for tourists it is still a religious site, so due respect needs to be paid. To arrive at the temple take exit F, turn left and walk straight down, there will be signs and security to help guide visitors. The entrance fee is 25¥ and I would dedicate about two hours for your trip.  Around the entrance there is a number of street food stands and traditional shops selling religious artifacts. It is a good area to wander around and experience true Beijing life.

Temple of Heaven

An equally awe-inspiring site is the Temple of Heaven located to the south-east of central Beijing. It is a large area with beautiful gardens, a fantastic way to spend a summer afternoon. The temple itself was originally built for annual ceremonies by the emperors of the Qing and Ming dynasties. They would visit to pray to heaven for a good harvest. It is mainly regarded as a Taoist temple, though the emperors praying to heaven in fact predates Taoism.

The site is made up of three buildings with strict philosophical requirements. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is the circular building on a marble base. A smaller version of the impressive Good Harvest Hall is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which resembles its more grand counterpart but is surrounded by the Echo Wall. The final building is the Circular Mound Alter which is further south, decorated with beautiful carved dragons.

I first visited the Temple of Heaven when my dad visited for Christmas. It was a red warning period, which means the government declared that over those couple of days the smog will be bad and people should take precautions. That didn’t deter us, we took those days off to tackling our bucket list.

To arrive at the Temple of Heaven take line 5 south to TianTanDongmen. At this subway stop there is also the Pearl Market, a massive five floor mall purely selling fake merchandise. You can pick up all the most famous brands for anything. There’s a floor for bags, shoes, toys, watches, electronics, scarves, etc. The top floor is dedicated to jewelry, mainly pearls. Everything in the mall can be bartered down to a better price. They will try to rip you off. You should aim to spend a third of what they offer you. Don’t be afraid to bargain, they’ll expect it. They may also offer you a price in dollars or pounds, as they think this is worth more, so be careful and go with your wits about you. Expect the sellers to touch you and try to attract you into their stall. It is a great place to pick up souvenirs for back home.

Beihai Park

Beihai park sits northwest of the Forbidden City and it truly is Beijing’s finest. It sits around a beautiful lake surrounding Yongan Temple. The park only costs 10¥ to enter during the peak season and is well worth it, although on the weekend it gets pretty busy.

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Formally an imperial garden, Beihai park was only opened to the public in 1925. It’s covered with artificial hills, pavilions and temples, which make it a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. The park really is a place for all; as soon as it opens in the morning the city’s elderly gather to practice tai chi then throughout the day can be seen playing cards or mahjong.

If you plan to visit the park there are four entrances, the most popular is towards the south closest to the Forbidden City then you can walk up north to Houhai where there are nice restaurants and bars.

Houhai Lake 

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Houhai is a great area to continue your exploring after Beihai park. Located to the north of the park, it hosts a plethora of restaurants, stalls and bars. It was originally home to nobles and merchants but has since become a tourist hotspot. Many of the grand houses can still be seen among the surrounding hutongs, namely Prince Gong’s Mansion. There are plenty of tour operators offering rickshaw rides, which is a great way to see the area. In winter, there is an option to skate out on the frozen lake then in summer you can watch tea lights bobbing in the water as you sit out on the parade.

One of the greatest streets to wander down is the Yandai Xie Jie, which is still lined with historic buildings converted into little stalls and boutiques. There is a temple which is now a cafe. A truly beautiful area.

A walk around the lake will offer some sculptures and lovely little gardens.

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Houhai, Beijing

Have you been to Beijing recently? Where did you go? Leave a comment below ♥

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5 thoughts on “Beijing: what the guide books don’t tell you

  1. We were able to see most of those places on our 5 day trip to Beijing. My wife and I have almost the exact picture you have in front of the Temple of Heaven, except our masks were black. It was also a red day when we visited.

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    1. It’s such a shame you had red days over your trip when it was only five days. At least it sounds like you still got around the must-see places, which is good. I hope you still enjoyed the city. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it was disappointing, but we waited until our last day to visit the Great Wall and that day was perfect weather, with no smog, so that made the whole trip worth it!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad Cassie, though these places can get really busy. A longer list of places further out of the centre to come. Great to hear from you.

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