Once you have adjusted to its size, culture shock has kicked in and you are emerging from the other side, Beijing boasts a veritable banquet of history, culture, communism and capitalism all rolled into one.
There’s the amazing Hutongs – narrow alleyways and courtyards crammed with character, dirty looking restaurants serving the most amazing food, curious Chinese families and the ever-present laundry hanging out on bamboo poles from upstairs windows (the laundry not the families, they sit on little stools and play marjiang or Japanese chess!).
Despite the damage done by the Cultural Revolution there are some transformed temples…The Temple of Heaven was a personal favourite, where emperors would hold gatherings and pray for crop yields in the forthcoming harvest. For me it was a peaceful and serene place with impressive architecture and calming grounds.
The Lama Temple, known as Yonghe Gong, was more of a working temple. Met with the overpowering smell of burning incense, there were literally hundreds of Chinese worshippers leaving offerings and lighting incense sticks and kneeling in front of the many gold Buddhas encased in ornate wooden structures.
If it’s a glimpse into the Communist Party’s beating heart you’re after then Tiananmen Square is a must. Imposing, concrete, cold and creepy, it is where the Party’s head honchos address the masses and Mao Tse Tung officially declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Site of the 1989 student massacre – widely reported internationally, but still publicly unspoken in China itself.
Opposite is the Forbidden City (which is literally an ancient city within the city that the rest of Beijing was built around). Home to emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and their closest comrades and concubines, local people were forbidden to enter and led an impoverished life on its boundary. Allow a good few hours for a walk from the West to the East Gate (or vice versa) – Chinglish audio book or over enthusiastic local guide are optional extras.
If shopping is more your thing, the famous Wangfujing area hosts a range of big name brands and designer goods. Or, if you want big name brands (of dubious origin) and bargain basement prices the multi storey Silk Street and Pearl markets are a must. However, have an idea of want you want before you go, be prepared for sensory overload and some serious bartering. Running the gauntlet of Louis Vitton and Gucci knock-offs is a stressful experience for even the savviest of shoppers!
There’s also the 2008 Olympic legacy to take in. With the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, the Water Cube (with a really cool wave machine and slide area, so take your cozzie!) and the Olympic village square. Ironically the only place to eat in this tribute to international athletiscism is MacDonald’s, so eat before you go!
Entry fees for attractions range from free to around 60Yuan/RMB (£6), but expect to pay more for overpriced souvenirs and the ability to take photos/video and the Olympic Park. Bartering is completely expected on everything except the entrance fee and be prepared to share your experiences with the masses…