With over 3,000 years of history, Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, is the perfect mix of ancient Chinese culture and modern architecture. With six UNESCO World Heritage sites within its reaches, it may seem a little overwhelming when trying to plan your world cruise stopover, however, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip which you should take full advantage of if you’re lucky enough to stop in Beijing.
Great Wall of China
Stretching over 13,000 miles across China’s northern border, the Great Wall of China is one of the world’s largest and biggest ancient artefacts. The first construction of the wall began in around 220BC, however, it took a series of works to connect existing stretches of wall and fortifications together to protect the newly unified China from the northern states.
The Emperor Qin Shi Huang oversaw the start of the works and overall it is estimated that over 400,000 soldiers, workers and convicts died during construction, with their bodies being buried within the structure itself. The wall we recognise today was resurrected in 1474AD, over 1,600 years after its first creation, and through the rule of the Ming dynasty the wall was extended and fortified, becoming a recognisable Chinese symbol. At its peak, sections of the wall can experience over 70,000 visitors per day.
When visiting the wall, it is advisable to wear comfortable footwear and clothing as most of the structure is outside and includes steps and uneven surfaces. Once on the wall, it is a great opportunity to soak in the atmosphere to appreciate the sheer engineering intelligence displayed over 4,000 years ago to create a structure which still stands today.
The Forbidden City
Nestled in the heart of Beijing is the world’s largest palace complex, The Forbidden City, and despite its foreboding name, it is no longer forbidden as almost 15 million visitors enter its gates each year to discover China’s complex heritage and culture. Originally constructed in 1420, the palace was home to the Ming and Qing dynasties for over 500 years before the palace opened its gates to visitors. It was used as the Chinese royal residence, where 24 Chinese Emperors sat in power. Original construction began in 1406 and the palace was completed 14 years later in 1420 with the Ming dynasty making it the official royal residence in the same year. For a brief time after the Manchus took control of power the palace was abandoned with the seat of power moving to Shenyang, however, once the Qing dynasty took back control they moved the capital back to Beijing and took up residence in the palace until 1912 with the death of the last Qing Emperor and the creation of the Republic of China.
Within the grounds, there are 9,999 rooms located in 980 ancient wooden buildings, all of which are filled with ancient artefacts with each room representing a different aspect of Chinese culture. Hidden within each of the rooms are hundreds of small details which can easily be missed, such as the number of animals which march across the eaves on each roof as the denoted the rank of the person who originally dwelled there. While many visitors focus on the palace itself be sure not to leave the site via the north gate, instead turn back and explore the east and west six palaces, the hall of jewellery, treasure gallery and the clock museum.
Originally built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong to extend the West Lake, which was later renamed Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace covers over 17 acres and holds 3,000 houses. The excavated earth from the lake was used to create Longevity Hill and it is still the highlight of the palace today, with its numerous houses and the Buddhist Temple located at the top of the hill which offers spectacular views over the entire palace site. The gardens and waterways are what makes this site unique as the waterways take up 75% of the total grounds, with many visitors choosing to take the short boat ride to the island temple to watch a traditional Chinese performance in the restored theatre.
The palace sat peacefully for almost 100 years before having large parts of it destroyed by the French and English during the Second Opium War. The Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt the palace between 1884 and 1895 but again it was destroyed in 1900 by the army of the Eight-Nation Alliance. Many of the palace’s artefacts were looted and the damage was extensive, again it was rebuilt in 1912 and was opened to the public to enjoy.
There are many different routes to take while in the garden and sometimes it can be best to break away from the crowds and discover the palace your way. There are three main entrances; east palace gate, north palace gate and new palace gate. The most popular route is through the new palace gate following along the east dyke to the Long Corridor, Longevity Hill, Marble Boat and ferry boat back to the gate. However, the route from the north palace gate to the east palace gate can often be quieter.
Arguably Beijing’s most famous dish would have to be Peking roast duck, it is well known worldwide and is a delicacy served across the globe that millions enjoy every year. Traditionally the duck is served with thin pancakes, sliced cucumber, fermented bean paste and spring onions where you can add as much or as little of the varying parts to create your own personalised Peking roast duck wrap. Be sure to check out The Beijinger’s top five Peking duck restaurants in Beijing to find the best place to stop for a spot of lunch.
While much of southern China benefits from the mountains of rice which are produced every year in its warm climate, for the cities and provinces located in the north, grains are the most heavily-produced food group and this is reflected by Beijing’s love of dumplings. These little heavenly parcels can be served hot or cold, steamed or fried, with the most popular fillings being either pork or prawn.
While we Brits love our tea, the Chinese do give us a run for our money and being the top producer of tea in the world it’s not hard to see why. Beijing’s traditional tea houses are a definite must-see for all visitors and Liuxianguan Teahouse, a classic Confucian-style teahouse, is perfect for those looking to relax and enjoy a cup of tea. Over 40 varieties of tea are served in one of their hundreds of clay, porcelain and jade teapots.
The Temple of Heaven
Originally built in 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle, the Temple of Heaven and its gardens were used to perform the Heaven Worship Ceremony by the subsequent Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The temple was finally opened to the public as a park in 1988 and is a must for visitors of all ages. Sitting on 678 acres of land, the Temple of Heaven is larger than The Forbidden City, the Emperor’s residence, as it was decreed that Emperors could not build an earthly residence which was greater than a residence dedicated to heaven.
The temple itself is in the semicircle in the northern part of the park set to represent heaven, with the southern part of the park as earth symbolising that heaven is always higher than earth. In the southern part of the Circular Altar Mound is the park’s namesake, the Temple of Heaven, where the Emperors would go to sacrifice to the gods and within it is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, housing the Gods’ tablets to be used during the Heaven Worship Ceremony.
The highlight of a visit to the site would have to include a stop at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It is the most architecturally stunning in the Temple of Heaven sitting 125 feet tall and includes a triple-gabled circular building. The structure itself is built entirely from wood but doesn’t use a single nail.
If you feel inspired to explore the ancient sites of Beijing for yourself, take a look at our world cruises.