Updated: Dec 14, 2021
Despite the rise of many Chinese cities, Beijing is still the cultural capital
I was cautious regarding my first visit to China. I had little to feed expectations and did not research very much of the trip in advance as my sister-in-law did the heavy lifting. We were to spend most of the time in Beijing and all I knew of that city was that it was notorious for pollution and traffic and that it had hosted an Olympics in the summer of 2008.
Hutong neighborhoods in Beijing are lively
My sister-in-law arranged for us to stay in a traditional garden hotel in the Qinlao Hutong in the Dongcheng District. Hutong are narrow streets or alley ways that are renowned for illustrating the traditions and culture of Chinese cities. This particular Hutong was near to the famed shopping and dining street of South Luogu. Crowds pack the street in late afternoon and evening, evidencing a prosperous consumer population. The retail offering reinforces this with upmarket products (jewelry, apparel accessories, cobbler handmade shoes) as opposed to trinkets and basic shops. The food and beverage offering was predominantly take away sweets - abundant churro shops, soft ice cream and brewed tea in half quart plastic bottles - served by young Chinese in colorful uniforms from clean and brightly-lit counters. At the south end is a covered food hall with multiple vendors offering fried soft shells, fried tripe strips, barbeque beef on a stick, chicken wing/thigh combo and other local favorites.
Chinese in Beijing were very friendly
I expected Chinese to be cold and officious as well as disrespecting of personal space, and while there was some of that (getting off plane and jostling to immigration), I was pleasantly surprised by a general respectful nature, and attempts to use English - lots of inadvertent and surprise “hellos” in public and a few “thank yous”. Getting around by subway was unbelievably efficient – the system is clean, well signed and well lighted. Average fares are $1.00 to $1.50 which beats the Metro in DC.
Visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing
One visits Beijing for the Forbidden City – its expanse is impressive and dominated by structures with miniature gilded or ornate fixtures of multiple themes - dragon, lion and phoenix. Huge numbers of people flock to this attraction, so planning the visit at the right time is key. There is also a distinct lack of western tourists or guides, so have appropriate tour materials for information.
Highlight of the visit was the village of Mutianyu and the Great Wall of China
In the outskirts of Beijing is the village of Mutianyu, which is a remote village at the base of the Great Wall, approximately 1.5 hours north of PEK airport. This is an excellent base to explore the Great Wall and is proximate to two lifts that embark to separate ends of this section of the Wall. We followed the north-northwest direction for a mile to a spot that was identified as the peak, at 3,000 feet, which was a 1,000 feet climb from the chair lift drop off. There are opportunities to hike up or down using trails that link upper parts of the Wall with the village below.