Tom St John Gray goes in search of the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City.
Houhai, in the Xicheng District of central Beijing.
With limited Chinese, I boarded a bus at a busy terminal in Beijing. My destination was one of the most celebrated and imposing of World Heritage Sites, the Great Wall. After being warned about the tourist trap of the Badaling section, I decided to go further afield to the partially restored Simatai, recommended for the most dramatic views of the wall.
The Great Wall of China, as seen from the parapets at Mutianyu.
Several hours into my journey, and suspecting that I had missed my stop, an enquiry to a friendly old lady next to me quickly descended into a rapid-fire group discussion in Chinese across the packed bus. Amidst the rising crescendo of chatter, a man in broken English stepped forward and told me the bad news – Simatai was now closed to visitors. Miraculously, he was a taxi driver on a day off, and with his car parked at the next bus stop, he offered to drive me to the Mutianyu section, 70km (43 miles) north-east of Beijing. After a morning of watching Beijing’s sprawling suburbs blur past the taxi window, my journey finally brought me to the bottom of a steep pathway, winding up the hillside to the Great Wall. The hike through the blistering sun rewarded me with a spectacular view from Mutianyu’s parapets, with the wall majestically snaking off into the distance and framed by a lush green landscape.
Built during the reign of the legendary first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (221-210 BC), early fortifications were joined together to form a defensive wall against northern incursions. Known to the Chinese as ‘Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li’, and an unsurpassed masterpiece in military and architectural construction, the Great Wall was originally thought to extend around 5,000km (3,100 miles). Mapping studies over the past five years have dramatically altered this figure, with archaeological surveys by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage now estimating the complete length of the wall at over 20,000km (12,425 miles). Construction of the wall, watch towers, and fortresses continued into the 17th century, with the defensive structure also serving to preserve the Celestial Empire’s treasured culture from the customs of foreign barbarians.
An imperial capital since the 15th century, Beijing’s archaeological treasures are epic in scale and this was most evident when I stood at the entrance to the immense complex of the Forbidden City. Completed in 1420, the site is the largest ancient palatial architectural complex in the world, containing 800 buildings and spread across 180 acres. As one of Beijing’s main historical attractions, the Forbidden City receives an average of 40,000 tourists every day, and getting a clear view of the ceremonial throne room at the Hall of Supreme Harmony involved a surprising amount of jostling through the rowdy crowd.
Yet, despite the overpowering crowds of people, there is much to marvel at. The palaces and halls, red-walled roads, vivid glazed tiles and overhanging painted rafters serve as a humbling reminder that this was once a royal residence, housing a succession of the most powerful men on earth. The inner precinct of the palace was once strictly prohibited to any male except the emperor and his eunuchs, and unauthorised visitors would face instant death. The seat of imperial rule for 24 emperors across five centuries (1420-1911), the Forbidden City contains nearly 10,000 rooms and boasts a grand art collection of more than a million historical pieces.
Residents relax in the tranquil setting of Houhai’s manmade lake, where they come to fish and sample the fabulous street food.
Starbucks famously operated a café inside the complex until mounting pressure from protestors forced the closure in 2007. Now, a picturesque walk alongside the adjacent man-made lakes of Xihai, Houhai, and Qianhai, provides the perfect opportunity to try Beijing’s famed street food including steamed stuffed buns, spicy lamb kebabs, and savoury pancakes.
Beijing is equally famous for the historic hutongs – narrow lanes lined with traditional single-storey courtyard houses. These hutongs represent the last remnants of Old Beijing, some dating back to the 15th century. Home to markets and local food vendors alongside a new wave of cocktail bars and restaurants, the ancient lanes are now under serious threat from development. Over two-thirds of the original 3,000 hutongs have been destroyed, aided by Beijing’s radical urban makeover for the 2008 Olympic Games. As I walked through the lanes in the shadow of the Drum and Bell Towers, it was clear that a unique part of Beijing’s local historical fabric is being irrevocably lost.
The other side of China: hutongs and the old style of life in the narrow streets in Beijing are now under threat from modern development.
After the splendour of the Forbidden City and the humble world of the hutongs, Tiananmen Square offered a dramatically austere contrast. Mao Zedong had a vision of Beijing as an industrial centre with no room for the glories of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, stating ‘in the future, I want to look around and see chimneys everywhere.’ In 1958, the capital boasted 6,843 historical monuments but by the summer of 1966, nearly 5,000 were smashed by the Red Guard’s wrecking ball. Tiananmen Square is home to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where the body of the communist leader has lain in state since 1977. For a different mausoleum experience away from Beijing’s frenzied centre, the Tomb of Tian Yi and Eunuch Museum provides a fascinating and often graphic insight into the lives of eunuchs in Imperial China.
Situated to the east of Tiananmen Square, and reopened in 2011, the National Museum of China is a vast, polished edifice housing a permanent collection of more than one million artefacts. Walking through the exhibition ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’, I noticed barely any mention of the Cultural Revolution, which unleashed the destruction of so many of China’s archaeological treasures. More emphasis was placed on the invasion of China in the 19th century: ‘after Britain started the Opium War in 1840, the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.’
The splendid Summer Palace in Beijing
The National Museum of China’s account of the Opium Wars led me to explore the Summer Palace in the north-west suburbs of Beijing. First built in 1750, the palace was the priceless storehouse for centuries of tribute to the Emperor. During the Second Opium War in 1860, invading British and French forces plundered the Summer Palace. The invading forces looted with abandon, carting off millions of jewels, porcelain, bronze sculptures and jade, before setting the great imperial library ablaze. An officer lamented this rampant devastation in a letter home: ‘I don’t believe that anyone has seen anything like this since the sack of Rome by the barbarians.’ Restoration of the site took place in the late 19th century for the formidable Empress Dowager Cixi, before the landscaped gardens and lakes, tiered pavilions and temples became a public park in 1924.
Surrounded by pinewoods, the Temple of Heaven offers a similarly idyllic setting. Completed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, the beautiful complex of religious buildings features the largest and most complete ancient altar in the world. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would come here to the site to offer prayers and sacrifices to heaven for a bumper harvest.
The historic Yu Yan Tan Park is a relaxing way to start the weekend, with citizens practising tai chi, singing pro-revolutionary ‘red songs’, and dancing to Latin American music. Beijing is most interesting when the past clashes with the present, and the Dashanzi Art District houses a thriving arts community located within the historic setting of old Communist-era factory buildings, designed by East German architects in the 1950s. A visit to Beijing would not be complete without trying the delicious local Peking duck, once an imperial dish that can be traced back over 800 years to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).
In William Edgar Geil’s 1911 travelogue Eighteen Capitals of China, he wrote: ‘on a summer morning when the mist lies low on Peking, and the early sunlight strikes the yellow tiles of the Imperial buildings, a view from the Western Hills displays this most wondrous of Chinese cities against a backdrop of golden sky.’ The city may now be shrouded by thick smog that obscures the glorious panoramas of old, but the range of historical treasures ensure that Beijing is still the beating heart of one of the world’s great civilisations.
Tom St John Gray is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to CWA.