We reached Beijing from Taipei late at night, after a 2-hour flight. It took an hour to drive from the airport to downtown Beijing, where the hotel was.
The first morning, we were awed to find a meticulously clean, and modern city, with broad avenues lined with ornamental trees and flowers, high rise corporate office blocks, trendy malls, hotels, restaurants, cafes, and bistros, offering a wide range of cuisines — almost anything you could think of.
We dashed to the Temple of Heaven, one of the highlights of the city. It has been one of the most sacred sites in the entire country for nearly five centuries. The three-storey blue coloured round temple rises from a large platform, surrounded by a magnificent garden dotted with unique century-old trees — row upon row of cypress, juniper and scholar trees, etc. The Temple of Heaven was where Ming and Qing emperors came to pray for good harvests. Today, it attracts hundreds and thousands of visitors and devotees of Taoism.
Our next foray was to the Summer Palace, regarded as the largest imperial garden in China — a park-styled royal retreat in suburban Beijing.
The Summer Palace comprises Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. With masterly design and artistic architecture integrating the highlight of Chinese garden arts, the Summer Palace has earned the title of 'Royal Garden Museum,' and has been listed as a world heritage site.
The entirety of next morning was spent at the Forbidden City. With over 9,000 rooms spread across 250 acres, this large palace complex was built between 1406 and 1420 AD. It burned down and was rebuilt, sacked and renovated several times, so most of the architecture dates back to the 18th century in the Qing Dynasty.
The huge complex of halls, towers and pavilions with golden glazed tiles was the imperial court, as well as home of emperors and empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It too is listed as one of the heritage cites.
Tiananmen Square, undoubtedly the most iconic place in Beijing, lies at the heart of the city. It is the largest square of its type in the world, and the place marks the proclamation of the People's Republic of China by Chairman Mao in 1949.
The mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the final resting place of Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1945 until his death in 1976, was also the site we did not want to miss. Although Mao had wished for his remains to be cremated, his body was embalmed and construction of a mausoleum began shortly after his death. This highly popular attraction is located in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, due to ongoing restoration work, the mausoleum was closed.
The Great Hall of the People is a huge complex building used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the government of the People's Republic of China, and the ruling Communist Party of China.
In the evening, we joined a large crowd to witness the lowering ceremony of the Chinese National Flag with spectacular parade. The entire Tiananmen Square, with brightly coloured illumination, appeared like a fairy-tale snapshot. Simply amazing!
The most memorable trip was to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It symbolises ancient Chinese civilisation and is the country's most visited site.
It took us about two hours by road to reach the Great Wall, located about 70 km from Beijing, which happened to be some of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall. The entire highway was lined with ornamental trees and flowers.
We reached the Wall from the base station by chair cable. As we walked, we were overwhelmed by its grandiosity as the wall snaked through the forested mountainside. It was truly a breath-taking experience. 'A man is not considered brave until he has climbed the Great Wall' — this is a famous saying in China, and after our visit to Mutianyu, we felt we have accomplished a great feat!
Later, much to our gastronomic delight, we gobbled on sumptuous lunch at the base station with sautéed mushroom, shredded potatoes, and barbeque fish with shallots.
On the way back from the Great wall, we stopped at a traditional Tea House — a lady demonstrated the art of traditional tea making. We sipped several varieties of the beverage like connoisseurs, including oolong, jasmine, pu'er. and green tea, and naturally could not resist the temptation to buy some.
Beijing is a sprawling modern mega city, with boulevards lined with ornamental trees; high-rise corporate office blocks, trendy malls, and hotels dominating the skyline. But there is a strong sense of new, with a blend of old, which perhaps is still where the real charm is.
By Dr Shamim Ahmed
Photo courtesy: Dr Shamim Ahmed