History has strewn Beijing with sites of cultural, historical, and architectural interest. Many of them are UNESCO-designated world cultural heritage sites – not just the most famous like The Great Wall, The Imperial Palace, The Temple of Heaven, and The Summer Palace. Beijing’s imperial palaces, mansions, gardens, and tombs are perfect examples of classical Chinese architecture, as are Buddhist monasteries and Taoist temples such as Yonghegong Lamasery and Big Bell Temple. There are many museums definitely worth a visit –The National Museum of China and the National Art Museum of China being the two main government-operated ones. Area 798, a modern artists’ enclave, has put life back into a very mundane industrial district and is definitely worth a trek to. Many beautiful gardens, both classical and modern, are open to the public. Beijing’s cityscape is punctuated with some amazing architecture – the complex Beijing National Stadium (aka The Bird’s Nest), the ethereal National Grand Theatre of China (aka The Egg), and the CCTV Headquarters building being prominent examples.
Tian’an men Square
Tian’anmen Square, in the centre of Beijing, is the world’s largest city square. Occupying 440,000 square metres it is large enough to accommodate a million people. Sunrises and sunsets are observed solemnly with national flag hoisting and lowering ceremonies. Tian’anmen Gate at the north of the square is the front gate of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City). The rostrum atop the gate, where national leaders review mass rallies or gala celebrations on important occasions, is open to tourists. The Monument to the People’s Heroes occupies the centre of the square. Behind Zhengyang Gate to the south is the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall where long lineups form daily to view his embalmed body and to pay their respects. To the east is the complex which houses the Museum of Chinese Revolution and the Museum of Chinese History. The Great Hall of the People dominates the square’s western side.
Former Imperial Palace
The 720,000 square metre Imperial Palace Museum – more usually referred to as the “Forbidden City” – served as the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Built between 1406-1420, it is the largest remaining royal palatial complex in China. It embodies an immense trove of cultural artefacts and treasures from various dynasties, many of them on display in the Treasure Hall. The ceramics, painting, and bronze-ware galleries were reason enough for UNESCO to classify the former Imperial Palace as a world cultural heritage site.
Temple of Heaven
Constructed in 1420, this is where Ming and Qing emperors annually officiated over prayers for good harvests. These exquisite structures are now part of a 273 hectare park in Chongwen District. The site is now enjoyed daily by the locals as a venue for a variety of morning exercise options, all sorts of socializing, and all sorts of displays of talent and social pastimes – cards, dominoes, Beijing Opera performers, classical Chinese musical instrument players, and so on. The site features the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Altar, and the Abstinence Palace. UNESCO designated the Temple of Heaven a world cultural heritage site in December 1998.
As an emblem of Chinese civilization, a cultural phenomenon of world caliber, and another UNESCO=endorsed world cultural heritage site, the 6350km Great Wall was in China’s feudal years a mammoth defense bulwark that serpentines its way across mountains and valleys in the northern part of the country. The Great Wall came under construction in the 7th century BC. But it was Qinshihuang, the founding emperor of the Qin, who brought it to completion. Repeated extensions were done in later dynasties until the Ming. The 600-year-old Badaling Fortification in Yanqing county in northwest Beijing is representative of Ming sections of the Great Wall. The Great Wall looks equally breathtaking at such sections as Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Simatai.
The Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) in the northwestern suburb of Beijing was built in 1750. by far the best-preserved imperial garden in China, it was endorsed by the UNESCO in 1998 as a world cultural heritage site. As a paragon of Chinese gardens, this huge garden includes Longevity Hill, whose beauty is set off by a multitude of halls, kiosks and trees, and Kunming Lake, a huge body of liquid silver. Major tourist attractions are Tower of Buddhist Incense, 17-Span Bridge, Long Gallery, Cloud Dispelling Hall, Marble Boat, Beamless Hall, Garden of Harmonious Delights, the theatre in the Garden of Moral Harmony, and Suzhou Street. The entire place is a de facto museum of China’s classical architecture. Housed in these buildings are an immense collection of treasures and cultural artifacts.
Thirteen Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs are scattered over an area 40km in circumference in Changping County. Thirteen Ming emperors who ruled China after they moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing were buried there. The largest is the Changling, built in 1413 for the remains for Zhu Di or Emperor Chengzu. Burial objects are on display from the underground palace of the Dingling, the tomb of the last Ming emperor, Zhu Yijun, and his two empresses. The Holy Way leading to the Ming Tombs is flanked on both sides by 30-odd men and horses and other animals carved in graphic images out of massive boulders. In terms of size, this group of stone sculptures is rare anywhere in China.
Yonghegong (Palace of Harmony and Peace) in Eastern District had been the mansion of Emperor Yongzheng during his days as the crown prince. After he ascended the throne he had it converted into a lamasery, which has remained as such to this day. Influences of Han, Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan architecture are palpable in this complex that consists of three finely crafted archways and five imposing halls laid out tastefully over an area of 66,400 square meters. Among the treasures in these halls is a 26-metre-tall statue of Maitreya (the Smiling Buddha), which is carved out of a single sandalwood trunk.
The largest of its kind in China, the 90-hectare Beijing Zoo is home to 4,000 or so animals in 640 species, quite a few of them from other parts of the world. Among the endangered species are the giant panda, golden-haired monkey, northeast China tiger, antelope, black-necked crane and white-lipped deer, Beijing Aquarium in the zoo is billed as the world’s largest continental oceanic aquarium-there are more than 10,000 sea creatures in it.
Tour of Hutongs
Hutong s are back alleys where old traditions remain very much alive and kicking. There are about 4,550 of them in Beijing, ubiquitous in these hutongs are quadrangle dwellings. Close by prince Gong’s Mansion are some of Beijing’s best-preserved hutongs. Touring these hutongs by the traditional pedicab is a special travel program of Beijing.Situated in Liuyin Street in the Scenic neighborhood of Shishahai, Prince Gong’s Mansion is the best preserved of all princely mansions of the Qing in Beijing. Attached to the rear of this pompous mansion is a serene garden with well-manicured lawns. A theatre stands on the premises, where traditional ballad-singing and story-telling performances are given every day.
Zhoukoudian-Home of Peking Man
An abundance of paleo-fossils has been unearthed along with ruins of the world’s earliest fire-using primitive man, Peking Man, at Zhoukoudian in Fangshan District of Beijing, None of these finds, however, are more important than the fossils of Peking Man and Upper Cave Man and more than 10,000 stone tools, which qualify Zhoukoudian as a world cultural heritage site. A Peking Man exhibition on the spot is visited everyday by tourists from both at home and abroad.