Well into the 21st century we have evolved into technologically dependent beings that can tackle little less than math at this point (all thanks to our dearest smart phone). But when you think how we got here, inevitably the roadmap of our future lies in our history and how we lived as a civilisation in ancient times. The ancient era was all about discovering the meaning of life and our evolution to become an enriched civilisation whilst worshipping our nature. But it was also about imperialism and land conquests. When I think of ancient imperial history few destinations make the cut on top of the list and one of them is China.
The capital city of Beijing has been the country’s center of historic events, architectural and cultural epicenter. Being a history and cultural traveller I certainly had Beijing on my bucket list but never really understood how or when I would visit this glorious city. When I did, Beijing surely surprised me as cocooned heritage amidst blossoming modernity. Though Beijing’s infamous veil of smog and masked denizens were taking a breather during my stay, I was forewarned to expect the smog on arrival. By every dimension, Beijing is a vast square city with multiple ring roads around the city center which is primarily Tiananmen Square. The city has nearly 7000 historical sites not to mention enough UNESCO sites than you can accommodate in your itinerary. During my visit, I chose the most iconic sites to visit which open a gateway to its imperial past. While enlisting the sites I will recommend the flow of the itinerary which may help save travel time through the day.
The Qing Dynasty was the last imperial rule in China that ended in 1911 after having reigned for nearly three centuries. The Ming dynasty before it too reigned for a couple of decades short of three centuries. Though the first dynasty rulers of China – Xia Dynasty dated as back as the 21st century BC, it were the Ming and Qing dynasties that brought most of the historical and architectural changes in the kingdom. During the Yuan dynasty that was succeeded by Ming dynasty, the current location of the city’s center was known as Imperial City. During the Ming dynasty, the imperial capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing and this was formalised in 1404 by the construction of the ultimate seat of power – Forbidden City, an imperial palace complex. Forbidden City or Palace Museum as it is known today has seen 24 emperors and two dynastic rules over 500 years. Today it is UNESCO world heritage site for being the largest collection of antiquated wooden structures in the world. The 180 acres of Forbidden City needs undivided attention and can consume almost half a day walking through the entire complex. The architecture and design have philosophical and religious symbolism embedded in its intricate details. There are many walls, gates, corners and monuments that have cultural, historical and political significance worth taking note. Summer Palace is another such ancient imperial palace complex built during the Jin and Yuan dynasty when today’s Beijing was the new imperial capital of China. It is a splendid architectural complex based on the Chinese mythology of three divine mountains in the East Sea. It has expansive gardens, lakes, palatial halls, and temples. This palace is located North West of the Forbidden City at the fringes of the city. Summer Palace needs a good half day to visit as well. Although Tiananmen Square and the Monument to The People’s Heroes are not a part of the Forbidden City today it was the official entrance to the Imperial City. Today the square is a symbol of the People’s Republic of China where most official assembly and state events occur. The focal point of China capital.
Temples & Relics
Ancient civilisation as old as five millennia will have a cultural place of worship and remembering the deceased. Forces of nature played a key role in the daily lives of the population in terms of agriculture, health and the destiny of monarchy or dynasty. It is no wonder that the Chinese like many other ancient cultures worship the gods representing these forces. Temple of Heaven is a medieval temple complex in Beijing constructed by the same emperor of the Ming dynasty that built the Forbidden City. The temple includes three level gabled circular Hall of Good Harvest flanked by three main halls and a single-gabled circular Imperial Vault of Heaven on the opposite end of the main temple. In Chinese mythology, square is the symbol for Earth whereas Circle is the symbol for heaven and you can see the connection in the interior artwork of these temple halls. The other prominent temples around the Temple of Heaven are the Temple of Sun, Temple of Earth and Moon. The Confucius Temple and Lama Temple and Temple of Earth are in proximity to each other and these could be visited together on the same day as Temple of Heaven. While you visit the Temple of Earth I highly recommend a visit to the second largest Confucius Temple in the country as well as the medieval Lama Temple built during the Qing dynasty. The Lama Temple was once an imperial court and residence which was later converted into the Buddhist temple. While you are visiting the Tiananmen Square and forbidden City you must not miss the Imperial Ancient Temple in the vicinity. It resembles the ground of the Forbidden City and in medieval times was the sacrificial hall for the emperors during the rituals. With so many antiquities scattered all over the city, it is no wonder that the relics attract tourism and bystanders capturing selfies of their visit. The Ming Dynasty Wall Relic Park is one such antiquated attraction which is the longest stretch of the Ming dynasty City Wall which was the border of the inner city during the dynasty rule. The wall was torn down for metro stations and developments and this one has been well-preserved as a beautiful park.
Imperial Parks & Recreation
In the imperial era Beijing’s palatial addresses had a complex full of parks, gardens and lakes these are well preserved boosting tourism and the city’s green spaces. Some of the most significant imperial parks are within the complex of the Forbidden City – Zhongshan Park and Tongzi River, Summer Palace but there are a few over thousand years old just outside the walls of Forbidden City. The Beihai Park is right next to the Forbidden City and use to serve as the imperial garden for the Jin Dynasty emperor. Beihai Park has islands in lakes, the largest one Qionghua Island. There are many ancient cultural symbolism like the nine-dragon wall and five-dragon pavilions which draw your attention to the detailing in its design while there is a story narrated of the ancient era. Just north of the Forbidden City divided by merely a moat is the Jingshan Park with an artificial hill called Jingshan which means ‘Prospect Hill’. This is another thousand-year-old park during the Jin dynasty but the hill was excavated by the Ming dynasty. The garden park follows Feng Shui rules and is one of the best parks in Beijing you could visit. Besides these two parks, the ones at Summer Palace are worth wandering around with ample of lakes and lush surroundings. Not so far away from the Summer Palace is the old Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan Park or Gardens of Perfect Brightness. This use to be a complex of imperial gardens and lakes. What I appreciate about these imperial gardens and parks is the application of ancient science and art governed by the Feng Shui to create some spectacular recreational avenues in a bustling city like Beijing.
Hiking On The Wall
You don’t travel all the way around the world to Beijing, China and not walk on the world’s wonder – The Great Wall of China. The section which is most visited of course is the Badaling stretch and needless to say it is ubiquitous with tourists and travellers all year round. It takes an hour and a half on good traffic days on the Beijing – Badaling expressway to get to the Great Wall. But once you’re there it is a sight you have been waiting for to keep walking on the seemingly endless territorial division. At first glance, you may feel you are in a crowded concert of selfie sticks and narcissistic smiles everywhere, but can you blame them? Who wouldn’t want to splurge all the excitement on one of the world’s wonders and live that childlike moment with an obligatory photograph?
We all have ordered take out and had luxurious gourmet dinners at our respective award-winning Chinese restaurant but none of them come close in comparison to the real dining experience in Beijing. Chinese imperial era did see some dynasty cuisine and today some select few restaurants are known in the city for their hand me down recipes. There is Family Li Imperial, Fang Shan at Beihai Park and Ting Li Ting at Summer Palace are designated restaurants serving recipes passed on generations from the Empress Dowager’s kitchen. House of Dynasties at Rosewood Beijing is one such exemplary restaurant to dine for a private and exclusive experience of the dynasty cuisine. The Cai Yi Xuan – a recipient of the Timeout awards 2016 is indeed one of the most decadent and veritable culinary experience you could ask for in Chaoyang district. Peking Duck, Dezhou Braised Chicken are the two popular dishes I recommend a try. Peking duck being the most popular of all imperial cuisine dishes is served invariably by most Chinese restaurants but the ones listed above have the authentic recipe and process of preparation.
Hotels To Stay: Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, Rosewood Hotel Beijing