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Beijing: Forbidden Cities, Great Walls and Skewered Sea Horses

The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall

With a history of more than 3,000 years, and being the capital for about 850 years, Beijing is an integral part of China infused with history. One of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, it was the seat of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors until the formation of a republic in 1911. Today, Beijing is the political, educational and cultural center of the country and as such it is rich in historical sites and important government and cultural institutions.

We visited Beijing from May 8 to May 14, 2010. We did a whole lot, so lean in and let’s get going…

We started our first full day, May 9, a Sunday morning, at Panjiayuan (below). Our weekends at New York’s Chelsea Market, and Laura’s Los Angeles estate sales, make her something of a flea market aficianado. And so, it is probably a little understated to describe her as “keyed up” to troll the dusty stalls of Panjiayuan, Beijing’s infamous largely unregulated and delightfully chaotic weekend “Dirt Market.”

A peculiar and infrequently observed, quality about Mandarin is the beautiful ease with which a hawker can argue that the fake in your hands is, in truth, an ancient treasure.

Panjiayuan Sunday Market

After some shopping, our friends Nancy and Guy—with their two delightful boys, Aiden and Lev—took us to brunch at Green T. House (below). The restaraunt is the work of Zhang Jin Jie, an artist, entrepreneur and tea lover, who wanted to create a place that would reflect and indulge her many passions. Green T. House is precisely that: a minimalist quasi tea house, quasi art gallary, full on gastro-funhouse. Designed by Jiang Tao and inspired by Zhanguo architecture, the premises feature villas with open air Jacuzzis set amid terraced courtyards. We know, “ultra-chic” is so cliché, but you can’t help using it to describe this place (come on, its a restaurant that has Jacuzzis).

Sunday Brunch with Nancy, Guy, Aiden and Lev at Green T. House

Our tea-inspired lunch menu was nothing short of ambrosial: grilled lamb with oolong (above right); pear, goat cheese and mushrooms; fried, stuffed lotus root; and, pork fennel dumplings. Oh, and a green tea martini, which had the duel benefits of anti-oxidants and anit-stress. All cocktails should be so leafy.

The next morning we set off to see some sights. Our first stop was the Giant Panda’s at the Beijing Zoo (below). Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. The giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals. There are about 1,600 left in the wild.

We next visted the Birds Nest and Water Cube (Beijing 2008 National Olympic Stadium and National Swimming Center, below).

Following that, we headed to Tian’anmen Square. Tian’anmen Square, named after the Tian’anmen (literally, Gate of Heavenly Peace) which sits to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City, is the largest city square in the world (440,000 m²). It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several key events in Chinese history. The Tiananmen Gate was first built in 1417 in the Ming Dynasty. The Tian’anmen square was originally designed and built in Beijing in 1651. It was enlarged to its present size (four times its original size) and cemented over in 1958. Used as a massive meeting place since its creation, its flatness is broken only by the national flag (below, upper-left), the 125 ft high Monument to the People’s Heroes (below, upper-right) completed in 1958, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong completed in 1977 (below, bottom). We went into the Mausoleum and visited Chairman Mao, who did not look quite so good when compared to Uncle Ho.

Tian’anmen Square has been the site of a number of political events and student protests. These include the May Fourth Movement in 1919; the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949; annual mass military displays on all subsequent National Days until October 1, 1959; the 1984 military parade for the 35th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and the 50th anniversary in 1999; the Tian’anmen Square protests in 1976 after the death of premier Zhou Enlai; and (most recently) the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989.

On the morning of May 11 we visited the Temple of Heaven (Tiān Tán), a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing (below). The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The architecture and layout of the Temple of Heaven is based on elaborate symbolism and numerology. The most prominent structure, The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (above, top), is a magnificent triple-gabled circular building built on three levels of marble stone base. The building is completely wooden, with no nails. It has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively. Combined together, the twelve middle and twelve outer pillars represent the traditional solar term. It’s circular base is surrounded by a ring of nine plates, then a ring of 18 plates, and so on for a total of nine surrounding rings. The number nine represents the Emperor. Its roof, like the roofs of all the important structures in the Temple of Heaven, are tiled in blue, the color symbolizing heaven and sky (just as golden yellow symbolizes the emperor, as seen below in the Forbidden City, and green Buddhism).

The Temple of Heaven

The surrounding of the Temple of Heaven is also a very popular park for exercising, games and performance art along the lengthy and ornate pavillion (above center and bottom). We were there on a Tuesday morning and the crowds made New York’s Central Park look like a small town playground. This, though, is is not surprising when you consider that New York City’s population of 8 million is sort of paltry comppared with Beijing’s 22 million.

From the Temple of Heaven, we headed over to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the world’s largest surviving palace complex. Construction lasted 15 years (1406 to 142o) and required more than a million workers. The Forbidden City was the home of 24 emperors — fourteen of the Ming Dynasty and ten of the Qing Dynasty — until 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China.

Forbidden City? That's right bitches... y'aint keeping us out!

The common English name, “the Forbidden City”, is a translation of the Chinese name Zijinchéng (literally “Purple Forbidden City”). The name Zijinchéng is significant on many levels. Zi, or “Purple”, refers to the North Star, which in traditional Chinese astrology was the abode of the Celestial Emperor. The surrounding celestial region, the Ziwēiyuán Enclosure, was the realm of the Celestial Emperor and his family. The Forbidden City, as the residence of the terrestrial emperor, was its earthly counterpart. Jin, or “Forbidden”, referred to the fact that no-one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. Cheng means a walled city.

After the Forbidden City, we went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace, Yiheyuan in Chinese, is the most celebrated imperial garden in China. The garden came into existence early in the 1750s and had once been a summer resort for the emperors. It served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy (Beiyang Fleet), into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace. Cixi’s reconstruction included a renovation of the infamous Marble Boat (below, upper-left), which decison-making is rather questionable (if not ironic) considering the old Marble Boat was burnt to the ground during the Second Opium War largely because China did not have adequate naval power. As an old saying goes, “water can carry the boat as well as overturn it,” meaning that water symbolizing the common people can uphold the royal boat, or it can swamp the boat.

On the northern bank of the Kunming Lake is a long corridor, also called the thousand-steps corridor (below, upper-right), that is world-famous for its fine craftsmanship. It contains 273 small ‘rooms’ and is 728 meters in length-the longest corridor in any form of Chinese garden or ancient architecture. Some 8,000 paintings are painted directly on the beams of the corridor. They narrate stories of famous people in Chinese history and portray decorative scenes.

In the early evening, we took a pedicab ride through some of Beijing’s ancient hutongs. Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Historically, a hutong was also once used as the lowest level of administrative geographical divisions within a city in ancient China.

During our pedicab ride through the hutongs (below, middle), we visted a 400 year-old siheyuan (below, left), including the bridal room (below, right).

After the pedicab ride, we took a stroll around the HouHai lake. Along HouHai are a variety of teahouses, cafes, bars and boutiques that combine modern and traditional elements in their unique designs. Basically, HouHai is a party area.

Finally that evening, we visited Wang Pu Jing Night Market. The Wangfujing Night Market has a selection of exotic Street food sold from stalls that line the pedestrian street (below). Deep fried insects, scorpions, snakes and sea creatures can be found, along with other animals and animal parts not ordinarily consumed as food in the west. The photo below on the right is a stall selling fried sea horses on skewers above some fried larva.

As the saying goes, one who fails to reach the Great Wall is not a true hero. And so, on May 12, we were heroes. We tell all about our climb of the Great Hall in a separate, dedicated post that you can read by clicking here.

Great Wall

On May 13 by visiting 798 Art Zone. 798 Art Zone, or Dashanzi Art District, is an area of Beijing that houses a thriving artist community among 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings of unique architectural style. The factories have been converted into large and exciting arts and performance spaces, allowing for a wide variety of artistic endeavours to take place. The area is named after Factory #798 (below, bottom right), which is only one of several structures within the complex. Its said that 798 Art Zone is China’s answer to Greenwich Village and SoHo, a place where grungy buildings house art and has become the playground of all that is experimental.

We then did some shopping at Beijing’s famous Pearl Market and Silk Market (below).

The Chinese place much emphasis on negotiating price, a trait that Laura did not have the patience to appreciate (above, bottom). One is reminded of the haggling scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (which we’ve posted below, in case you’ve never seen it). Incidentally, Laura also has no appreciation for Monty Python. As for Lou, he’s always up for some sport, but starting the negotiations at $50 for an “I Heart BJ” t-shirt was a bit audacious (even if you caught the double entendre).

Finally, that evening we had Peking Duck at Quajude Roast Duck Restaurant. Peking Duck is Beijing’s that has been prepared since the imperial era and is now considered one of China’s national foods. (“Beijing” means “Northern Capital”, in line with the common East Asian tradition whereby capital cities are explicitly named as such. Peking is the old English name for Beijing.) Quajude is one of Beijing’s most famous Peking Duck restaurants… and also one of the oldest, having been established in 1864.

It’s hard enough when you’re a tourist to know whether you’ve got a good feel for a city, but its even harder when that city is so large and imbued with such history. Nonetheless, we’re comfortable in assuming that right now, in the far side of the world, a Chinese man is finishing his last strip of skewered sea horse and leaving his hutong for the crowded bars of HouHai.

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