Beijing Overview: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Peking Duck
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This is an installment in my series on my January 2012 trip to China. Posts include: Help Me Plan My Trip To China, Flight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to Beijing, Hotel Review: St. Regis Beijing, Beijing Overview: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Peking Deck, A Great Day at the Great Wall of China, Flight Review: Air China 777 Domestic Business Class, Hotel Review: Andaz Shanghai, Trip Report: Terra Cotta Warriors and a Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, Hotel Review: Sheraton Xian, and My China Trip Wrap Up: China Eastern, Hainan Airlines and the Westin Beijing.
After my long flight on American Airlines and a good night’s rest in my Statesman Suite at the St. Regis Beijing, I was looking forward to spending the first few days of my first trip to China in the nation’s capital: Beijing.
January has already been a busy month, and I was looking forward to this trip both as a way to significantly up my AA EQM’s on the quest for Executive Platinum status, so I was fairly laidback about planning and mostly just took my two days there to walk around the city and get a feel both for daily life and the capital’s major sights, with a sprinkling of TPG reader suggestions thrown in (thanks!). Everyone was extremely polite and friendly, and several times I got stopped on the street so people could see how tall I was! It was pretty funny – I guess they’re not used to seeing someone my size walking around, even in Beijing.
I didn’t waste too much time, though. My second day there, I met up with Jenny, a tour guide who was recommended to me by Rick Ingersoll, the Frugal Travel Guy. She took me to what is probably the city’s most famous 20th-century landmark, Tiananmen Square, and after telling me about its history and the student uprising, she took me to lunch and the city’s other must-see tourist sight, the Forbidden City. It was a gorgeous sunny winter day, and luckily the smog wasn’t bad, but several days later it got so bad flights in and out of Beijing were delayed and canceled because of it!
Jenny was a super sweet girl and very informed on all the facts and history of the landmarks she showed me. She actually lives on an apple orchard outside the central city, though, so if you want a real insider tour of Bejing, she might not be your best bet. Her English, however, was excellent, and she was very friendly, so if you’re looking for a casual tour of the main areas and sights, she is fantastic. Her fee for a day of touring was 400 RMB (~$63) and she can be reached via email here.
You don’t need me to write a Beijing city guide, so instead I thought I’d give you my impressions from my short visit, starting with Tiananmen. The square was just a huge, empty expanse. I guess the best way to describe how it felt was to say it just gives you an unmistakably communist vibe just being there – slightly oppressive and depressing, but definitely striking and awesome in the original sense of the word.
It was pretty empty so we just walked around and I asked Jenny about her experience growing up in Communist China, and what she thought of America. Everyone I spoke with talked aspirationally about America, but I learned that it’s both quite difficult and very expensive to get a visa.
Jenny took me to lunch at a place near Tiananmen where we had the house specialties: beer and dumplings, pan-fried pork and boiled beef with peppers. Jenny cautioned me that it was probably going to be too spicy for me, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I think she was just being protective!
Fortified from lunch, we continued to the Forbidden City, which was just breathtaking. What surprised me was that there were actually a lot of Chinese tourists in addition to the Japanese and Korean people there and that I was one of the only Westerners, which I loved. The complex, which used to be the imperial palace and the center of government since the 15th century was just a massive complex of nearly 1,000 buildings. Impressive, to say the least. The weather was a bit cold, in the high 30’s, so it was a bit chilly for wandering around, but I’d take that over the summer, when it’s apparently swarmed by tourists and sweltering in the steamy summer heat.
Peking Duck for Dinner
As the afternoon drew to a close, I went back to the St. Regis and got ready for an evening out on the town. I met up with two TPG readers and two friends at a famous Peking duck restaurant in Beijing called Da Dong Duck (seriously). Its reputation was well deserved – everything was delicious, as you can see from the photos in the gallery below.
Dinner was interesting, because I got the perspective of 4 expats (three American and one Russian) living in Beijing and all working/studying in different industries. In fact, TPG reader Blair has been living in China for about 25 years, so hearing his experiences was fascinating. Thanks to all for the great dinner conversation!
Afterwards, we wanted to go to a chic design hotel with a good bar called Opposite House, but we couldn’t manage to catch a cab, which was really annoying. Apparently cabs are in high demand and many drivers don’t want to pick up Western tourists due to the language barrier, so after about 30 minutes of walking around, we just took the subway. Even then we had to wait 15 minutes for another train to come because the first was just too packed to even get on.
In the end, I just called it a night because I was still tired, and Jenny was picking me up the next day at 8:00 am sharp to head out of town and see the Great Wall before dropping me off at the airport for my flight to Shanghai, so I didn’t want to be too tired. Besides, I have one more night in Beijing before I fly back to the U.S., so I’ll reassess Beijing nightlife then!