Beijing – Day 1, Part 2

Escaping the rain at the Palace Museum
Escaping the rain at the Palace Museum

After lunch, I headed back out into Beijing. I decided to head to the other part of the Forbidden City and check out the Palace Museum. The Palace Museum is in the part of the Forbidden known as the Inner Court (I was in the Outer Court in the morning). The Inner Court was where the emperors and their families lived and where most of the day-to-day activities of running an empire took place. I got in the long line for tickets to the museum despite the gathering storm clouds. Everyone in the line was eyeing the clouds and each other, but everyone was reluctant to get out of line until it starting pouring. When the skies opened up, everyone scattered, including myself. I ran across the square and took cover until the eaves of one of the gates. After about 20 minutes it stopped pouring, but by this time I had decided that between the wait in line and the fact that the museum was closing in about an hour, it wasn’t worth it. So I attempted to head out to the street, but the only exit I could find lead right back to the Outer Court – so I paid another 3 Yuan to cross through here again and finally left the Forbidden City.

I headed across the street to Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is named after the Tiananmen Gate, one of the entrances to the Forbidden City. It is one of the largest public squares in the world and has been home to many historically significant events, including Chairman Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and several protests, including pro-democracy protests in 1989. The 1989 protests lead to military law being enforced in Beijing and throughout China, leading to the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) of people. The security around Tiananmen Square is especially tight – I had to have my bag scanned three or four times. This x-ray screening is common in Beijing, including before entering the subway and to get into most tourist sites.

The Monument to the People's Heroes with Chairman Mao's Mausoleum in the background
The Monument to the People’s Heroes with Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in the background

In the middle of Tiananmen Square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. This ten-story obelisk is dedicated to the heroes of the revolutionary struggles during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is huge, with eight bas-relieves depicting eight major revolutionary episodes, from the First Opium War to the Chinese Civil War. This monument has been a rallying place for protests, including in 1976 and 1989.

Chinese troops march in front of Chairman Mao's mausoleum after a rain storm
Chinese troops march in front of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum after a rain storm

Just south of the open square is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum This building houses Chairman Mao’s embalmed body and has since it was finished in 1977. Keeping with the theme of a “people’s republic,” more than 70,000 people from across China volunteered in the construction of this building and materials for the building were sourced from all over China. Unfortunately, viewing hours end at noon, so I didn’t get a chance to see the body.

I kept walking south along Qianman Street, which is a great pedestrian street. Many of the buildings here date back to the Qing Dynasty, and several of the businesses have been in business for more than a hundred years. The street has been a major thoroughfare for about 570 years. In addition to these historic businesses, there are new businesses, including many Western brands like Zara, H & M, and Sephora. The whole street underwent major renovations before the 2008 Olympics.

Qianman Street
Qianman Street

I decided to keep walking and head to the Temple of Heaven. Beijing is deceptively huge, and spread out. What looked on my map like a few blocks, turned out to be more than two miles. I kept walking, wandering down a side street that I thought might lead to where I wanted to go. Instead, I ended up at someone’s house down a dead-end alley. Luckily, by showing them on the map they helped me get back on the right path to the temple.

My view of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven
My view of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven

By this time it was about 4 p.m. and the majority of the buildings at the Temple of Heaven complex were closed. However, the grounds were still open, so I took a stroll around. This temple is where Ming and Qing Emperors performed the important harvest ceremony starting around 1420. The surrounding park is 2,700,000 square meters, and is very popular with people in Beijing. There are playgrounds in addition to the green space provided by grass and trees. I saw people playing badminton and there was a choral practice going on at one of the halls. While I couldn’t go into any of the halls, they were still pretty impressive from the outside. I also enjoyed the break from the skyscrapers and busyness of the city.

Exhausted, I headed back to my hostel and rested there for a bit before hitting the happy hour at the hostel bar. My hostel had activities each night, and tonight was a lesson in dumpling making, followed by eating the dumplings. Not one to pass up free food, I joined in. I met several people staying at the hostel, and had a good time learning how to make dumplings.

After this mini-meal, we decided to head to the Wangfujing Night Snack Street, supposedly home to the best street food in Beijing. One of the guys said it was a 15-minute walk – of course, it turned out to be about 40 minutes. Maybe my standards were too high after being in some of the best cities in the world for street food, but this was definitely not worth it. The biggest draw seemed to be various insects, seahorses, and snakes on a stick. Having my fill of insects on a stick in Thailand and Cambodia, I passed. I did sample a few other things, but I have no idea what they were, and they weren’t that good anyway. By now, the subway was closed, so we walked back to the hostel. In all, we spent at least twice as much time walking there and back as we did at the market. And course, lured by the promise of it being close, I wore my flip-flops, which was a big mistake. My feet hurt and I was exhausted, so I headed to bed when we got back – after all, I had to be up early to head out to the main attraction: The Great Wall of China!

So here’s my advice for Beijing: always wear comfortable shoes (it’s always further than you think), drink plenty of water (there are a ton of public bathrooms!), and get to things early (almost everything was closed by 3 pm).