Tomorrow is (American) Thanksgiving, and as I prepped roast chicken and green bean casserole for a feast we’ll be sharing with the other foreign teachers I reflected on our many blessings. Tommy and I are so grateful for this chance to explore the world a little bit more, and for all of our friends and family who have showed us continual love and support even while we’re halfway across the globe. We’re thankful for the new friends we have met here, and for the new opportunities waiting for us after China (even though we don’t know what they are yet!). And we’re so happy that we’re growing in grace and experiencing all of these things together. So in the spirit of the holiday, here is one little piece of the year that we are thankful for, our trip to the big and beautiful Beijing!
The Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall… When I titled this everything is bigger in Beijing, I wasn’t kidding! The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex at 885,033 square yards, and the Temple of Heaven is even larger at 3,529,412 square yards! Not to mention the Great Wall, spanning 13,000 miles – although of course, that stretches far beyond the sections near Beijing. We made the most of our 3 days in China’s capital, visiting these well-known highlights as well as a few other attractions.
*Fun side note – we found out after we arrived that Donald Trump was in Beijing at the same time! He also visited the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Let’s hope he didn’t get any big ideas… 😉
Built in 1420, the Temple of Heaven was used by Chinese emperors for many years to pray for plentiful harvests and worship their ancestors. Suiting its imperial function, it is actually not a single temple but a large complex with multiple buildings and sprawling gardens. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and attracts tourists and card playing/dancing/tai chi practicing locals rather than royal worshipers.
I was beyond impressed with the rich colors, intricate details, and perfectly proportional design. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was without a doubt one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The vast gardens were perfectly manicured, and the brilliantly colored fall leaves more than made up for the lack of flowers. The bright whiteness of the Circular Mound Altar had a uniquely pure aesthetic in the midst of the bold imperial hues that adorned every other building. Even minor outlying buildings like the Divine Music Office had special decorative details that caught our attention. My art history heart was so happy the whole afternoon! And yes, Tommy was impressed too. 😊
Here, my art history heart withered and died a little. For a museum that apparently represents all of China, it was disorganized to the point that I would consider its managers utter heathens of the art world. There was no printed map or listing of displays. The metal plaque map on the wall displayed 7 floors with no indication of what collection was where. And no, this wasn’t a language barrier issue… nothing was printed in Chinese, English, or any other option! Entering only an hour before the museum closed, we frantically ran up floor after floor trying to determine which galleries we couldn’t miss. Luckily for us, it turns out that only 3 of the 7 actually had exhibits.
[Non-art nerds, skip this paragraph.] The highlight of NAMOC was Lu Qinglong’s exhibition. His oil landscapes were realistic in form but made unique by specific sections piled thick with paint to match the texture of the object. While the wheat or snow might be Van Gogh-esque, their surroundings were closer to a slightly blurry photograph. He also had fascinating large-scale portrayals of today’s common working class Chinese laborers that reminded me of Courbet, had he lived in 21st century China rather than 19th century France. Tommy also enjoyed the oil painting section of Liu Haisu’s 3-part series, which featured impressionist renderings of Beijing and several other cities in China.
The Forbidden City was similar to the Temple of Heaven. Both were built in the 15th century, and shared many of the same rich imperial colors and repeating architectural details. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was used by emperors for many years – although its function as palace rather than temple meant it was used on a much more frequent basis.
Tommy and I were amazed, and frankly a little overwhelmed, at the sheer size of the complex. While the temple felt relaxing with its spacious gardens, the palace was a maze of building after building and stone paths. We started on the East side, were getting tired by the time we reached the central area, and couldn’t work up the endurance to continue on to the West side. It was incredibly impressive and the buildings were gorgeous – definitely a must-see while in Beijing – but by the end we were in need of some variety.
Outside of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, so we can say that we visited this historic sight. Of course, “the victors write history” is rather true here and as such there wasn’t anything to see.
Beijing is known for its hutongs. Similar to the longtang/shikumen of Shanghai, these are narrow alleys with a distinct style of historic buildings. In the neighborhood of Nanluoguxiang, these traditional one-story structures have turned into a hub of quirky shops and tasty bites. Many other hutong areas are taking up this hipster atmosphere as well, but off every main path there are plenty of little alleys that still retain their authenticity.
We stayed in Nanluoguxiang at Downtown Backpackers Hostel for the sweet, sweet price of $27/night (breakfast included!) and couldn’t have been more pleased. It was so fun to be right in the center of this busy pedestrian shopping street, and we also got to see it before the crowds arrived when we ventured out in the morning. Plus, down one of the side alleys was the fantastic Great Leap #6 Brewery. It was great to have beer with actual flavor!
And finally, the main attraction. We hiked the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai East. This 3.7 mile section was almost completely empty. It started off well-restored, giving us a feeling of what it must have been like at its inception. The farther we walking, the more rugged it became, until in some stretches the side walls had completely crumbled away. This left only the wall’s path and no protection from the fierce and cold wind. 22 watch towers dotted our hike, providing brief protection. Some sections were flat and easy, but some were so steep our tennis shoes started slipping and we had to go up it running to avoid sliding down. Unending rugged mountains stretched in every direction. The wall snaked up and down the formidable landscape as far as we could see forward or backwards. World wonder, indeed. It exceeded all expectations.
Our experience on the Great Wall was better than I could have ever imagined. If you ever have the chance to go, I highly recommend Downtown Backpackers’ tour. Basically, they bus you and the rest of the group to Jinshanling (2-3 hours from Beijing), provide a map, and let you do the hike at your own pace provided you finish by the designated meeting time to take the bus back. This meant that although we had 22 people in our group, we were rarely at the same place at the same time. We all finished easily in the 3 hours allotted, even with tons of stops to take photos. No fighting the masses, dodging selfie-stick wielding tourists, listening to holler-happy hikers (we learned at Zhangjiajie that for some reason, Asians really like to yell into nature’s abysses). Just you, the wild expanses, and one incredible wall.
On that epic note, we concluded our trip to Beijing. Teaching has been going well since we returned a week and a half ago. The weather is getting a lot colder, but no snow and a surprising amount of trees still have their leaves. We found cheap, cozy winter jackets – mine was only $10 at a knockoff discount store! We’re looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow with the other foreign teachers, even though it isn’t celebrated by anyone else in our town. It’s hard to believe Christmas is only a month away! Lots of love to everyone back home, and wishing you all a great long holiday weekend! 💕