December 13, 2010
There are many famous sites to see in and around Beijing, but the main four “must-sees” are Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, and The Summer Palace. Depending on how much time you want to spend at each place these four places can be seen in one marathon day of sightseeing or 2 or 3 relaxed days of thorough exploring. There was so many other things I wanted to see that I chose to do it in one marathon day starting at Tiananmen Square.
I had the hotel arrange for me a tour guide for the day and I was given a young Chinese girl about my age who I had a wonderful time speaking with about cultural differences and similarities. I spent two days with her- one on the city tour and one on the Great Wall of China. I was fascinated by the similarities between us and laughed out loud when she complained to me about not having a boyfriend because she put her studies first and now her mom gave her constant pressure to get married. The details may be different, but the story is universal. I actually had young female tour guides in every city I went and every time the girls asked me the same questions about living in New York City for a few minutes and then went straight to asking me advice on their lives and relationships with their mothers, boyfriends and roommates. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that I had come half way around the world to experience new things and found myself giving boyfriend advice to a stressed out young woman trying to have it all. Speaking with them showed me the universality of the thoughts and emotions my friends and I are feeling right now.
I was in a culture so different from my own, speaking to young girls who had such different lives than I did- they knew nothing of politics and seemed not to care much other than a general dissatisfaction. Two of my guides on separate occasions asked me if I had ever met a gay person and told me they hadn’t even heard of homosexuality until they were in their late teens and left their small towns for college. Out of 5 guides only one had heard of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese democratic activist who just won the Nobel Prize. Three of the guides laughed when I asked and said, “I think you are mistaken, China has no democratic party.” I am not used to being surrounded by politically unengaged people and China is the center of it, but not by choice. There is so much censoring in the media that most people do not have the ability or opportunity to become engaged and try to enact change. It just makes all the politically empathetic Americans seem so much sadder to me as they actually do have the opportunity of free press and to educate themselves and then demand change. So many Americans take our first amendment for granted. We have the freedom of speech, press, petition, and assembly. The right to assembly has been taken away many times in China, most famously in recent years in Tiananmen Square, which just happened to be the first stop on my city tour.
Tiananmen Square is a large square in the center of Beijing that used to be part of the Forbidden City, which is located right across the street. The square has had many incarnations and is probably most famous in the West for the June 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, which is ironic because Tiananmen Square literally translates to the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The protests were led by mostly students and intellectuals and the government responded by opening fire on the square murdering an estimated 400-800 people. The number is not confirmed as so much of it was hidden and kept secret. Even today people do not talk about the massacre and as it is not taught in schools many young Chinese people do not know any details about the event. To read more about the protests click here.
Having just visited Johannesburg, South Africa I was fascinated by the parallels between the Tiananmen Square Protests and the Soweto uprising a little more than a decade earlier. Both involved youths standing up to authorities and demanding change and both resulted in the massacre of over 500 people. Everywhere I went in South Africa people were eager to talk to me about Apartheid and the uprising- they wanted to know what I thought and share with me their opinions. However in China no one wanted to talk about it and many didn’t even know much about it. I guess the difference is Apartheid ended and the oppressive Communist regime is still going strong.
The next stop on my tour was the Forbidden City built in the Ming Dynasty in 1406. In 1924 the last emperor was forced out and in 1925 it officially became a museum and open to the public. You can spend a few hours or a few days exploring the palace’s 9,999 rooms. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is crowded with tourists from all over the world throughout the year. For more on the Forbidden City click here.
My next stop was the Temple of Heaven, which consists of a few Taoist temples and structures in the Southeastern part of Beijing. The temple was originally constructed in 1406, the same time as the Forbidden City, but has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and was recently repainted in 2008 for the Olympics. The Temple of Heaven is also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would suggest budgeting some extra time here to walk around the park surrounding the buildings where you can watch locals play mahjong, fly kites, practice rhythmic gymnastics, and do Tai Chi in the mornings. It is also a great spot for bird watching in the summertime. For more information on the Temple of Heaven click here.
My last stop on the city tour was the Summer Palace in the Northern part of Beijing. The Summer Palace was built during the Ming Dynasty over 200 years ago for the emperor’s mother in celebration of her 60th birthday. The landscape of the area is mostly man-made- featuring a large man-made lake that covers most of the area and nearby man-made mountains on which pagodas and palaces have been built. The area is quite beautiful throughout the year and there is a lot of activity to be seen in the gardens in the area. Like the Temple of Heaven there are many people around playing games and if you are lucky you may even see some older men practicing their calligraphy on the cement with a water brush, writing beautiful poems with water that disappear in a few minutes as the water evaporates. The palace is also home to the longest continually covered walkway in the world, which is worth walking a few steps on, if not the whole way. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the three sites in total in one day. For more information on the palace click here.