Over the last week, we spent time exploring Beijing. Compared to Shanghai, Beijing is older and more historic. Where Shanghai has skyscrapers and lightshows, Beijing has temples, palaces and relics. The city has just as much of the hustle and bustle and mass swarms of people, but it lacks the business-feel and instead stands as the historical and political capital of China.

For those that aren’t aware of the daily happenings of China, we visited Beijing at a very interesting time. On October 1st, China celebrated its 70th birthday as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  In a sense, this is their July 4th for those of us who are Americans. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen Square and declared China as the PRC and a communist country. What this means is that China went ALL out on this celebration. There were parades (the “regular” kind with floats as well as military). There were fireworks. There were military jet and helicopter fly-overs. There were dance routines and performances that rivaled those of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies. And unfortunately, there were thousands (maybe millions) of Chinese citizens who descended upon the capital to witness and participate in all of the festivities. Yikes is right. We watched military tanks and trucks from our hotel window parade down the street, as well as jets, helicopters and planes fly over. It was interesting to say the least. And the festivities were broadcast on 26 of the 48 channels on our hotel TV...we counted. And it still is, days later, because they celebrate all week long (“Golden Week”).

If you read our post about Shanghai, you know that our feelings about China tend to fluctuate from love to tolerate depending on the activity and the amount of chaos involved. I described China as the land of crazy, chaotic beauty, and Beijing does not fall short of this description. For me, I have spent about 6 months in total in Beijing/Qingyundian (a small suburb/town outside of Beijing) so to return there brought a mix of feelings. As I mentioned in our Shanghai post, it was weird being on the tourist side of things and being a number in a swarm of people especially during Golden Week. All the same, Beijing and especially Qingyundian still hold my heart in ways that are hard to put into words.

In contrast to Shanghai, we spent much more time exploring specific cultural and historic sites throughout Beijing and the surrounding area. We took about a million pictures of things like the Great Wall and Summer Palace. And we fell in love with the beauty of a country that can’t be described in words.

So with that in mind, here is a sampling of some of our adventures in Beijing during Golden Week with what at some points felt like the entire population of China...

One of the first places we visited was the Temple of Heaven. In this giant complex of ancient temples dating back to the 1400s, Ming and Qing emperors would pray to Heaven for good harvests. The temples were beautifully painted and represent some of China’s most sacred buildings.

Another place we visited that I was especially excited about was the Beijing Zoo. The giant panda is my all-time favorite animal. Why? Because look at them! I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember, and of course, I had to visit them in their homeland. There were thousands of other animals too, but the pandas of course were the best, the most entertaining, and the cutest, at least in my unbiased opinion :)

We spent an afternoon and evening exploring the Summer Palace. This vast collection of lakes, temples and gardens was used by the emperors as a retreat in the summer months starting in the 1700s. The views surrounding the lake are unbelievable, especially at the top of Longevity Hill where you can see the mountains, city and lake all around you. We were even able to watch the sunset over the water only adding to the beauty of the landscape.

One morning, we walked around the 2008 Olympic Park to see the Bird’s Nest (National Stadium), Water Cube (Olympic pool) and several other venues. As lovers of the Olympics, we really enjoyed it, and it was exciting to see how the city is preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics!

I can safely say that our favorite activity from our time in Beijing (and maybe so far on this trip??) was hiking the Great Wall. The Wall is made up of several different sections that break down the 13,171 mile-long manmade structure that winds through the mountains of northern China. We were dropped off by a driver (named Ge who is the kindest, happiest man ever!) in a part called Jiankou and hiked to a different part called Mutianyu where we took a toboggan sled down the mountain to meet Ge to drive us back to Beijing. The adventure started with an uphill hike through the woods just to reach the Wall. Then we hiked along the unrestored (i.e. untouched and left as it has been for hundreds of years) section of Jiankou to the Mutianyu section where the wall has been restored. The scenery was stunning to say the least. There is a reason why the Great Wall is considered one of the wonders of the world. I’ve hiked it four other times, and each time, it takes my breath away. We were worn out, pretty smelly, and sore for a couple days after, but it was totally worth every bit. I know this is something that neither of us will ever forget.

Sorry for the gazillion pictures, but it’s amazingly beautiful, right??

One thing that I have been looking forward to since we first decided to visit Beijing was taking a day to visit Qingyundian and the children’s home that I volunteered at in 2010 and 2011. Things have changed a lot since I left, but it was still wonderful to take some time to walk around the foster home and village and to visit with and reminisce with a friend. I loved being able to show Perry a place that has my heart and that is the reason why I love China so much.

Our last day, we braved the crowds of Golden Week and headed out to see Tiananmen Square (where all of the festivities had taken place the day before) and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen was filled with thousands of people all there to visit the famous square and see the remains of the previous day. The Forbidden City too was filled to the brim with Chinese tourists visiting the palaces of their former emperors. The buildings were beautiful and intricately painted in reds, blues, greens and golds. Following the Forbidden City, we visited the Jingshan Garden, located just behind the complex, which were the private gardens of the emperors. They allowed us to see Beijing from up above, which was quite lovely.

When we weren’t visiting specific sites, we enjoyed walking around the city, going places like the Panjiayuan Antique Flea Market and Wangfujing Street, eating delicious Chinese food and of course, taking pictures with random strangers. I think you could fill days and days with things to see and explore in Beijing.

At the end of the day, our time in Beijing and mainland China as a whole was something we will never forget. The culture is one that is so different from our own but yet draws you in in ways you never thought possible. It's unpleasantly in your face when you get swept away by the crowds, but so heartwarming when you meet people like Ge or my friends in Qingyundian. It reminds me that countries are made up of the sites and sounds but it's the people that define them however good or bad that might be. It's the people that build palaces and cities and unexplainably huge walls on mountains. And it's the people that make you smile and laugh along the way. China might be crazy and chaotic because of its people but they make it more beautiful all at the same time. They're the reason why I just can't stay away from this land.

So as we leave mainland China behind and head to Hong Kong, I'm trying to remember the faces of the places we've been. I'm remembering the memories of the people we've met along the way. And I'm trying to treat each individual that I encounter as a person with all their quirks and uniqueness and recognize that they are the ones that make this world special and beautiful more than anything else.


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