No. 1: Catching the Sunset from the Great Wall of China at Simatai, Gubei Water Town
In Year 2000, a campaign was started to select the New Seven Wonders of the World from a selection of 200 existing monuments. More than 100 million votes were cast, and unsurprisingly, the Great Wall of China made it to the exalted list of 7.
Construction of Great Wall started from as early as the 7th century BC and went on till 1878. Erecting the 21,196 km long Great Wall took over 2,500 years. Undoubtedly the most iconic of any monument in China, a trip to China would not be complete without a visit to The Great Wall.
Whilst researching the best section of the Great Wall, I came across the Simatai section in Gubei Water Town. Located 120 km northeast of Beijing, the Simatai section of The Great Wall was originally built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 - 577) and later refurbished during the Ming Dynasty.
The best time to visit this section of the Great Wall is in the late afternoon or early evening, just before sundown. That gave us a unique opportunity to explore the watchtowers during daylight hours, watch the sun go down over the mountain range, and the lights illuminate the Great Wall like a majestic golden dragon.
At the foot of the Simatai Great Wall lies Gubei Water Town. The ancient town is carefully restored and conserved. It is in pristine condition, and is now a world class holiday resort. Shops, restaurants and watering holes are well-integrated into the ancient town ambience, with staff dressed in period costumes. I had half expected a tacky theme park feel, but no, I was thoroughly impressed by the entire set up. There were even free movie screenings, Peking opera performances, and a relaxing footbath for us to soak our feet after climbing the Great Wall.
There are many hotels in the area, and it is definitely worth spending one night at least to take in the sights and soak in the atmosphere of historic China. Some hotels even have hotspring facilities or offer complimentary passes to them.
We stayed the night at Beijing Gubei Water Town Hotel. It was close to the sights and had top class amenities. Buffet breakfast the next morning was excellent as well.
We had visited Simatai Great Wall and Gubei Water Town as part of a packaged tour. However, it is not difficult for independent travellers to get there. For easy to follow directions, click here and here.
No. 2: Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City
Mention Beijing and these 2 places, which are adjacent to each other, will come to mind.
Tiananmen, where a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong hangs, is the monumental gateway to the Forbidden City, China's imperial palace from 1420 during the Ming Dynasty to 1912 when the Qing Dynasty came to an end. The square in front of Tiananmen was the site of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On 4 June 1989, the Chinese army fired at student-led demonstrators who were protesting for democracy in the square, killing and wounding thousands and putting an end to the demonstrations which had gone on from 15 April 1989.
Upon entering Tiananmen, one will be in the compound of the world's largest palace, the Forbidden City. Cross the palace moat and you'll be at the Meridian Gate, marveling at the sprawling palace grounds. The palace covers 72 hectares of land, comprising of 980 buildings and 8,886 rooms. It is only a popular myth that there're 9,999.5 rooms, but 8,886 is still more than you can shake a stick at!
Another building of great pride and importance to the Chinese people is the Great Hall of the People. This state building is also next to Tiananmen Square and is the meeting place for the Chinese legislature, and the ruling Communist Party of China.
No. 3: Panoramic view of the Forbidden City and its surrounding from Jingshan Park
Climb to the top of Jingshan Park and you'll be rewarded with a bird's eye view of the sprawling Forbidden City and its surrounding area.
Jingshan Park will also be remembered as the place where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty committed suicide. When Beijing fell to rebel forces in 1644, Emperor Chongzhen took his life by hanging himself from a tree in Jingshan Park.
No. 4: Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex of religious buildings used by the Ming and Qing Emperors for prayers. Most iconic of the religious buildings in that complex is the circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the emperors prayed for bountiful harvests.
No. 5: Beijing National Stadium (also known as the Bird's Nest)
Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and the 91,000 capacity Beijing National Stadium was constructed at a cost of S$459m. Its shape and design resembles a Bird's Nest, hence its nickname.
I daresay the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics at the Bird's Nest was the most impressive to date.
The public toilets at the Bird's Nest had a computerised facial recognition system for dispensing toilet paper. The kids definitely had fun contorting their faces to get a second helping!
No. 6: Watch the Chinese Acrobatic Performance at Dongtu Theatre
Acrobatics have been a part of Chinese culture since the Tang Dynasty (203 BC), and China's acrobats and gymnasts have consistently been one of the best in the world. The cream of China's acrobats make their living in Beijing, and the performers at Dongtu Theatre are touted to be China's acrobatic "Dream Team".
Even though I've never been a theatre fan and was tired after a flight from Singapore, I was completely bowled over by the amazing flexibility and agility of the daredevil performers, and found myself at the edge of my seat throughout the exhilarating, jaw-dropping performance. Highly recommended! When in Beijing, you've got to catch this.
No. 7: Wangfujing Shopping District & Food Street
Beijing has no lack of shopping districts and the most famous of them all is Wangfujing. Large malls line the pedestrian only shopping area. Enough to keep shopaholics busy for many hours. The area is well-known for its street food too.
No. 8: Peking Roast Duck from Quanjude Restaurant
Speaking of food, if there's one dish to try in Beijing, it would have to be Peking roast duck! Although in Beijing, they don't call it Peking roast duck, but just roast duck. The most famous of roast ducks restaurants in Beijing would have to be Quanjude.
Established in 1864, the restaurant's first manager paid a retired palace chef for the imperial recipe for preparing roast duck, and Quanjude has been serving the popular dish to the masses since then.
I must admit I've tasted better Peking roast ducks in Singapore, but it was an enjoyable experience dining at Quanjude nonetheless.
No. 9: Panda Garden in Beijing Zoo
The native habitat of the Giant Panda is in south central China. These cute, cuddly bears are China's national treasures and are often used as China's national symbol.
The Giant Pandas are the rarest member of the bear family. Once considered endangered, conservation has helped increase their numbers gradually and they're now no longer considered endangered but vulnerable. There's an estimated 2,000 of them in the wild, and 300 in captivity around the world.
Although I've seen Giant Pandas in Sichuan years ago, visiting the Panda Garden in Beijing Zoo was the first time Hubby and the kids saw them. It was a positive experience for all of us. There were several Giant Pandas in captivity in Beijing Zoo. The Panda Garden was large, clean and well maintained.
No. 10: Trishaw ride through the Hutong
Hutong are narrow streets and alleyways running in between residential housing, dating as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368). The network of Hutong in Beijing expanded during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1911) Dynasties.
Many have since been demolished to make way for highrise developments and wider roads. However, Beijing has placed some of these ancient neighbourhoods under conservation. Taking a trishaw ride through these ancient narrow streets was an interesting way to catch a glimpse of life in these neighbourhoods.