My asthma-addled lungs don’t react too well to Beijing’s extreme air pollution, so it’s not on my tourist list. But as this is where the twenty first century is being defined, work trips are inescapable and for stolen leisure moments the Chinese capital still has some amazing museums, decent bars and lots of history to enjoy. Plus the Great Wall is just a short ride away.
Jing A, 1949 Complex, Sanlitun
Decent ale in a former industrial district that must be the Beijing equivalent of London’s Dalston or New York’s Greenpoint. After the constant bright lights and skyscrapers of most of downtown Beijng, the 1949 complex offers the chance to escape to dimly-lit streets of a different era.
Capital Museum, Beijing
Opened in 2005, the Capital Museum of Beijing is vast in size and concept – providing a detailed history of the ‘capital of the north’. I barely scratched the surface in an hour-long visit, but greatly enjoyed the archaeological exhibits that taught me how Bronze Age settlers were attracted to the area by good, flat farm-land, mild temperatures and river transport. Over the next two thousand years Beijing moved from being a regional to national capital, supplanting Nanjing in the process. As I left I caught a glimpse of some intriguing big-screen footage of Mao and the early days of Communist rule, but I’ll have to go back for a longer vist to find out more.
Forbidden Palace, Tianamen Square
The extraordinary centre of Chinese imperial power from the Ming to Qing dynasties, a visit to the Forbidden City requires at least half of day of appreciation. It is easy to get overwhelmed and the Chinese love of motif repetition creates some sense of deja vu, but the Forbidden City is all about the subtle differences and hidden meanings that denote the specific purpose and hierarchy of each beautifully adorned building.
Despite having the Chinese symbol for music ready at hand (see above), in 5 trips to China I have somehow failed to catch a gig. This must change..
A truly awesome feat of engineering, even if of limited military use, the Great Wall of China provides an inspiring excursion from the Beijing smog. On the day I visited we walked under blue skies, gazing out on the jagged mountains on Inner Mongolia, and in seven hours barely traversed a hairs-breadth of the Wall’s extraordinary extent. The Wall is crowded with fellow tourists around the cable car ascent at Mutianyu, but a couple of miles in either direction and you will be largely on your own. Oh, and you can take a tobogan back down!
We stayed at the night at the lovely Brickyard eco-lodge, about half an hour’s walk from the Mutianyu approach to the Wall. A floor to ceiling glass wall provides enticing views of the Wall from every room, and there’s a log fire in the bar/restaurant for an evening in a comfy chair after a long day’s walking.