Destination: China: Beijing
A mind-blowing experience. Even the entranceway seems to go on forever, as visitors pass through the magnificent gold-studded vermilion gates. It was meant to be an intimidating experience, of course, emphasizing to Chinese and foreign visitors alike that the emperors were all powerful. Merely walking through the courtyards from south to north, stopping to admire and inspect the temples, takes the better part of half a day. In fact, the Forbidden City is so vast, so overwhelming, that it is hard to take it all in. The 1987 movie The Last Emperor gave some idea of what the place was like on ceremonial occasions, when the emperors appeared in full regalia, with a retinue of soldiers, courtiers, eunuchs and advisors. The compound has buildings for every occasion and purpose—worship, concubine accommodation, formal meetings, kindergarten. Whatever the size of your own house, it will seem tiny after a visit to the Forbidden City. Unofficial English guides offer services at the entrance, and while it is interesting to chat with the locals, their version of history can often be suspect. Far better to rent one of the English language tapes, which can be paused at will.
It truly is, as Richard Nixon famously (and rather fatuously) said, a great wall built by a great people. But not all parts of the walls are equal. Badaling, the most popular spot, is a shocking example of how to let a tourist gem be destroyed by over-commercialization, unnecessary building and sheer greed. Making a trek to the Wall at this spot can be hard work; at times it seems the entire population, together with a small army of hawkers, has gathered there. Opt instead for the slightly less crowded Mutianyu, which has a cable-car ride to the top, or even farther away, at Huanghuacheng. Many hotels offer a car and driver so you can find your own spot along the wall for a picnic—it’s expensive but worthwhile. If time prevents anything more than a quick trip to Badaling, be sure to walk as far along the Wall as possible, away from the crowds, to get a real flavor of its grandeur. The Wall itself was pretty useless as a deterrent—Genghis Khan and his marauding troops conquered it with ease. Tour operators often include the on-the-way Ming Tombs as part of the day out; they are a rather dull collection of imperial tombs and statues and can easily be dispensed with.
Tip: One of the most fascinating ways to visit the Wall is with William Lindesay of the Wild Wall. A Brit who ran its length, he has devoted years to preserving the ancient defense. He has a truly encyclopediac knowledge of the structure, and our members have raved about spending a day in his company.
An hour’s drive from downtown, this palace is where the rulers of old stayed on their vacations. Naturally, they commandeered the best spot. The buildings are arranged around a lake, which in turn is surrounded by grassy hills. If time is tight, this can be left off the itinerary, as you’d need a half-day just for the journey and ample time to walk around, enjoying the ambiance as well as the architecture. Avoid weekends—it can sometimes seem as if all of Beijing has come out for a stroll.
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