Last year I once again had the opportunity to work with an airline I have come to know very well – Cathay Pacific Airways. Since I had never been to China before, they wanted me to experience the best that the country has to offer and with their help I enjoyed a whirlwind trip to a few places I’d dreamed of visiting for years. At the top of that list was Beijing, a city so massive it would take far longer than the couple of days I had to devote to it. Being a first time visitor I decided to visit some of the traditional tourist hot spots and what I ended up enjoying on the trip was so memorable I thought I’d share them here today. Beijing is a city that I think is easy to love, so if you haven’t been yet be sure to add it to your travel wish list and include these experiences.
Walking the Great Wall of China
There are a few experiences around the world that surely must be on everyone’s travel bucket lists, including the Great Wall of China. Although my time in Beijing was brief I knew there was no way I could conclude my first visit to China without tackling the mighty Great Wall. Given its size, there are a number of different points easily accessible to tourists, including a few near Beijing itself. I decided to visit the Mutianyu section due to its “classic” look and the fact that not as many tourists visit. Don’t get me wrong, it was busy, but not nearly as busy as some of the other sections can be. Away from the main entrance, most of the crowd seemed to disappear immediately and I was left with what I had dreamed of for so very long, the Great Wall of China. At the Mutianyu section at least, the Wall has been restored to a beautiful condition and its location among the rolling hills and mountains is exactly the kind of landscape we all imagine. It truly is a beautiful and remarkable feat of engineering and standing there on top of it, looking out across to the horizon was just as special as I had always imagined. It’s important to get out there and experience the Great Wall of China not just for its importance in Chinese history, but in world history and of course to admire its inherent beauty. Walking along the Great Wall of China is just one of those special and iconic travel moments everyone should try to do at least once in their lives.
One challenge I had in Beijing was that there was too much to see and do and not enough time to do it. So I had to pick and choose but looking back at it, the decision to visit the large Summer Palace complex was very smart. Chinese rulers lived in this tranquil retreat for centuries and today you can easily sense the former power and glory that was centered here. On a warm almost-summer weekend afternoon, its appeal wasn’t only obvious to me, but the thousands of Beijing locals all there to enjoy some time in the gardens and paddling on the lake. It was a fun afternoon with some history thrown in, but mostly the appeal of the Summer Palace is the pastoral beauty. In a city as large as Beijing, it’s a nice way to slow down and relax.
Beijing has no shortage of luxury hotels. In fact, that’s part of the problem; it’s almost too difficult to choose from them all. Thankfully my hotel partner for this trip was The Ritz-Carlton, a company I have come to know and respect over the years. They actually have two locations in Beijing and I had the great privilege of staying in both The Ritz-Carlton Beijing Central Place and The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street. The Central Place property is decorated in what I consider to be an elegant and very classic Ritz-Carlton style, with all of the trimmings you would expect. The suite I enjoyed there was enormous, with more than enough space to get everything done that I needed to. Financial Street is a little different and as a traveler I like the fact that the hotels enjoy varying design styles and aesthetics. Financial Street is what I lovingly call Chinese modern, with well-executed use of glass and metals, but still retaining that classic style and elegance we all love. My room there was perfect, with sweeping views of the city and a bathroom with a view I’ll never forget. Included is Club Level access, making these rooms the best choice. Add in the amazing Ritz-Carlton service and dedication to hospitality and I couldn’t imagine a more luxurious way to enjoy the sights of Beijing.
Hutongs are an old style of neighborhood, with some dating back hundreds of years. They’re also amongst the most traditional type of abode, but sadly many of them have been destroyed over the last 50 years, making way for highways and highrises. Some though have thankfully been preserved, and it was through these ancient communities where I spent an afternoon strolling. Quiet alleyways, dusty neighborhood temples and basic markets, all part of daily life in the hutongs. But so are microbreweries, gastro pubs and coffee shops. Hipsters have discovered the hutong, and many are undergoing a massive gentrification process, at first alarming but ultimately saving these relics from near certain destruction. It was also the perfect way for me to see what average, daily life in the city looks like. Temples, palaces and grand plazas are all great and important to see, but so are neighborhoods and shops, the basic building blocks of life in the capital city.
Home to 24 emperors over the course of 500-years, the Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing’s impressive imperial history. It’s also an immense space, with legend holding that it is home to 9,999½ rooms. These are scenes I’ve been admiring in books for decades, and to suddenly find myself there, wandering around the buildings and plazas in person and not through film or photos was a uniquely wonderful sensation. It was a sudden awareness that I was there, I was finally in China, the long mythologized country of my travel dreams.
I know that to some this list may seem a little basic and even obvious, but as travelers we all have to start somewhere. Since it was my first time in China I wanted to be a typical tourist, visiting all of those famous sites I’d spent a lifetime learning about. I accomplished my mission and even more importantly, have set myself up for an even more in depth exploration on future trips.