Atop the Great Wall, the winter wind was biting and the crisp air surprisingly clear. Two days earlier when I’d flown into Beijing, the colors of the sunset were muted in the hazy sky.
Looking out from the airplane window, I had strained to catch my first glimpse of the megalopolis from above. Beijing is infamous for its polluted air, but that day on the Great Wall the sky was clear with just a bit of haze settling on the mountains in the distance.
The 2700-some years of history underneath my feet combine with other sections of the wall stretching a whopping total of 13,171 miles to the east and the west. The awesome scale of those numbers takes a minute to fully sink in.
The entire trip to Beijing had been a whirlwind, from hastily completing my visa in the 24 hours before I was scheduled to depart Mexico City and head home to the States for Thanksgiving, to the 22 hours it’d taken me to fly from Mexico City to Vancouver, and finally the 12-hour long flight that brought me into Beijing.
But on the Great Wall, all this frantic preparation blew away in the cold breeze. There’s something about visiting the Wonders of the World and witnessing these unparalleled feats of lasting human creativity.
During this recent trip to Beijing, China, where I stayed for a rapid three-day 72-hour trip, I learned that China is a country of walls.
Beyond the Great Wall there are several lesser walls that are also important in Chinese culture. Beijing, we learned, had a massive city wall, replete with 9 city gates, which were removed in 1960s under the political impetus of the final stages of The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961). The home, too, is also often protected by a wall.
The Forbidden City
Another palpable barrier in the city, and in Chinese history, is between common people and the noble, elite ruling class. The difference between the two classes is clearly demarcated and even color-coded. Regular buildings in the city are a dull grey, while the Forbidden City, in contrast, is awash in bright reds and its precise detailing in hues of green, blue, and gold.
The Forbidden City is further separated by the moat that surrounds it, a medieval defence system to complement all the walls. From the Forbidden City you can spot pagoda’s on a ridge a few kilometers away. In fact, the ridge was created by the dirt that had been dredged out around the walls to construct the moat.
The Forbidden City is massive. After making our way through the grandiose entrance, we spent hours wandering through the main open-air passageways. It was rumored to have 9,999.5 rooms, half a room less than God’s palace which was said to have 10,000 rooms. The actual room count is at 8,704 rooms.
The Forbidden City is the imperial city constructed during the Ming dynasty and used by the royal families throughout the Qing dynasty, for a total of nearly 500 years from 1420-1912.
24 emperors lived here over the span of these two dynasties. Beyond providing housing for royalty, the Forbidden City was also the political center of the city and the site of the most important ceremonies.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall, at over 13,000 miles long, is the longest wall in the world. Early construction on some parts of the wall began in 7th century BC during the Ming dynasty. Naturally, the wall has changed significantly over that time, with new sections being constructed and others falling into disuse.
Badaling,the section of the wall we visited was just about 300 miles from Mongolia, and it would’ve been built to protect from invading forces of the Huns. The wall itself is about 20 feet tall and it was constructed, in large part, by slaves and poor farmers.
Chinese food is ubiquitous throughout the world. But as any traveler knows, “Chinese” cuisine is a cultural chameleon of sorts, amazingly adaptable to the tastes of the local country wherever it’s found, so I was curious to try the original, authentic cuisine and it did not disappoint.
Every meal was a colorful array of many plates served on a lazy susan and shared family style. There were many different preparations of vegetables, from black Chinese mushrooms to bok-choy and Chinese broccoli. As a bonus, I discovered how much I love fried yam.
Another highlight was having dinner at the famous Quanjade Roast Duck restaurant, where fresh roast duck was carved for us right at the table. Roast duck is a Chinese delicacy that has historically been reserved for emperors, and the restaurant we visited has been very successful in rendering this delicacy available to the masses.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
One of the most interesting parts of traveling to China was learning about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM has existed in China for thousands of years and to this day it continues to be a very common practice in many Chinese households.
Problematic elements of TCM includes the poaching that it has generated, particularly regarding the use of rhino horns, which are regarded as a very potent ingredient in many treatments.
According to the practitioners we spoke with, laws have been passed to protect these endangered species and TCM practitioners are required to find alternative remedies, although problems with poaching persist and TCM has certainly contributed to this ongoing problem.
Tigers and bears are also considered to have potent medicinal qualities. In total, animal treatments make up for 8% of TCM ingredients, 91% of ingredients come from plants, and less than 1% are mineral based.
TCM treatments include medicinal teas and medicine bags that are said to prevent various ailments. There are some TCM soups and other foods that can be found at ordinary Chinese restaurants such as those that line the Wangfujing Market.
During our trip, we drank chrysanthemum tea which can help with headaches and dizziness, medicine bag to combat the flu. Reiki, tai chi and massage are other TCM practices that we experienced during the trip.
Practical Recommendations For Getting Around Beijing
The day I was flying out of the city, I had the day to explore on my own. There are some apps that really came in handy (even without being equipped with a SIM card or any type of local service I was able to get around by myself and navigate the city).
There are three apps in particular that I would recommend downloading.
This is a fully offline translator. You can speak directly to the app and it will give you a translation. It can really come in handy, since there are not very many English speakers.
Pleco is another Chinese-English dictionary.
3. Metroman Beijing
Metroman was really useful for exploring the city by its very efficient and affordable metro system. This app includes a download of the entire metro system of Beijing. You can put in your station of origin and your destination and the map will give you a step by step explanation of all the transfers you have to make to get there.
The app includes how much time each leg of the trip will take and the total cost of the trip. It is fully functional with no service or internet connection.
Beijing is a vibrant and fascinating city. Ancient history is integrated with daily life everywhere you look, both through the practice of Chinese Medicine and the ancient architecture that is the backdrop to the bustling city. The savory food and the incredible sights make for an unforgettable trip.
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