China is a huge country and a five day itinerary is far too limited. Nevertheless, this post discusses our abridged China trip. With only five days, we managed to visit the Great Wall of China as a day trip from Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the Beijing night market and various Beijing neighborhoods.
Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China and one of oldest and most populated cities in the world (over 3000 years), with over 21 million people. It was a capital five times prior: Yan State in 221 BC, the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, the Ming Dynasty in 1402, the Quing Dynasty in 1644 and the Republic of China (1912-1928).
Tiananmen Square (Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace) is famous for what has become known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 when troops armed with assault rifles and tanks fired at pro-democracy demonstrators. The assault shocked the west and sanctions from various countries ensued.
The square has great cultural significance as it was the site upon which Mao Tse-Tung proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in1949.
Inside the square you will find the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. There is also the Mausoleum of Mao Tse-Tung.
Beijing Dongcheng area neighborhood – our favourite part of Beijing
Beijing has 16 districts. The Dongcheng area is the cultural hub of the city where you will find the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, the landscaped Jingshan Park and nearby is the Tiananmen Square.
Beijing night market
There are several night markets in Beijing, and the one in the Dongcheng District is a tourist attraction in itself. Ghost Street is a sprawling street that connects two sub-districts, with shops, restaurants and food markets. The night market here is replete with some of the most unusual fare you will find anywhere . All types of insects are grilled on skewers and made ready for local consumption, from scorpions to seahorses to spiders, etc. etc.
Hutongs in Beijing
Hutongs were old Chinese administrative divisions that first appeared under the Yuan Dynasty.
A hutong (meaning water well) is an alley bounded by very old buildings in courtyard type compounds. Each Hutong has a communal toilet (squatty potty) and washing area. We were encouraged to see some of the hutongs, but only those chosen by our guide, we got the feeling that the ones we were being shown had been sanitized to a great degree. One of the hutongs was an obvious ‘red light’ district but our guide refused to acknowledge it as such, maintaining that there was no such thing in Beijing.
In ancient China, the closer the Hutong was to the center of the city, the higher the social class of the people who lived there. These upper echelon hutongs had beautiful landscaped gardens and hand painted roof beams. The further from the center (center in Ming Dynasty was the Forbidden City), the smaller and simpler the hutongs became.
In the 20th century, many hutongs were demolished to make room for new roads and buildings. Recently, the Chinese government has declared many of these hutongs protected cultural history.
The Great Wall of China
The great wall of China is over 13,000 miles in length. It was constructed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). the most preserved portion of the wall is about 9,000 miles long. The widest part is 55 feet but most of the wall is around 26 feet wide with some parts being as narrow as 4 feet. The Ming Wall was designed as a protective barrier against Mongol invasion. By moving China’s capital from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north, the Emperor aimed to better mange the Mongol situation in the north.
There are 10 sections of the Great Wall that you can visit, but if you want to remain within a reasonable distance from Beijing and want to have a not too difficult hike, you will likely visit the Bedaling or the Mutianyu sections. If you want to go a bit further and have more time, you may want to visit the Jinshanling section.
Bedaling is the most crowded part of the wall and the most commercialized. It even has a cable car. This is the section where you will find big groups of Chinese tourists. It is 72 kilometers from Beijing. It has been elaborately restored so that all ages of tourists can walk the wall easily.
The Mutianyu section is much less crowded than Badaling, this section is popular with foreign tourists precisely because it is less crowded and only 75 km from Bejing. It offers spectacular views over the valleys below and there are several well-preserved towers. It has fair tourist facilities and is not too commercial, except at the entrance. This is the section we visited and photographs were taken at various spots and unfortunately it was a very foggy day with rain on the horizon.
The Jinshanling section is said to be the most beautiful and also one that is very well preserved. It is away from the crowds and smog of Bejing, about 160km from the city. Cable car is optional here.
It is estimated that roughly 10% of the wall is well-preserved, one third has vanished completely and the remaining 60% is in various degrees of disrepair. Although most people think of the Great Wall as one structure, it is actually a collection of structures with some portions of it consisting of natural barriers such as rivers and high mountains.
Modern life in China
We are often asked for our overall impression of China and Beijing especially. There is no doubt that China has achieved enormous advancements for its people, in all areas of social and economic life. From its huge manufacturing base, a middle class has emerged faster than in any other time in history.
Of the 1.4 billion people in China, it is estimated that 400 million of them are middle class. Although there is no standard definition for middle class, consider that in 2000, 1.8% of the population had internet. In 2020 it was over 70%. In 2010, only 90 million people had cars, that number had more than tripled in 2020 to 281 million. There are now (2023) 6.2 million people who are millionaires in China, ranking second only to the United States. High end designer stores abound in Beijing.
So what is life like in Beijing? The extensive subways are very clean, easy to use and very cheap. They have air conditioning, what a bonus. Stations have both English and Chinese names. There are lots of parks and open spaces and the elderly have lots of daily activities from which to choose. The streets are relatively clean and except for the horrible air quality, life if Beijing appears to be pleasant.
During the last few years, Beijing has improved its air quality, but it is still pretty bad. The daily pollution index during 2019 showed that only two months had a moderate reading. For 10 months of the year the reading was in the unhealthy range. When we were there the AQI (air quality index) reading was 125 and we were told that it goes well over 200. At 125, we could hardly see beyond 200 feet in front of us and experienced severe throat irritation.
Mondisti’s China Trip Tips
- A five day itinerary in China is short but you can manage to see the Great Wall and experience many aspects of Beijing.
- A guide is crucial when visiting the Great Wall and very useful when touring in Beijing.
- Pay attention to the air quality in Beijing as it can get dangerous.
- A visit to the Great Wall is a must. The Mutianyu section is easy to get to from Beijing and not too crowded.
- If you have more time and want to hike, the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall is very beautiful.
- The Beijing night market is a draw for everyone but make sure you know what you are eating.