Things to Do in Northern China
Have you ever wondered what's so forbidden about the Forbidden City? It's called that because it was closed to the outside world for 500 years. This was the seat of the Ming and the Qing emperors, and no one could enter - or leave - the imperial domain without their permission. These days, the Chinese mainly call it Gu Gong, or Former Palace.
The Forbidden City, or Beijing Imperial Palace, is BIG - you'll need to allow at least one day for your visit. UNESCO have listed it as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. There are nearly 1,000 rooms in over 800 buildings. However, because it's been ransacked by invaders and gutted by fire several times (wooden buildings, lanterns, you do the math) most of the structures date from the 18th century on. As you move around the gardens and palatial buildings, which have now been converted to museums, you'll start to get a feel for what it was like to live the imperial life.
The Summer Palace - also known as Yiheyuan - was built in 1750. In those days, it was called the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was a lakeside oasis where the royal court could escape the dust and heat of the Forbidden City in summer.
It was razed twice by foreign armies and completely rebuilt, most extensively by Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. To fund her projects, she's said to have diverted a bunch of money destined for the Chinese navy. Ironically, one of her grand schemes was a marble boat that sits at the edge of the lake.
The grounds were declared a public park in 1924. These days, the 290 hectares (716 acres) of the 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony' are madly popular with both tourists and locals.
The gardens are liberally scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges. Longevity Hill, one of the garden's main features, was constructed from the earth excavated when the lake was extended.
A Ming temple, Temple of Heaven or Tian tan was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also built the Forbidden City, as a stage for the important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were the supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the Winter Solstice ceremony, which was supposed to ensure a favorable year for the entire kingdom.
In those days it was believed that heaven was round and earth was square, so the architecture of the buildings (round, set on square bases) and the layout of the park (squared off at the Temple of the Earth end, rounded at the Temple of Heaven end) reflect this belief. The buildings are rich in symbolic detail - variations on the number nine, which represented the emperor; coloured glazes which represent heaven and earth; and pillars which represent the months of the year, the seasons and time. There are also echo stones where you can stand to hear your voice reverberate.
The series of Qing Tombs located 78 miles (125 kilometers) east of Beijing remain relatively off the map, despite the fact that they’re arguably more interesting than the more popular Ming Tombs. Between 1663 and 1935, 5 emperors, 15 empresses, 3 princes, 2 princesses and 136 imperial concubines were interred in this complex of 15 tombs. Collectively, these tombs are considered the best-preserved and largest in China, and many of them are open for visitors. The tomb of Emperor Shunzhi (China’s first Qing emperor) is the oldest on the site; it’s also the largest and most elaborate. The Yuling and Dingling mausoleums are also well worth visiting. Insider’s Tip: Bring along a picnic lunch to eat at picnic tables scattered around the scenic grounds, as well as a light jacket; the underground portions of the tombs get chilly, even in summer.
More Things to Do in Northern China
The Legend of Kung Fu at Beijing’s Red Theater tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a Kung Fu master. The boy’s story is told through Kung Fu, dance and Chinese acrobatics staged by the leading stage production company in the country.
The best Kung Fu practitioners from around China are scouted for the production, and the average age of the performers is only 17 years old, a testament to their talent. While the 80-minute production contains no dialogue, a screen above the stage tells the story with English subtitles to help foreign visitors follow along; most Chinese tourists are already familiar with the tale. The Legend of Kung Fu premiered on the Red Theater stage in 2004, and the theater has hosted daily or twice daily performances of it ever since. Since the show is popular with both international and domestic tourists and is often included in package tours, it’s best to book your tickets ahead of time.
Considered by many to be the most picturesque section, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou sits 43 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Beijing. This portion of the wall hasn’t received the renovation treatments of more popular sections, so it has a wild appearance that many visitors find appealing. Tourist buses rarely if ever come here, so you won’t have the crowds or touts to mar the experience.
This section of wall was originally built during the Tang Dynasty but then heavily renovated during the Ming Dynasty, stretching over 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) along steep, jagged cliffs. Unlike the sections of the wall closer to Beijing that were made mostly of brick, the wall at Jiankouwas constructed of locally sourced dolomite, making it much stronger than other sections. If you choose to visit the Great Wall of Jiankou, be sure to set aside an entire day for your visit. Wear good walking shoes and be prepared for a climb up steep and very uneven steps.
As you walk along the north-south axis of the Forbidden City, you’ll eventually walk through the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility and into the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum, the final section of the palace before the north gate exit. Built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty, the 3-acre (12,000-square-meter) traditional Chinese garden served as a private green space for the imperial family living within the palace.
Unlike gardens in the West, Chinese gardens typically contain various structures, ponds and pavilions with pathways winding between, and the Imperial Garden is no exception. You’ll find around 20 structures within the garden, including the Hall of Imperial Peace in the center. Just in front of the hall, you’ll notice a pair of trees that appear as if embracing. These 400-year-old consort pines are thought to symbolize harmony between the emperor and empress. Pavilions at the four corners of the garden represent the four seasons.
The Meridian Gate of the Palace Museum is perhaps the most recognizable landmark of the Forbidden City. Built in 1420 and renovated in 1801, the Meridian Gate is the largest and southernmost of the Palace Museum’s gates; currently, it’s the sole entrance into the Forbidden City. When the imperial family occupied the palace, the emperor would sit at the top of the Meridian Gate to proclaim sentences on prisoners of war brought before him.
The structure is made up of five towers, meant to resemble a phoenix in flight when viewed from above. The doorway through the central tower was for the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors exclusively, though the empress was allowed to pass through this central gate on her wedding day. The door directly to the west was for the royal family, while the one to the east was for imperial officials. The final two doors were only used during ceremonies at the palace.
Jinshanling and Simatai are two of the most remote and least restored portions of the Great Wall near Beijing. Visitors craving a more natural Great Wall experience, without the buses and crowds of domestic tourists posing for photos at every step, should plan to make the day hike between the two wall segments.
This stretch of the Ming wall was built here to protect the 17-mile (27 kilometer) defensible pass. The segment between Jinshanling and Simatai extends roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers), passing many portions of the wall left completely unrestored since the wall’s original construction.
From Jinshanling, it takes about 4 to 5 hours to hike all the way to Simatai, passing 43 watchtowers in various states of disrepair. Jinghanling, the starting point for the hike, sits 81 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, so be sure to get an early start if you plan to complete the entire hike.
Niaochao, more commonly referred to as the Beijing National Stadium or the Bird’s Nest, was designed and constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and has since become a major landmark in China’s capital. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei consulted on the Swiss-designed project, and the result cost $423 million to complete.
Since the Olympics ended, the stadium has served as a tourist attraction and a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions, including the Supercoppa Italiana and the China Cup. The stadium is set to host the 2015 World Championships in Athletics as well. Niaochao is most impressive from the outside, where it’s bird’s nest shape is apparent. Situated on the Beijing Olympic Green, Niaochao is free to enjoy from the outside, but you’ll have to pay a fee if you want to enter the stadium. The Water Cube, the second prominent structure from the 2008 Olympics, sits adjacent to Niaochao and is also worth a visit.
Just over 100 kilometers from Beijing, between the Shanhaiguan Pass and Juyongguan Pass, the Great Wall at Gubeikou stretches along a mountain range, protecting the northern gateway to the capital.
An architectural feat, the first section of the wall was built during the Northern Qi Dynasty. Centuries later in the early Ming Dynasty, it was rebuilt and later another line of brick wall was laid beside the original, thus forming the double-lined wall that can be seen today. The last reconstruction took place in 1567 and no rebuilding or renovations have been done since then. Along the length of the wall there are 143 watch towers and three citadels, along with a number of other military constructions.
Beijing has modernized so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in decades past. One neighborhood in Beijing has managed to hold on to its old-style hutong architecture, the Back Lakes (Hou Hai). Named after the three lakes in the area, the Back Lakes neighborhood is one of the last remaining places in Beijing where you can see traditional courtyard-style houses.
While wandering the hutongs lets you see Beijing as it once was, the streets surrounding the lakes, particularly Hou Hai -- the largest of the three -- shows you a modern, hip and international side of Beijing. The banks are lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hookah dens catering to tourists, locals and the city’s sizable expatriate population alike. The best way to enjoy the Back Lakes area is to take a pedicab tour of the old hutong neighborhoods in the afternoon.
The Ming Dynasty Tombs, or Ming Shisan Ling, are located outside of central Beijing and are home to the tombs and mausoleums of the Yongle Emperor. Currently, these tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are listed as part of the World Heritage object, Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Emperor, who built the Forbidden City, also chose the site for these Ming Tombs mausoleums according to the art of Feng Shui. Back in the Ming era, this secluded valley north of Beijing was closed to visitors and heavily guarded. The ground was considered so sacred that not even an emperor could ride a horse there. Three tombs are open to the public; only one, the Dingling, has been excavated (sadly, with artifacts being badly damaged). The other two tombs are more atmospheric. The highlight of the experience is probably the Spirit Way, the long approach to the mausoleums.
Few bucket lists are complete without a walk along the Great Wall of China, famously one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and undoubtedly the most visited section is the Great Wall at Badaling. Often visited on a day trip from Beijing, Badaling was the first part of the wall to open to tourists back in 1958 and now draws up to 10 million annual visitors. Built in 1502 during the Ming Dynasty, the wall at Badaling runs for 2.3 miles around the Jundu mountain, reaching an altitude of over 1,000 meters and spanning almost 6 meters at its widest point – wide enough for 5 horses to gallop abreast. The popularity of Badaling means that it is often overrun with tour groups, but there are still many good reasons to visit - not only is Badaling the most thoroughly restored section of the wall and offers magnificent views, but it’s the most accessible, with a cable car and pulley train available for those who don’t want to walk to the top.
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