What’s the best way to experience a little Asian culture? From a rickshaw in Beijing and walking the Great Wall of China! This is an experience you’ll never forget. In fact China itself is an experience every minute that you’re here. We’re visiting the Mutan Yu section of the Great Wall. It’s about 90 minutes from Beijing. And early morning is when to come to see the beautiful mist over the hills and upon the wall beyond. It’s gorgeous. Imagine: The Great Wall of China. Just one of the wonders this country has to offer.

China… Officially known as the People’s Republic of China, is a fascinating destination with incredible sights and attractions! Here, the landscape is as beautiful as its people, but the land also holds many secrets. Surprisingly, much of China’s incredible history lies in wait – as many of its historical artifacts are yet to be uncovered! China is also dynamic and modern– boasting incomparable shopping, nightlife, world class entertainment, and some of the best hotels in Asia

stupa-1The capital and political center is Beijing, in the northern part of the country. Previously known as Peking, it’s home to some amazing ancient imperial sites. This is the intellectual and political epicenter, where eastern traditions tolerate western technology, and where the old warily accepts new.

In Beijing, you can wander through the glory of China, past and present, but the best place to start is the Forbidden City. In 1925, the Imperial Palace opened its doors to the public, gaining a new title and attraction called “the Palace Museum”. Back then, no one who stepped inside for the first time realized what riches they were about to see. Or how big it was! The palace is actually a walled city with huge courtyards leading from one ornate hall to the next. Just when you think you’ve seen the grandest hall, a new one appears across yet another courtyard. And “ornate” hardly describes these impressive facades. They are truly absolute masterpieces of Chinese architecture.

Wow! This is one place that really lives up to its reputation. You see it in books, you see it in pictures, but nothing prepares you for actually being here. Make sure you see the Square of Supreme Harmony, and note each of the courtyards’ design and intricacies.

Construction began on the Forbidden City in 1406, during the Ming Dynasty, and it continued for over 14 years. This previously ‘forbidden city’ was just that, forbidden to the public because it was home to the emperor. Twenty-four emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties lived here, together with their empresses, children, concubines and attendants. Some never left the securely protected chambers of the inner court during their lifetime. The outer court was reserved for ceremonies and political activities of ancient China.

And this incredible complex lies right in the heart of Beijing, covering almost 180 acres! You know, sometimes you get so overwhelmed with how big the Forbidden City is, that you miss a lot of the details. Like, the carving on the marble, or, for example, look up on the rooftops. You’ll see little animals. The more animals, the more important the building was. Every detail of the Forbidden City, large and small, was designed to represent the philosophical and religious views of ancient China. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, you enter the Imperial Gardens…a paradise within compound.

Built as a rectangle, each of the four walls of the Forbidden City has an enormous gate. The gate visitors enter through is the Tian’anmen Gate, the gate of heavenly peace. Built in 1417, it more now features a large photo of Chairman Mao, since the cultural revolution in the 1960’s. And directly across the road is another famous spot – Tian’anmen Square- the world’s largest public square. Covering almost 100 acres, it can hold over a million people! It was here that hundreds of thousands of Chinese waved Chairman Mao’s little red book and chanted his name— and where a pro democratic rally ended in tragedy in 1989. Tian’anmen Square today hosts parades, celebrations, and rallies beneath the five-star flag of China, drawing millions of domestic and foreign tourists. This infamous square is surrounded by sites of historical interest: Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. It is truly fascinating.foodog-1

At the southern part of Beijing lies another must see, the Temple of Heaven. The Chinese believed the emperor to be the son of heaven, and it was here that the emperor worshipped heaven and prayed for a good harvest. Like the Forbidden City, the temple was also built during the Ming Dynasty, and its design reflects heaven and earth in its shape – part circle and part square.

But Beijing is not simply a city of historical temples and ancient palaces, it’s home to millions regular people as well. Some of the local neighborhoods are called hutongs, and this is where you can get an inside look at everyday Chinese life. And, getting there is half the fun! By rickshaw, just like the old days, well, almost. Today’s rickshaw is a little more modern. They’ve got bicycles wheels instead of old bamboo poles. But this is the especially best way to see the hutongs. It’s touristy, I know, but you’re going to have a great time. The drivers will haggle over you for the ride. Oh yeah! The Chinese version of a taxi stand! They line up waiting for customers. But you may have to interrupt their card games or their naps to get a ride! Negotiate the price first, and once you’re rolling, you truly get a sense of ordinary life in Beijing.

You’ve got to like the people of Beijing! They’re fascinated with western visitors, and so friendly! The hutongs are basically the old cobblestone alleys of Beijing. They’re narrow and winding, leading back to some very private residences. Go ahead… peek inside! You’ll see lots of birds in birdcages, everyone seems to have them. You may even see somebody in the shower! Every moment in Beijing is an experience!

One interesting thing you’ll see on the tour is an example of an old Beijing courtyard style home. Now what’s great about this is that this is where a wealthy Beijing family should have lived. You actually get to go inside and look around. Somebody still lives there. There is this beautiful 300 year old Beijing home, built between the Ming and Qing dynasties. It remains one of the largest and best preserved courtyard style homes in Beijing. What’s great is that you get to wander through a lot of the bedrooms. Here I learned that red is a lucky color in China and they always hang a symbol you’ll see when a couple gets married. And you will also notice all the thresholds were raised like on a boat. I was told that back in the Forbidden City that people would stop before entering a room and bow, to show respect for the family. Traditionally, Chinese homes – and even the larger palaces like the ones in the Forbidden City – are rounded and often made of wood and the craftsmanship is outstanding. The level of detail and symbolism rivals that of any architectural style.

Beijing, China’s capital city, is rich in famous and historical cultural sites. Travelers explore the city, impressed by the gardens, temples, gate towers, and palaces that make Beijing such an amazing place to visit. But the most famous – and definitely the longest – ancient tourist site near Beijing is none other than the 2000 year old Great Wall of China. Ahhh… The grandeur of the great wall… It is incredible! Over 4,000 miles long, it’s the single greatest feat of architecture in China… a wonder of the world…and a UNESCO World Heritage Site! But the wall wasn’t “great” until the Qin Dynasty (before the Ming Dynasty). It began as separate walls for 3 different states until emperor Qin joined the sections to fend off invasion from the Huns. The rest is, literally, history!

Looking like a gigantic dragon winding over the peaks of the hills, you have a choice of 4 places to see it, depending how far you want to drive. While most tourists drive an hour to the Badaling Gate, I suggest you go a little further out to avoid the crowds. The Mutianyu section is a good choice. Go early to see the morning mist- it’s that beautiful. You will always remember your first glimpse of the Great Wall of China. It is so exciting to see this immense witness to the feats of China. Wow! Obviously the cable car is the best way to go up. This is a really good location, as the Badaling Gate gets really busy with tourists.

Constructed from earth and stone, it was built to guard ancient China from the invading tribes along the country’s northern border. The wall also stood as a symbol of the emperor’s power. While construction began in the 3rd century BC., building continued, through several ancient Chinese dynasties. You can almost just imagine shooting an arrow out from the bastion here. It really brings the history to life to be here. Right here the wall is kind of angled and you’ll notice on the down slope there’s a drainage ditch to carry the water away. Now that was thinking back then. The fire platforms along the wall were especially important. From here, the Chinese military could send smoke signals to warn others of invading armies. One puff of smoke meant 100 invaders- two puffs- 500 invaders- and 3 puffs- over a thousand!

While the Great Wall is amazing, not all its claims are true: No, you can’t see the Great Wall from the moon with a naked eye. No, the ancient Chinese did not call it “the Great Wall of China” as we do today. And sorry, the wall is not a continuous structure that was always successful in protecting China. But is it phenomenal? Yes! A workout? That , too! Now you don’t have to be in great shape, but you’ve got to be able to handle a pretty good climb, spurts of stairs. I mean I do three minutes on the Stairmaster and I’m done. You can judge for yourself. You’ll want to avoid heavy purses and camera bags, but you have to bring the essentials like water, toilet paper (not readily available), and, definitely, oxygen— no, just kidding!

On the drive back to Beijing, you can delve into the depths of Beijing’s Ming Tombs. Located about halfway back, the Ming Tombs are basically a royal graveyard- entombed are 13 emperors, all their concubines, 23 empresses and all their attendants. Located at the foot of the magnificent Tianshou Mountain, building began on this solemn site in 1409. Today, it’s still shrouded in mystery. It was right here that a stone was found in 1956 describing something that was called the Diamond Wall. Well, archaeologists followed the inscription, going so much further and going so far down, they actually discovered the Diamond Wall, which turned out to be the entrance to the underground palace.

The Diamond Wall, as it turned out, was its shape, not a gem stone—but other treasures lay inside the structure. Inside, echoing chambers hold the first tombs to be wall-1excavated here….and the only mausoleum of 13 Ming tombs that have been unearthed. Remarkably, these 5 stone chambers are almost 90 feet below the surface. This underground palace is the resting place for ancient Chinese emperor Wanli and his two empresses. Wanli ruled from 1563 – 1620, the longest of all the Ming emperors. An exhibition hall displays ancient imperial items of Wanli, including crowns and robes, large vases, and royal thrones.

But those imperial vases… Very nice. Hmmm… Gives me an idea. Now, every traveler wants a souvenir, right? So it’s back to Beijing! And if you’re in the mood for some shopping, then you’re in the right place. The Chinese markets are the best. Take my advice and be a little skeptic. Things aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Beijing’s antique market street is great! But not for buying real antiques, I mean, they look real. The shopkeeper’s going to swear they’re real. But if you found an authentic Ming Dynasty piece, it’s going to stay home here in China. The place to find the best deals is in the Wangfujing shopping area, but Beijing isn’t cheap. Much of the area is closed to motor vehicles, so pedestrians have the absolute right of way. And night or day, the shopping is hopping. From watches and electronics to books and beauty supplies, it’s all here. But bring cash! And practice your bargaining skills!

Other Beijing shopping options include the east and west streets of Liu Li Chang, where you can find handmade crafts and traditional Chinese clothing. But my favorite is definitely the silk street market..but not for what you’d expect. So you’re here in China and you want to buy silk. Well, you don’t come to the silk street market. I know, I know…things are not always as they seem here. This is where you come for your t-shirts, your souvenirs, your extra suitcase, your designer knockoffs. And, if you’re on a limited time schedule, one-stop shopping for everything, hit the Friendship Store, right in the middle. It’s kind of like the Walmart of China! And whether you end up with authentic antiques or good quality designer knockoffs, the real fun is in the experience.

The imperial sites of Beijing are spectacular, but even an emperor wanted to avoid a hot summer in the city. So he’d load up the whole court, the concubines and attendants, and head to the Summer Palace. And you can still get there the old fashioned way! On dragon boats! These are a nod to the Dragon Lady, the empress who used to go from the Forbidden City, by water, right into the Summer Palace. You know, I figure, why drive when you can make it fun? The boat ride to the palace glides through the canal just like during the imperial dynasties. Definitely a highlight, and, when’s the last time you rode on the wings of a dragon?

Once you’re here, it’s a whole new world inside the gates. Wow! Now you’re going to come here and say, ‘this is gorgeous. Which building is the Summer Palace?’ and the answer — ‘none of them.’ No, really! The whole complex is referred to as ‘the palace.’ Four times the size of the Forbidden City, it includes a temple, pagodas, sleeping quarters, bridges and a beautiful lake. So many different places here, the whole complex — this is what they called ‘the palace.’ Most of the grounds were constructed in the 18th century, and it was basically imperial summer camp. During the hot Beijing summers, royal families came here for refuge from the airless & constricting walls of the Forbidden City. And since most of the gardens are surrounded by a lake , you got it! Travel by water!

Both foreign and Chinese tourists come here for the views… Everywhere you look is great photo. The 17 Arch Bridge is a big draw. Lined with 544 carved marble lions, this bridge stretches over the water like a rainbow. In fact, the gardens, pavilions, and temples were designed to soothe and please the eye… but not the feet—boat or no boat, you still have to hoof it!

Now that you’re back in Beijing, how about some royal treatment for yourself? China is one country where I’d recommend spoiling yourself a little when choosing a hotel. For luxury accommodations in the heart of Beijing’s financial district, the Westin Financial Street is a straight shot to all the sites! It is very convenient, right in the middle of everything, so it’s a straight shot out to the Summer Palace, to the Forbidden City, to the Temple of Heaven, to the Pearl Market, totally convenient to go anywhere. The hotel is new to Beijing, but it’s become a favorite here in the city…as the service is all about your personal well being and happiness.

The present lifestyle in the world is that people are much more concerned about health, concerned about having a life which is stress free, so the hotel is built around that concept, and they have done a wonderful job of combining convenience with comfort here. Of course, “a no stress” vacation has to include a visit to the spa, especially after climbing the Great Wall! Unwind in the Jacuzzi, enjoy the sauna, relax with a massage. Or even hit the gym to work out those muscles, ready for your next journey into history. And for the kids, take them to the indoor heated swimming pool – they’ll love it!

The rooms are definitely the ultimate in luxury as well as technology. And what was that part about my personal well being and happiness? I found you can arrange for a bathologist to come in and prepare a scented hot bath for you. Better than a butler! You choose an aromatherapy fragrance and- they design it, with candles, scented oils and rose petals – all in the comfort of your very own room!

But save that for bedtime, because first, you’ll want to try one of the restaurants. They have all day dining where they serve western, local, Southeast Asian food, Chinese food, and they have an Italian restaurant serving western food with steak as well as pizza and pasta. The Chinese restaurant is much more up-market contemporary, Cantonese and Beijing cuisine, as well. The food choices are endless and most important, dining here is safe for western visitors. So go ahead! Spoil yourself a little. There’s something to be said for personal well being and happiness! Works for me!dragonboat

Beijing is an amazing destination! The history… the mystery… the imperial sights… and those incredible photographic moments! Three full days in Beijing is perfect to see all the major sites, including a visit to the Great Wall. So, on the Laura McKenzie scale of one to ten, I’d give Beijing: a 9 for hotels, 9 for sites and attractions, 7 for shopping, 6 for getting around, and 6 for value. Would I come back? I’d see it once and then go on to discover new places. You know how you see things in books and then you show up and it’s not really what you expected. Well, China is not like that at all. China is everything you expect and a lot more.