Forbidden City – The Forbidden City, off-limits to most of the world for 500 years, is the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. The old world of beautiful concubines and priapic emperors, ball-breaking (and broken) eunuchs and conspicuous wealth still hovers around the lush gardens, courtyards, pavilions and great halls of the palace.
Most of the buildings are post-18th century; there have been periodic losses due to an injudicious mix of lantern festivals and Gobi winds, invading Manchus and, in this century, pillaging and looting by both the Japanese forces and the Kuomintang. A permanent restoration squad takes about 10 years to renovate its 720,000 square metres, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms, by which time it’s time to start all over again. More on the Forbidden City
Lama Temple – Beijing’s largest temple is an enlightening sight, ornamented with intriguing statuary, stunning frescoes, tapestries, incredible carpentry and a formidable pair of Chinese lions. Perhaps most impressive of all is an 18m (60ft)high sandalwood statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha in the Wanfu Pavilion, carved from a single tree.
The Lama (or Tibetan) Temple, with its beautifully landscaped gardens, is a temple to die for. The first thing you encounter is the holy shins – they’re at eye level – and from there it’s a head-tipper to the ceiling as the statue soars up and over the galleries. Flitting around the Buddha’s head are what appear to be spinning prayer wheels, emitting a sweet, harmonious whine. Closer inspection reveals them to be pigeons with whistles attached. You can’t help thinking the poor things are on one of the lower levels of samsara – it’s a crappy job even for a pigeon.
The temple is a working lamasery so it’s closed early in the mornings for prayer. Some have questioned whether the monks in the tennis shoes are real monks or government stooges. Most tour guides will answer that of course they are real Tibetan monks; that the alleged oppression of Tibet is propaganda put about by the Dalai Lama; that Tibetans love the Chinese; and that the existence of the temple is proof of China’s good intentions. Take this with a grain of salt.
Summer Palace – Nowadays teeming with tour groups from all over China and beyond, this dominion of palace temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes and corridors was once a playground for the imperial court. Royalty came here to elude the insufferable summer heat that roasted the Forbidden City.
The Summer Palace with its cool features – water, gardens and hills – was the palace of choice for vacationing emperors and Dowager Empresses. It was badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War (1860) and its restoration became a pet project of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last of the Qing dynasty rulers. Money earmarked for a modern navy was used for the project but, in a bit of whimsical irony, the only thing that was completed was the restoration of a marble boat. The boat now sits at the edge of the lake in all its immobile and nonmilitary glory. The Palace’s full restoration was hampered by the disintegration of the Qing dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion.
The place is packed to the gunwales in summer, with Beijing residents taking full advantage of Kunming Lake, which takes up three-quarters of the park. The main building is the lyrically named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, while along the north shore is the Long Corridor, so named because it’s, well, long. There’s over 700m (2300ft) of corridor, filled with mythical paintings and scenes. If some of the paintings have a newish patina, that’s because many of the murals were painted over during the Cultural Revolution. More on the Summer Palace
Temple of Heaven Park – Temple of Heaven Park is an icon of such enduring value that it shorthands the entire city. The park’s classic Ming architecture gives it heaps of symbolic value and the name has been used to brand products from tiger balm to plumbing fixtures, as well as decorating a plethora of tourist literature.
The Temple of Heaven is set in a 267-hectare (660-acre) park, with four gates at the cardinal points, and walls to the north and east. It originally functioned as a vast stage for solemn rites and rituals. All of the buildings in the park, including the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, are tangible conversations between the gods and mortals. The buildings are carefully thought out paeans to ancient gods and beliefs; fengshui, numerology, cosmology and religion all played a part in their original construction, and the result is an awesome display of god in the architecture and the devil in the detail.
The park remains an important meeting place where many city dwellers start the day with a spot of t’ai chi, dancing or game-playing in the park. By 9am the park reverts to being just a park, so get there early if you want to see what Beijingers do before breakfast. More on the Temple of Heaven
The Great Wall of China – The Great Wall, as a metaphor, has gone through a few restorations in its time. When it was originally built 2000 years ago by the Qing dynasty it was a sturdy ‘No Trespassing’ sign directed at neighbouring kingdoms. For centuries after that it remained neglected and forgotten until 18th-century Europeans, infatuated with progress and artifice, appended a ‘Great’ to it and sat back to marvel at man’s prehensile capacity to build Bloody Big Things. Today it’s a tourist attraction, half Wonder of the World and half Kitschville, but to many Chinese it’s just a wall. They seem to reserve for it, and the foreigners who come to marvel, a kind of bemused tolerance. To peasants in rural areas the Great Wall is less majestically known as ‘old frontier’.
The majority of visitors climb the wall at Badaling, along with the tourist packs, the touts, and the sellers of reclining buddhas with lightbulbs in their mouths. If you want to experience the wall far from this madding crowd, you’d do better to travel a little further afield and take a walk on the wilder side of the Huanghua (Yellow Flower Fortress) section, 60km (35mi) north of Beijing. It’s a classic and well-preserved example of Ming defence, with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers. More on the Great Wall
Tiananmen Square – Forever sullied, Tiananmen Square lies at the heart of Beijing, and is a vast impressive desert of pavestones where people wander and fly kites. Though it was a gathering place in the imperial days, Tiananmen Square is Mao’s creation. Major rallies took place here during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao reviewed parades of up to a million people.
In 1976 another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects to Mao. In 1989 PLA tanks and soldiers cut down pro-democracy demonstrators here. Today the square is a place for people to wander and fly kites or buy balloons for the kids. Surrounding the square is a mishmash of monuments, past and present: the Gate of Heavenly Peace; the Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution; the Great Hall of the People; the Front Gate; the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, where you can purchase Mao memorabilia and catch a glimpse of the man himself (when his mortuary make-up isn’t being refreshed); and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. (More on Tiananmen Square)