Category Archives: China

Forbidden city

“Welcome to Beijing and the smog” greeted a cheeky driver at the airport. It was cold and I figured it was the cold air that created the ‘cloudy’ atmosphere. At 4.30 in the morning, I was unable to understand the magnitude of the driver’s claim. We arrived at our hotel in the Dongcheng district around 6.00 am. Fortunately, they checked us in without any charges or delays. That was great.

This area is close to not only a subway station but also the popular Wangfujing Street and walking distance to the iconic Forbidden City. We had not slept since departing Auckland (14 hour flight and transit) and the 17 hour transit in Kuala Lumpur. However, we were ready to explore the ancient, but rapidly urbanising and modernising, city of Beijing.

Beijing or formerly known as Peking, had existed since 1045BC during the Western Zhou period and was named Jin City. It was in 1644, during the Qing Dynasty, it became known as Beijing, Northern Capital. It is the last of the four ancient capitals of China. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong.

Construction began in 1406 under the auspice of Emperor Yongle, when he moved his capital to Beijing. The Imperial Palace was the centre of power for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It had survived for nearly 600 years.

The thick smog was evident as the day broke. The sun was completely blocked by the thick smog. The reading today was 220 (it was 400 the day before!). It was really bad. I had anticipated that in winter, air pollution would escalate due to burning of coal for heating. Part of the population had masks on. The weather was mildly cold, although at minus 6 degrees C.

As we approached one of China’s iconic structures, the Forbidden City, it began to snow. Temperature plummeted. I was inadequately dressed and felt cold, just manageable. Long lines of people queued along the road to be inspected and bags x-ray. Finally we arrived at the south entrance, the Tienanmen Tower (Gate of Heavenly Peace). All visitation to this ancient building began in the South and ended in the North (although quieter side entrances allowed for entrance and exits). The entrance is guarded by two stone lions and on the gate, with a large portrait of Mao Zedong above an archway. The plus side of travelling in winter is, less crowded. There was a heavy presence of uniformed and informal police. Across the busy boulevard, is the vast open concrete floored Tienanmen Square. In the hazy weather, Soviet styled building blocks scattered around the square was like a mirage.

We crossed over one of the several intricately carved white marble bridges to enter through Tienanmen Gate under the watchful eye of Mao.  Today with 40 yuan, anyone enter this ancient city. In its hay days, any outsider caught entering without permission will be executed, hence, the Forbidden City. We walked along the main axis towards Meridian Gate. This was a very imposing structure, maroon wall with pagoda-like roofs with glazed yellow tiles. Very impressive indeed. On the left is a park, Zhongsan Park.  We purchased our ticket and moved on through the Meridian Gate (Wumen).

The continuous light snowfall accumulated on the ground added some contrast against the black tiles on this huge square. A meandering river (partially frozen), the Inner Golden Water River cut through the square. Five marble bridges permitted movements across the river. Beyond that is the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tàihémén). Two bronze lions guard the entrance. Although a dull day, the multitude of colours emanated from roof tiles, red columns and patchwork of colours of ceilings, beams and fascia were fascinating.  The intricate joinery and designs were intriguing. All made from timber. I can imagine the sights on a sunny and clear blue sky day. It would indeed be a spectacle.

Beyond that, through a large open space is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian).  This is the ceremonial centre of imperial power. The wooden structure with two-tiered yellow roof tile is elevated above the ground set onto a marble foundation. The centre marble steps with dragon motif engraving leading to the hall is reserved for Emperor. The golden throne, on raised platform, is adorned with a variety of furnishing. Engraved dragons, painted in gold, coiled around six columns.  The ceilings are wonderfully and richly painted with intricate designs. Everything here shouts authority, status and glamour. An impressive sight indeed, such opulence. This hall is also the largest wooden structure in China.

Workers continually maintained the grounds. Away from the main thoroughfare, it remained quiet and allowed for quiet contemplation. I was barely managing the cold. Walking through this city will certainly require a good part of the day. This would enable one to see many of the buildings that lie on both side of the main axis.  Varying doorways; sculptures; windows and doors; ceilings and wall; rooftops; all ornately carved and intricately designed. Then , there are the pavilions and courtyards to explore and reminiscent of the opulence days of the  Sons of Heaven. An interesting feature must be the gargoyles, designed to drain water away from the buildings. The engravings on stone and marble including the balustrades, all contributed to the grandeur of this city. There are numerous pathways, alleyways and buildings to negotiate.

Some of the side entry paths were closed. However, there are numerous buildings to discover and admire, especially the architecture and history. How can names like these not be intriguing – Arrow Pavilion, Imperial Medicine Room, Screen Wall of Nine Dragons, Hall of Imperial Supremacy, The Palace of Benevolent Tranquility, Hall of Pious Earnings, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Hall of Abstinence and so on.

Now, we were really rubbing shoulders with the Ming and Qing. Back home, I am currently watching some ancient Chinese movies on early dynasties and life in early China. Roaming amongst these wonderful buildings, I can almost see the Emperor, the son of Haven, in his fine robes, army officers fully kitted with swords and amour and the red robed scholars with their fancy hats. All living within the confines of this outer city. The inner city, is reserved for the Emperor and his ‘family’ including the wives, concubines, eunuchs and helpers. The ladies, in fine silk and costumes, walking around the imperial gardens, in the south, gossiping and plotting their next moves. We exited the city through Gate of Divine Prowess (Shénwǔmén), the northern gate. The moat was frozen and the corner turret look cold and alone. Beyond this gate, is an artificially created hill, Jingshan Park.  Great views of the Forbidden City, weather and smog permitting!

The inner and outer city, forming the grand Forbidden City is a city within a greater walled Imperial City which is within a greater outer wall. Built according the numerology, astrology and Feng Sui, an impressive sight indeed. More importantly, a museum of significant historical and cultural heritage to not only China but mankind. An era gone by.



Shíchàhǎi is a scenic area just north west of the Forbidden City. It is a historic lakes area which include Behai and Houhai Lakes. This area is also the starting point of the Grand Canal, which began construction from 500 BC.

Today, this scenic lakes area, established over 800 years ago, are surrounded by bars, restaurants, snack bars, temples and many retail shops. It is also dotted with well-known personality’s mansions. All side roads away from these lakes also brought us to another icon of Beijing, the hutongs.  It is great to wander along these sometimes narrow and busy roads. Alternatively, the quieter roads gives glimpses of old Beijing. This area is popular with both local and foreign tourists. Even in winter, it was crowded especially on the Yinding Bridge. It gives a good overview of the lakes scenery.

In winter, like today, the lakes are frozen in most areas. One of the fun things to do is to skate with chair-like contraption or cycle on the frozen ice. Unfortunately for us, we not allowed on the ice as it was risky as the surface had thawed. The ice might not be able to sustain the additional weight. Some luck ones we already on it. I remembered this image form a National Geographic article from my schooling days.

Rickshaw drivers are abound to provide tours and scams too. Hutong tours with these guys are common. Smoke from barbecues, wafted through the cold air close to the Yinding Bridge. Another side road, Yandai byway, took us through crowded old hutong stacked with eateries, handicraft shops and tea shops. This lead towards the Drum and Bell Towers. A great place to wander and sample parts of old Beijing.

Jingshan Park

What do you do with all the dirt excavated to build the Forbidden City? Well, you pile it up and build an artificial hill. Then landscape it with greens and ecstatic designs to create an imperial garden. Furthermore, add a few pavilions for people to visit and rest and above all, to dig-in and appreciate the wonderful and magnificent views of the golden roof tops pavilions and maroon colored structures – the Forbidden City.

Wanchun Pavilion on Jingshan Park is such a place to appreciate this. Winding steps took us up the densely vegetated hill.  Besides the majestic views of the Forbidden City, other significant sights include the Drum and Bell Tower and the distant skyscrapers. The smog prevented this today. We had to be satisfied with hazy views.At the bottom of the hill, a lone lady sang melodious operatic-like songs to a small but appreciative crowd.

Jingshan Park is located immediately after the northern exit of the Forbidden City. It was indeed previously an imperial park. Located in the center of Beijing, it is a green lung, minus the smog. Wanchun Pavillion is crowded with people, as expected, to get the best overview of the magnificent Forbidden City. A must-see site in Beijing.

Beijing Courtyard Experience

Our courtyard experience was Double Happiness Sihe Yuan (Bei Jing Yue Wei Zhuang Si He Yuan) on Dongsi 4th Alley. It is about 250 years old. This is a converted Siheyuan. Upon entering the entrance doorway, dark narrow pathways meandered through long corridors (with low lit lights and wall hangings), we reached an open courtyard. Rooms lined along all four sides of the courtyard. Looks like, the Siheyuan is miniature version of the Forbidden City and ancient walled cities – they are completely enclosed within the walls for safety and privacy. This courtyard residence used to be the house of an ancient scholar and dignitary, Mr. Ji Xiaolan during the Qing dynasty, it is built in the typical, old Beijing architectural style with a compound of quadrangle courtyards. Modern plumbing and heating had replaced the old. The rooms were fabulously decorated, inviting open courtyard and very comfortable. It is an essential hutong and courtyard residence experience.

Beijing Hutong

Hutongs around Beijing were believed to be built during the Yuan Dynasty around 1274 AD after Kublai Khan choose Beijing (then known as Dadu) the capital. The word Hutong was derived from the Mongolian word ‘hottog’ meaning ‘water well’. Subsequently, dwelling flourished around these water wells. These constructions continued through subsequent dynasties. Amongst these dwelling was the present day Siheyuan or commonly known as quadrangular courtyard residences.

Today, they are walled building blocks through a maze of tree lined lanes. They have survived for over 800 years and therefore is a cultural heritage of Beijing.  Having survived through these periods of uncertainty, after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 and more recently in the last two decades, many of the old hutongs were demolished and replaced with modern high rise buildings and apartments. It is a rapid demise of history and sadly the displacement of its people. Demolishing the hutong means the desecration of history and civilization? The hutongs told stories of the past, from one dynasty to another.

Several families lived in close proximity. Thus, enhancing family bonding. The relationships amongst people living in hutongs is much more connected that those living in modern Beijing. Some buildings are dilapidated yet gave comfort to the tenants. With policies, governing renovations and rebuilding, not all tenants are getting a good deal. For instance, proper plumbing and sanitation, there are several shared public toilets. Another is heating systems. They are still unavailable in certain residences. Hence, I could smell and see the burning of coal for heating this winter. This contributed to the already polluted Beijing air.  I can see the people’s reluctance to leave the hutongs, although needing renovations and upgrades, they feel at home and a sense of community prevailed amongst the residences. It is a slow-paced lifestyle. A contrast from the din of the modern metropolis just a few hundred meters away. Men gathered to play cards and board games; kids played without a care in the world and the treacherous motor vehicles; doors half opened with goods for sale. The seller is nowhere to be seen. There is trust; vegetable stalls are spread out onto the narrow roads; meat sausages and corn cobs hung from window sills to dry in the cold air.

At some hutongs, a complete transformation, made for tourist! Bright lights and busy shops sold from handicrafts, bars, ornaments to eateries and fast food outlets. Foreign chain stores names had already been embraced here. These hutong streets were crowded with both local and foreign tourist. This included hutongs streets of Nanluogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷) (South Lugou Alley), Yandai  Xiejie (烟袋斜街),(Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street), hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers and Sichahai and Behai Lake. Any side road off the modern main street like Wangfujing, would lead to several hutongs. However, the street activity of these not-so- touristy hutongs in winter is limited. Coming off Wanning Bridge in Sichahai, Mao’er Hutong (帽儿胡同) is an interesting alley. Several famous people came from here including Wan Rong, the last empress of China, wife of Emperor, Puyi. There is also a cat filled cafe of sorts. It was a little weird for me. All roads seemed to lead to Nanluogu Xiang. Doncheng district is a great area to discover hutongs either by walking or cycling. Alternatively, there are many willing pedicab tour operators. There is a great free walking tour operated by Beijing Walking. We unfortunately missed the tour.

Another great place is the area surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers. There will be pedicabs waiting for you. Climb up the towers to get a perceptive of the hutongs nearby and the not-so-distant skyscrapers on the horizon. It is a maze of narrow roads with bicycles and motorized bike wheezing past. Little open areas allow people to gather, meet and play games. There was even some exercise equipment at one outside the Bell Tower wall.

After visiting the Forbidden City, we walked along the near empty street along the moats, Beichizi Street. There are many side roads that led to hutongs, perhaps and interesting walk of discovery. However, during winter, many activities are subdued. Generally, the closer the buildings, the higher the status of the occupant, in relation to the palace, the Forbidden City. Another area we explored is just outside the west gate of Temple of Haven. As Chinese New Year was approaching, sales of mainly local produce were brisk. Generally, all areas along the perimeter of the Forbidden City is a good choice. Getting lost is great and is completely safe to wander.

Generally, doors are painted red with lion door knockers. Entrance door is guarded by carved stone, generally rounded or rectangular. They are intricately carved with different features, mainly animal figurines and symbols. These features told the story of its occupant.  These ‘mendun’ are basically mounts to secure the door frames onto the buildings. Merely passing through, I did notice differences between doorways – the steps, roof tiles, varying width, characters on the ‘mendun’ and rooftops, amongst others. However, what it meant, I have no idea. I suppose in the old days, the better or bigger looking; more ornately designed perhaps meant higher up the political and social hierarchy. Size mattered!

New China has no place for Hutongs as the occupy prime real estate. With an expanding population and increased demand for accommodation, forced demolition of buildings and relocation of its residents are all to common even with regulations to keep these iconic hutongs. Hence, old Beijing is disappearing. Almost three quarter had been converted in modern and characterless buildings. It is unfortunate that tourism is keeping these historic dwellings from destruction. Historic relics in the form of structures or inscriptions may be lost forever.

At the Dongsi hutongs in the Dongcheng area, walking from the 14th alley to the fourth alley, a policeman stood at each entrance. Is it for safety or just keeping “trouble makers” subdued? On fourth Alley, nearby my courtyard hotel, one large building was almost abandoned except for a few residents. Posters on the wall seemed like eviction notice. Maybe, a renovation notice. I can’t be sure, but why a few residents had remained and police presence? Whether, in the name of preservation or retention of cultural values, I hope that these old-world charms of Beijing remained for all to experience and witness the layers of history written within the fabrics of the old buildings and its residences. The future however is, at least, murky.






Great Wall Hike – Jiànkòu to Mùtiányù – 2

The Great Wall of China is not  a single wall but a series of walls built over a period of time. They are connected at various points. The earliest wall were built warring feudal states as a protective boundary. The first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whom united China, ordered further construction around 220BC. The wall near Beijing were mainly build during the Ming Dynasty, to protect against northern invaders. Originally built with gravel and earth, bricks and mortar were later used to fortify the walls. The width and height varies along the walls. Today, it is estimated to be over 21000 km! The largest man made structure.  Jiànkòu  and Mùtiányù   sections were constructed during the Ming era, about 1300. Some sections were just fortification of older walls.

 I anticipated that it would be very cold up here in the mountains. Pleasantly surprising, it was manageable. We continued further. There were no other footprints on the snow covered ground. In some places on the crumbled wall, woody shrubs made walking tough. Sometimes walking on the edges with bricks and paving stone loosely accumulated on the uneven ground. Again, the ‘snow nails’ on our shoes helped us tremendously.

Finally we a reached a crumbling small tower. The path past here was a steep ascent and carved out a semi-circle loop with a even steeper decent. Leo offered an alternative, to cut across the valley and continue back on the wall. This is the Ox Horn Edge Wall. Considering that we had slight difficulty over some previous descents, we opted to give this part a miss and rejoin on the other side. This leg of the hike would take about two hours ( estimate 2km).  Along this new path, we found some paw prints in the snow. Perhaps foxes or perhaps just local dogs.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike – Ox Horn Edge

The distant views were still hazy due to the persistent smog. The height of the wall continually rose and dropped with the terrain. Hikers from  Mùtiányù section passed us wondering how far they needed to go (perhaps to Xizhazi Village). This was our first contact with anyone since the man at Zhengbeilou. The cold and slippery surfaces made parts of the hike treacherous. One hiker literally sat on her bum and slide down steep descends. We soon reached the beginning and restored wall of Mùtiányù section, Tower 23 around 11pm. It has taken us about an hour to get here from Zhengbeilou. An industrious man had set up a small stall with some basic snacks. Red ribbons hung on trees perhaps for good fortune.


We continued to hike over smooth paved stones, with a few other hikers coming from Mùtiányù entrance. Everything was tidy, both the walls and walking surfaces. Almost sterile. The walls climbed and descended as it crawled over the mountains. Snowfall continued a the views ever-changing.  We descended down on some steeps steps and reached the walled entrance of Tower 20 around 1145. This was was put up by the government to indicate the the sections we had just hiked is off limits to the public. We climbed onto a narrow ledge and jumped across a low wall. However, one slip, it is a long fall! This is the restored section of the wall. The stones used here are granite. The wall stretched zigzagging through the mountains. Towers popped up at intermittent breaks. The concentration of towers seem more that in Jiànkòu section.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike – Tower 20
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike

Although restored, the surface was slippery. Furthermore, the snow and steep elevation compounded the problem. Those with spikes were steady. Alternatively is the cling to the wall and move slowly. From tower to tower, we too moved slowly like the crawling snake. At places, the walking surface is smooth and in some stone steps. As it is winter time, there were very few people walking on the wall. This suited me fine. At Tower 14, there is an exit by taking the cable car down the hill. We continued our hike until Tower 6 before descending to the main entrance of the Mùtiányù section. It was around 1315. We had hike the sections for about 4 hours. 

Our transport picked us up and head to a local restaurant. We were all hungry and tucked in our lunch rather quickly. It was still snowing as we left the area and headed back to Beijing. Leo had been great. Welcome back to chaos and the din of a Chinese city. This had been, despite the heavy smog above in the mountains, one of the satisfying experiences of an iconic structure. Hiking on the wild sections had been a wonderful experience – the rugged natural beauty of an ancient and crumbling wall; with very little interference from other people and finally hiking with my family.

Hiking the unrestored Jiànkòu section had given us the raw beauty and the difficulty that comes with hiking  the crumbling walls and undulating, sometimes steep climb and decent, terrain; the isolation (there was no one on this trail today until we reached nearer to Tower 23); and a sense of adventure.  Finally, there is a sense of being present with the workers who built these walls and towers long ago. Their work untouched by restoration. Only encroached and etched away by nature if continued to be left alone. This is something to see, touch , feel and witness.


Great Wall Hike – Jiànkòu to Mùtiányù – 1

There was excitement and a little apprehension this morning. The smog prevailed. I wondered how this is going affect our (my family and I) hike on the Great Wall today. Apprehension came from the questions on the weather – cold. We had organised a guide and transport. We were picked up at 0730 at our hotel. Our guide was young Leo of Beijing Walks. He seemed pleasant. The traffic on Beijing’s streets were relatively low. Our road trip took us through villages and little towns. As we neared our destination, I had my first glimpse of the Great Wall high above the valley snaking on the mountain ridges. I was excited.

We arrived at Nanjili Village, a sub-village of Xizhazi Village in the Huairou district, the start of our hike. It  is sparse village with a small population right under the nose of the wall. It is a farming community.Through the hazy sky, I could make out the silhouette of the wall on the ridges. Our target, Zhengbeilou Tower was visible through the forest. It began to snow lightly. Leo seemed more excited than us as this was his first experience walking in snow. My thoughts were….it is going to be cold and wet! A signage read – This part of the Great Wall is not open to the public. Leo just smiled.

We started at 0915 by walking up a hill behind the village. A few villagers were already on up and about. The walk entered a deciduous forest as most were leafless.  Through the shrubs and trees, I could clearly see a few towers on the wall. The trail zigzagged uphill and at times steep. Fortunately, the trek was dry and traction was good. I can imagine the difficulty walking in wet conditions. We seemed well prepared with our gear.

After an hour, we reached Zhengbeilou Tower. Our first steps on this iconic structure, we climbed up a wooden ladder and a few stone steps up. We stood on the top level of the tower. The views, even with the thick smog hanging about, was stupendous. On the west, I could see the partially collapsed towers and the wall meandered along the ridge like a white serpent and disappeared into the mountains. Some looked ridiculously steep and the steps completely broken. Trees and shrubs grew sporadically on and along the wall.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike (rooftop of Zhengbeilou Tower)

Jiànkòu  is considered the ‘wild Great Wall’ as it is completely unrestored and in disrepair.  However, it exuded natural beauty and the snow today was just a bonus. Hence, the reason we are here. On Zhengbeilou Tower, the floor moved with every step as snow covered bricks lay strewn all over. Even the walls had partially collapsed. Clumps of shrubs were scattered all over. Voices from a western tower indicated the first sign of other hikers. However, they were moving west. This suggests that there are several treks through the forest leading from the village to the wall. On Zhengbeilou, there were no signs of other hikers. However, there was a man inside the tower and evidence of a fireplace suggest he may be a regular, perhaps a villager.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike (the rugged West Jiankou)

We continued east. We were all excited including Leo. I liked him. He show full of enthusiasm, knowledgeable and just being a simple guy. The wall here seemed whitish. The wall followed the ebb and flow of the mountain ridge and further on seemed to climb uphill and form a semi-circle and decent towards the valley. That section is call the Ox Horn Edge. The wall from Zhengbeilou descended sharply at almost forty five degrees. Finding traction was difficult with the smooth snow covered pavement stones. We edged forward, a little at time.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike (towards the east)
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike (Zhengbeilou Tower)

Leo was trailing behind. He seemed to walk steadily. He had a weapon, snow nails. Thoughtfully, he had brought us some. These were metal spikes embedded into elastic rubber. We placed them over out boots. It steadied our walking. Leo quipped, “these are not good ones, made in China”. However, they did the job perfectly although repeated adjustment is required as the walking surface is uneven and unsettling. I cannot help wondering about the purpose of the wall, its effectiveness, and the tremendous cost (both in financial resources and human) in building and maintaining them. At times, we walked very close to the edge of the crumbling wall with no protection. A slip or fall can send you tumbling down over 5 meters at places. The thought of the men whom were stationed in these desolate places throughout the seasons. It is an amazing human feat built at a high cost, including human lives. Some are buried within the wall.

Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike