The Great Wall Series - Beijing

In April 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Beijing. It was my first time in Asia, and I was very excited to visit China and meet some of my business colleagues for a special project. I stayed at a hotel in the central business district close to many historic sites. The business district is the area that many foreigners stay in because of the amenities and the many languages spoken by staff and employees at the local businesses.

The Forbidden City

For my first outing, I decided to take the metro to the Forbidden City, one of the most famous landmarks in Beijing. I was in a hurry and headed out in a T-shirt and shorts. However, as I soon found out, my shorts were not considered culturally sensitive in more formal settings like the Forbidden City. I received many disapproving looks from locals and tourists alike, which made me feel a little bit out of place.

Despite this initial mishap, as I walked all over the complex I was amazed by the size of the Forbidden City which covers an area of approximately 720,000 square meters (7,750,000 square feet) and has 980 buildings. The length of the Forbidden City from the front gate (Meridian Gate) to the back exit (Gate of Divine Prowess) is about 961 meters (3,153 feet), or just under a kilometer. The architecture, intricate designs, and rich history of the palace complex were truly awe-inspiring. I spent several hours wandering through the various courtyards, halls, and gardens, viewing the stunning craftsmanship and learning about the fascinating stories behind each building.

For a bit of history, the Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. It served as the imperial palace for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for over 500 years. The construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 when Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, decided to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The palace was built on the site of the former Yuan Dynasty imperial palace and took over a decade to complete. The palace was designed to be a symbol of the emperor's power and authority and to impress foreign dignitaries, and it was divided into two parts, the Outer Court and the Inner Court. The Outer Court was used for ceremonial purposes, where the emperor would meet with foreign dignitaries, hold court sessions, and conduct important ceremonies such as the Chinese New Year celebrations. The Inner Court was the private living quarters of the emperor, his family, and concubines. Apart from the emperor and his family, the Forbidden City was also inhabited by eunuchs, officials, and servants who worked in the palace. The palace was also home to various imperial treasures, including priceless artwork, books, and artifacts.

The Forbidden City was the home of 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties and was also the political and ceremonial center of the Chinese government for over 500 years. The palace was a closed city, and no one who was not authorized by the emperor could enter or leave without permission. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Forbidden City was turned into a museum, and many of the treasures that had been stored there were put on display. In 1987, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2021 it celebrated its 600th anniversary. Today, the Forbidden City is one of China's most visited tourist attractions, attracting millions of visitors every year. It is a symbol of China's long and rich history and serves as a reminder of the country's imperial past.

At the end of the walking tour, visitors exit at the far back end of the Forbidden City away from the metro. Since I was told not able to bring my personal phone, I only had an Android device with only local SIM, no phone numbers, and very spotty internet. Google and Google services are mostly blocked in China leaving me without my usual ability to get quick information. At the exit, I was approached by someone offering to give me a ride on a rickshaw back to my hotel. So being adventurous, I decided to take him up on the ride back to my hotel to experience a different mode of transportation and see more of the old city.

Unfortunately, this decision turned out to be a huge mistake. My rickshaw driver took me on a detour through the old city in Beijing called "Dongcheng District". It is one of the two urban districts of Beijing and it covers the eastern half of the old city, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and many other historical and cultural landmarks. With narrow curved alleys and houses touching the road, I was completely turned around. And the smog in Beijing was so heavy that it was virtually impossible to any landmarks or buildings to help me get my bearings.

The driver suddenly stopped the rickshaw, turned around, and in broken English yelled at me for all of my yuan. I was a little freaked out, and a little angry, so I said no. We had already worked out the cost of getting from the exit of the Forbidden City to my hotel, and he was breaking the deal. So he waved at me frantically until I got off the rickshaw. And then he rode away. Thankfully, he did not harm me, but now I realized I was stuck somewhere in Beijing - a city of 20 million people at the time. I did not have a working phone with carrier service, only wifi. And I did not have a working map app. 

Luckily, I found a store on a corner and walked in. I tried to communicate with the employees but soon realized that no one spoke English. Fortunately, one of the employees noticed my distress and offered to help. He sat me down at his desk, and we used a translation website on his computer to communicate with each other. I typed in English that I was lost and needed to get back to my hotel. We turned the monitor back to him and he typed that he would help. He quickly ordered a taxi. When it arrived, he spoke to the driver to make sure I would reach my destination safely. Thanks to his kindness, resourcefulness, and quick thinking, I was able to get back to my hotel.

Despite this unfortunate incident, I refused to let it ruin my trip to Beijing. I have more stories of my trip including my first time seeing the Great Wall that I will talk about next week. Overall, my visit to Beijing in 2012 was a mixed experience. I was captivated by the city's history, culture, and size, but I also learned some valuable lessons about cultural sensitivity and personal safety. Despite the challenges, I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited such a fascinating and dynamic city.

Travel Trick

To make it easier when I travel, I keep pictures of the most common things I need in a photo gallery named for the city. For this trip, I had photos of water, soda, food, a few US chain restaurants, my hotel address, my sponsor's name, and address, etc.

For most foreign nationals, a visa is required to enter China. The type of visa needed will depend on the purpose of the trip, such as tourism, business, or study. In some cases, a sponsor may be required to apply for a visa. For example, if a person is traveling to China for business purposes, they may need an invitation letter from a company in China to support their visa application.

Dinner Etiquette

A traditional Chinese dinner typically includes a variety of dishes served family-style, with an emphasis on balance and harmony of flavors, textures, and colors. The exact dishes can vary depending on the region and occasion.

We had a large group dinner of 12 people in a private room at a nice restaurant. It turns out that if you sit in the seat furthest away from the door, you are considered the head of the table. Wish someone would have warned me about that. The head of the table means that you are served everything first. And you are expected to try each dish as well.

Fish heads, whole piglets with apples in their mouths, and many other things were not exactly what I was expecting.

Traditional Chinese Dinner

Elements of a traditional Chinese dinner include:

  1. Rice: Rice is a staple food in China, and is usually served as plain steamed rice or fried rice.
  2. Soup: Soup is often served as the first course of a Chinese dinner. Common soups include hot and sour soup, wonton soup, and egg drop soup.
  3. Vegetables: Chinese cuisine emphasizes the use of fresh, seasonal vegetables, which are usually stir-fried, steamed, or served in soups. Popular vegetables include bok choy, Chinese broccoli, snow peas, and mushrooms.
  4. Meat and Seafood: Chinese cuisine uses a variety of meats and seafood, including pork, chicken, beef, fish, shrimp, and scallops. These are usually stir-fried, steamed, or braised.
  5. Tofu: Tofu is a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine, and is often stir-fried, steamed, or added to soups.
  6. Desserts: Chinese desserts are often sweet and include dishes such as sesame balls, red bean paste, and mooncakes.

Lots more about China in the next few posts.