Bucket List Focus: The Beijing Bucket List

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Coming Soon

I guess this post comes with two announcements attached:

  • a). The new look, 1000 item bucket list page is set to launch within the next fortnight;
  • b). I’m returning to China in June for a whirlwind tour of Beijing as well as a return to my former home, Nanjing!

I’m pretty chuffed about both if I’m being honest. The opportunity to check Beijing off my bucket list (something I somehow failed to do in 2.5 years living in China) is one I’m stoked to finally have.

The new look bucket list is going to be a hell of a lot of fun. We’re talking sexy bucket list items, boozy bucket list items, adventure travel, romance, paranormal activities, life experiences, and plenty of obscure ones as well. That doesn’t only give me (and you) a huge check-list to work on, but also plenty of opportunities for fun ‘how to’ articles that I hope will inspire.

But I’ll talk more about that later. For now, I thought I’d focus on my upcoming trip to Beijing and a few of the bucket-list worthy things to be done in China’s capital.

The Forbidden City. Image by Ib Aarmo.
The Forbidden City. Photo by Ib Aarmo.

Bucket List Focus: Beijing

There’s no debating that Beijing is one of the most iconic world cities on the map. It’s right up there with New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris when it comes to city’s that tourists around the world are immediately drawn to.

How could it not be? The city’s history dates back to the 11th century BC, and landmarks such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven date back to the 14th century AD. Sections of the Great Wall of China are even older than that.

It’s not just history that needs to be seen though, there’s plenty of culture to be experienced and present day thrills to be chased. Below you’ll find my ten item Beijing bucket list for your reading pleasure. Here’s hoping I can check them all off in four days!

#10 – Barter in a Chinese Market

The sights, sounds, and smells of a Chinese market really need to be experienced to be believed. One can’t do justice to just how chaotic and enthralling markets are with mere pictures or words, and I’ve found that each city has subtle differences that mean even my experiences in Shanghai or Chengdu won’t do Beijing’s market scene justice.

Chinese markets are a riot of noises, sights, and sounds. Photo by pilaar39.
Chinese markets are a riot of noises, sights, and sounds. Photo by pilaar39.

Whether you’re looking for authentic street food, tacky souvenirs, genuine antiques, cheap knock-offs, or a simple people watching experience: the Beijing market scene has something to draw you in.

The Panjiayuan Flea Market, Silk Street Market, and Zoo Markets are among the most famous in the city, but there are countless options for those willing to look.

Wherever you do go: be prepared to haggle and haggle hard. You’ll be getting a sizable foreigner mark-up!

#9 – Soak in China’s history in its museums

Some might argue that you’ll get a better look at Chinese history by visiting Taipei (where relics were stolen/taken after the Communist Party came into power on the mainland), but there is still an abundance of museums in Beijing that offer you a window into the country’s rich history.

As far as museums in Beijing go, the Beijing Capital Museum is arguably the biggest and the best, with seven floors dedicated to the country’s long history. Also worth mentioning for history buffs is the Palace Museum (otherwise known as the Forbidden City), but we’ll discuss that farther down the list.

For those who want to soak in China’s rich artistic history, the National Art Museum of China and the Beijing Theatre Museum both offer insight into the country’s cultural tapestry.

#8 – Visit the 798 Art District

Chinese art doesn’t end with silk tapestries and exquisite calligraphy. While these might be the more famous forms of art to come out of China, the art scene continues to thrive and evolve even today.

Much like M50 in Shanghai, 798 Art District is a region of Beijing dedicated to showcasing “cutting edge art” in all of its forms. Wandering this old industrial complex, you’ll see sculptures, paintings, installments, and even music on display as a young, vibrant new artistic movement makes its voice heard.

You may have come to China to see its history, but don’t neglect its very groovy present.

If the Imperial sites represent old China, 798 very represents its present and future. Photo by Jirka Matousek.
If the Imperial sites represent old China, 798 very represents its present and future. Photo by Jirka Matousek.

#7 – Pay your respects at the Ming Tombs

The Sacred Way leads into the Ming Tomb complex.
The Sacred Way leads into the Ming Tomb complex. Photo by SteFou!

Dating back to as early as 1368, the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing act as the final resting places to no less than thirteen of the Ming Emperors. Incidentally, the very first Ming Emperor is actually buried in my former home city – Nanjing.

Today, just four sections of this elaborate funerary complex are open to the public; but it’s a key day trip out of the city for those who want to escape the city and take in some serenity. The immense complex is not only a display of Chinese architecture and history, but also an opportunity to experience some greenery amidst the well manicured gardens.

#6 – Eat Beijing duck in Beijing

Chinese food may not have always been my cup of tea, but you’d be a hard man to please if you didn’t enjoy a bit of Beijing (Peking) duck. What better place to try one of China’s national dishes than in the city that gives it its name?

Served with savoury pancakes, sweet bean sauce, cucumber, and spring onion; crispy skinned Beijing duck is an absolute delight.

 

Succulent Beijing duck is one of my favourite Chinese dishes. Photo by Alpha.
Succulent Beijing duck is one of my favourite Chinese dishes. Photo by Alpha.

Of course, if that isn’t for you – there’s a wealth of flavours to be found from across China. Flavourful dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, hot pots, and the best of Sichuan, Xinjiang, Guangdong, and so many more are just begging to be tried. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

And if you’re feeling really adventurous, wash it all down with a little baijiu – China’s national spirit (although jiu means wine, it is not actually a wine). It’s a foul-tasting and potent brew, but when in Rome China.

#5 – Bike the Hutongs

Away from the pomp & circumstance of the Imperial sites and the hustle and bustle of modern Beijing, the narrow lanes and courtyards of the hutongs represent an opportunity to do a little time travel while also immersing yourself in daily life for the poorer residents of the big city.

A local resident takes a nap in one of Beijing's many hutongs. Photo by Tony Bush.
A local resident takes a nap in one of Beijing’s many hutongs. Photo by Tony Bush.

If you’re wanting to try authentic food as the locals eat it, the hutongs are the place to go. While you can certainly navigate them on foot, it’s a dream of mine to live on the wild side and rent a bike to take it all in.

And until you’ve seen how the Chinese ride bikes, you won’t fully understand just what a ballsy move riding there might prove to be.

#4 – Explore the Parks

China can be an oppressive place at times. Its a rapidly industrialising nation that crams more and more people into finite space with each passing day.

Even after only a few days in a city as big as Beijing (we’re talking a city with a population larger than that of Australia), you might find yourself longing for some greenery and fresh air.

China definitely does green too. The entrance to Lama Temple. Photo by Benjamin Jakabek.
China definitely does green too. The entrance to Lama Temple. Photo by Benjamin Jakabek.

While the latter probably isn’t likely in the city, there are a few green retreats to be explored. They’re another glimpse into the daily lives of local residents as well, so you can take a break from the city while also doing a bit of people watching.

Jingshan Park is probably the city’s most famous park, but there are plenty of parks and Imperial gardens to explore. I’m particularly intrigued by Purple Bamboo Park and the Ethnic Culture Park. The former offers up scenes like those you’d expect from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while the latter has 55 individual village gardens representative of China’s ethnic minorities.

#3 – Meet Chairman Mao in Tienanmen Square

Say what you will about Mao (and I’ll refrain from saying anything given I’m hoping to live there again someday), but the man was one of the most influential leaders of the 21st century. For better or worse, China as it exists today owes a lot to the man.

Each day, thousands of people line up to pay their respects to the man at his mausoleum in Tienanmen Square. If you can stand the wait, you’ve got the opportunity to gaze upon the man yourself.

A guard stands at attention while Mao watches on. Photo by yuan2003.
A guard stands at attention while Mao watches on. Photo by yuan2003.

If that’s not for you, Tienanmen Square isn’t exactly one to be overlooked. The largest public square in the world has been the site of controversy in its past, but today is an awe inspiring experience all of its own.

#2 – Visit the Imperial Sites

The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace are as representative of Chinese imperialism as you can get, and all three are located within the city limits.

Alongside the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors, these three sites represent China’s most iconic landmarks. It’s almost criminal that they can all be seen so close together. While it might be a stretch to do all of them in a single day, it’s certainly possible to visit all three over a 48 hour period.

A truly divine (pun intended) shot of the Temple of Heaven. Photo by Herve BRY.
A truly divine (pun intended) shot of the Temple of Heaven. Photo by Herve BRY.

All three are fantastic examples of Chinese architecture, although only the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven remain truly representative of their history due to the Summer Palace’s continued razing at the hands of colonial powers during past conflicts. Even so, many friends have said that the Summer Palace is their favourite of the three.

While I’m in Beijing, I’ll be lucky enough to tour all three (as well as the Lama Temple) with Tour-Beijing.

#1 – Walk the Wild Wall

You could certainly make your way out to Badaling and say you’ve done the Great Wall. Lord knows, hundreds of thousands do it every year.

To my mind though, if you want to really see the Great Wall you need to do it without hundreds of other tourists fighting with you for the best selfie real estate. That means trekking out to at least Mutianyu, but possibly even farther afield.

A stretch of the Great Wall as photographed by my father. Photo by Tony Bush.
A stretch of the Great Wall as photographed by my father. Photo by Tony Bush.

It means extra drive time, but you’ll appreciate it when you’re able to stand alone on a section of the wall and look out over it. It’s about as close to being Jon Snow as any of us will ever get.

I’m trekking from Simatai West to Jinshanling with Great Wall Hiking while I’m in Beijing, and I can’t wait for the photographic opportunities that is going to present.

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If you want to do Beijing in three days and see as much as possible, Robert at Leave Your Daily Hell has a great Three Days in Beijing entry I’d recommend. It’s certainly inspired me in my planning.


Your Say

There’s my Beijing bucket list, but what would be on yours?

I’m sure mine might change a little once I’ve visited the city and soaked in a little of it for myself, but there’s still time for you to make some suggestions!

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