During our Spring Festival Break (also known as the Chinese Lunar New Year) my husband and I decided to head out and explore the center of Beijing! While many attractions were closed due to the break, we were excited to find out that all of the parks surrounding the Forbidden City (now the Palace Museum) were open and practically empty!
The day we ventured out was January 24th, the day before the Chinese New Year. We went to both the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple early in the morning, only to find that they were closed! So we walked around for a bit and decided to head to the center of the city and check out Tiananmen Square. We knew we couldn’t go into the city without buying tickets online ahead of time, but we had heard that there were monuments and museums surrounding the Forbidden City and decided to check it out. We took the subway to Tiananmen East and found that security was still pretty tight even though there were so few people. They were having everyone show ID, unzip their coats and frisking them..until they got to us anyway. I was unzipping my coat and proceeding to take everything out of my pocket and the guards just waved us through. I was extremely surprised and couldn’t help but laugh right there in front of the guard! We walked all around the giant Tiananmen Square taking pictures of the monuments and taking pictures with a few Chinese tourists that asked us! I felt famous. Unfortunately, we found out that the museums located there were ALSO closed. I was actually starting to think that we would have a completely wasted day… until we crossed the street near the Mao painting and found people walking into the parks that surrounded the Forbidden City.
We entered Zhongshan Park (built in 1421) for only 3 yuan a person and had no idea what to expect! We walked into the park and were quickly greeted by a Mongolian-Chinese guide named Atilla who offered to guide us around the 3 parks for 100 rmb. He spoke perfect English and said he usually did the big group tours for the park, but with so few people around he said we would get a private tour! He showed us the few buildings in the park where the emperor and his prime minister would work and the park was still beautiful despite being winter. Atilla has been a tour guide for the past 35 years and knows the history of the city very well! He told us all about the history and it was so much better than I thought it would be. There were no colorful flowers, but the lakes were all frozen and the paintings on the beams all depicted Chinese folktales like Mulan and the Monkey King. Atila said that they were all repainted for the 2008 Olympics and at one point had pictures of Mao painted over them. It turns out that this park had a concert hall and great access to the palace moat, which was mostly frozen! We quickly checked out the gift shop and then Atilla led us to the next park!
Jingshan Park was our next stop and was actually one of my favorite parks (and the cheapest at 2 rmb)! Although I know that without Atilla, we would have never found our way to it from where we were. He had to lead us through this whole little city of people that seemed to live right outside the walls, Atilla called it the ‘New Forbidden City’. It might have been the outskirts of the city, but all I really know is that we walked for a really long time! Eventually we got to the bottom of Jingshan Hill and Atilla said that the view at the top would be worth it! There were several gorgeous pavilions on the way up that used to hold Buddhist artifacts, but Atilla said they are mostly in Taiwan now due to the Opium Wars. We continued up the hill and were amazed by the views of the city! This hill is the highest point in Beijing and faced the northern gate of the Forbidden City where you could see the whole palace (mostly) unobstructed! The hike wasn’t all that bad either, although it might be a little difficult for some. What made it even better was that we weren’t competing with a hundred people to take pictures from the top. We got pictures of the central point of Beijing plaque without a hundred pairs of feet around us and got a few couples shots, taken by our awesome tour guide! From this height, we had the perfect blend of ‘old and new’ architecture. The contrast between this ancient city and then skyscrapers on the skyline was truly magical. What is most surprising is that I had never actually heard about this park before, only about the most famous Beihai, which was our last park!
After visiting the last park, Beihai, I really understand why it is so famous. This park is one of the oldest and undoubtedly one of the best. Unlike the other two parks, this one offered a lot of history and fun activities for people to do and for only 5 rmb a ticket! This park was full of buildings of historical significance and many of them were kept in amazing shape, probably because we weren’t allowed in most of them. In the center of the park was a giant lake surrounded by these pavilions covered in dragons, where during the summertime they rent out lotus and duck boats! Because the lake was mostly frozen, a whole section of the lake was roped off for ice skating and the prices to rent the equipment were cheap (30 rmb). We continued on to the Quiet Heart Studio which had the most amazingly beautiful rock formations. Along with the architecture, it was one of the most breathtaking sites in the park. One of the most interesting parts were the zig-zag bridges, which were to prevent evil spirits or thoughts from following you. Atilla said that usually guests had to wait anywhere from 1-2 hours to get into this side of the park, but we were just given the pass to walk in because of how empty it was!
We continued on to what Atilla called the ‘Lover’s Gate’. He said that it was believed that if you took a picture in front of the gate with your love, you were destined to be with that person for 100 years… so I asked Atilla to take 10 pictures of my husband and I. Gotcha now sucker! ❤ We continued on to the largest and most ornate building in the park and are happy to say we could even enter! Xiaoxitian (Minor Western Heaven) was a beautiful temple the emperor made for his mother. The building is tall and holds an elaborate scene of wooden carvings of women and is very beautiful. I got a few good pictures and then found out that you are not supposed to take pictures, oops. We saw many more buildings including the building where the emperor was moved to during his funeral. The last thing we saw was the newest addition to the city, the 600-year old Nine-Dragon screen. They are supposed to stand for each son of royalty and each is responsible for a different duty. Atilla kept insisting that Korey take a picture in front of the second dragon because he is the second-born son, the musician. When I asked if I should take a picture in front of the first dragon because I am the first-born, he said “No, only for sons”. Ah, well! We were starving and so Atilla took us to an Islamic hand-pulled noodle joint a bus ride away from the city and it was the perfect end to a perfect day!
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If you would like Atilla to lead you on your tours throughout Beijing, please call him at (+86) 173-0114-7809 for tours of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or Summer Palace!