Beijing Sites - Kiddified

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

This article first appeared on the byokids website.

There are probably too many historical sites in Beijing (and indeed, in China) to be able to list in one life time (unless you are a Buddhist monk who lives for 150 years). Here is a short list for Beijing and I dare you to head over there and discover your own.

The Wall

No matter how special you think it might be, standing on the Great Wall of China is a life-fulfilling moment. Indeed, there is a saying in China that you are not a great man (or woman or kid) unless you have stood on the Great Wall of China.

There are good spots and not so good spots to place this masterful creation under foot. The worst possible choice (if you can avoid it) is Badaling north west of Beijing and the closest point as the crow flies. If you want a non-spiritual experience that includes sharing one step with eighteen other people, beating off relentless rounds of hawkers hocking postcards, and throngs of curious provincial tourists wiping their grubby hands all over your kids' faces, then Badaling is for you. If it is your only choice, then that's just plain sad but of course you still must do it.

The best spot to see the Wall (still within a tourist distance from Beijing) is Jinshanling about two and a half hours north-east from Beijing, near the splendid Empress Dowager Cixi resort town of Chengde (itself worth a visit). The four-hour hike from Jinshanling to Simitai is a must-do with older kids and an absolute possibility with small kids in metal-framed backpacks and a strong mule of a Dad. Middle-sized kids expected to walk it, however, will struggle.

Jinshanling is the Great Wall at its most splendidly breathtaking, stretching its lanky legs across the wilderness of the northern China plain - remotely rugged and beautiful, yet restored enough to traverse without ankle injury or brain injury from relentless hawkers. Taking a chair lift to the top, turning around and taking in the sight of this magnificent creation spread out across the land is akin to a religious experience.

The second-best spot and an absolutely perfect option if you cant get to Jinshanling and want to avoid Badaling is the gorgeous Mutianyu. The new Jingcheng expressway through Huairou has cut this trip down to a snappy one-hour, and features a meandering drive into the hills passing restaurants, galleries and fishing ponds to a quaint, boutique and beautifully restored part of the Wall, that is barely caked in tourists, especially if you go early and on a weekday.

The biggest drawcard here, other than the beauty of course, is the super-slick toboggan ride, snaking in a silver ribbon from the top of the Wall down to the car park. Kids - make sure you wait a good few minutes for the grannies to reach the bottom before you go soaring down like a silver bullet. So cool, you'll want to pay the entry fee twice.

On the way home, stop for lunch at the Mutianyu Schoolhouse. Parents will love the local handicrafts and kids will marvel at the onsite glass blowing. All with a view of that Wall. Perfection.

Hot tip: The Wall is steep, people! It runs along the ridges of large hills and mountaintops (a little like Italy and its hilltop villages, although without all the circular looping and olive tree groves). You will have to take chair lifts and cable cars and loooooong, precipitous stairways to reach it. If you have small kids, be prepared to carry them or handball them to a line-up of strategically placed adults. Metal-framed backpacks are perfect. Take wet-wipes, drinks, snacks and every camera-type device or apparatus you can muster, including back-up batteries and/or film. Barter for cheap artwork, t-shirts and bed quilts at the market stalls near the car park on the way out. Bargain hard; prices are cheaper than Beijing.

The Forbidden City

Known locally as Gu Gong (Old Palace), this achingly historic site (began in 1406) will entrance kids of all ages, with its pink walls, massive copper urns and series of palace-like halls fit for an Emperor, a Princess or Mickey Mouse, depending on your age group and mental capacity for history.

The front doors of Gu Gong open onto Chang'an Jie (Long Peace Street) and the reverence of the world's largest square Tiananmen (Heaven Peace Gate). Most people enter the Palace from this southern gate, mainly because the stairway to an underground train station (with links to stations bearing rural trains) lies around 200m from the front door. This stairway spews forth literally hundreds if not thousands of provincial Chinese and Korean tour groups each and every day on a solemn pilgrimage to their top three sites Tiananmen, Gu Gong, and a peek at the man himself Mao Zedong, who lies in a glass viewing tomb in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square.

If you would like to avoid being sardined until your lungs pop and your kids are but a far distant memory, buried in the depths of legs, arms and rucksacks, then give the front gate of Gu Gong a miss, and instead enter the Palace grounds from the northern gate, located on Jingshanqian road.

Better still, start your day early and go to the beautiful Jingshan Park just north of Gu Gong before you even enter the palace. This gorgeous park is well worth a visit on its own. The kids will marvel at the fan and ribbon dancing, the tai chi, the highly skilled badminton and hackysack jostlers, and the throngs of elderly Beijingren, clapping, stretching and chanting old songs from the Cultural Revolution. Have the kids race each other to the top of the peak (created by the dredged earth taken from around Gu Gong when the Palace moat was made) to the temple, with superb views over the orange rooftops of the Palace and Beijing surrounds. While they're up there, the kids can dress like mini Emperors and Empresses and have their photo taken on a faux gilt stool.

Leave the park by the south gate, cross Jingshanqian road and enter Gu Gong through the north gate, aiming to get there by 9am. You will enter the Palace via the Imperial Garden and be greeted by a quiet, surreal, almost people-less (unless you go during a Chinese holiday week) experience. You could almost imagine a series of concubines and eunuchs toting pails of water, bonsai trees or baskets full of pomelos across the courtyards in this space. There is a wall of petrified wood the kids will love, and loads of little garden beds and mini temples to explore. There is also a shop to buy gorgeous books on Chinese landmarks.

As you head south through Gu Gong, you will enter a series of massive courtyarded areas, containing various temple halls and ringed with low-rise, red roofed buildings. Each new area is reached by stepping through red gates, studded with the requisite 81 gold studs - a number achieved by nine rows of nine, and a fortunate tally in China. Make sure the kids rub their hands over these studs for good luck.

The further south you go, the more people you will encounter, until, suddenly, as you enter the most southern courtyard area, you will finally meet the masses, pouring fourth from Tiananmen with mouths gaping and eyes shining. This is often an experience people have waited their entire lives for. Walk steadily forward, hold tight to the kids and exit down the right hand corridor to Tiananmen, lest you want to be trampled by $5 Nikes. Before you leave this courtyarded area, however, be sure to look up to the balcony of the main hall. You might just see a recreated Empress and Emperor, surrounded by eunuchs bearing yellow paper umbrellas, waving imperially to the crowds below.

Mum, if you want Roger Moore in your ears (probably the only option you'll get in this lifetime, alas), you will have to enter Gu Gong through the southern, Tiananmen gate. This is where you can hire the man himself (sorry, only a recording), who will talk you through the deeply historical tales of the Palace. As you walk, the tape will automatically reveal stories of Gu Gong's treasures for your hearing pleasure. Good luck trying to listen to Roger if you have small kids with you. Maybe leave this one for your return trip to Beijing in retirement.

The Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan)

One of the most beautiful sites in Beijing, the illustrious Temple of Heaven and gardens is only a short hop from Hongqiao Pearl market and the Natural Science Museum, near the southern second ring road. With serene, leafy gardens and long flag-studded walkways, the kids will love meandering and running and just taking in the very spiritual and historic atmosphere. A typical array of local entertainment can be spotted (like all Beijing parks) from people playing hackysack and badminton to performing tai chi and fan dancing, or just nattering over mahjong and card games.

The wonderful Imperial Vault of Heaven with its lavishly painted ceiling and the Circular Mound Altar where people stand to face the sun, are must-sees. Make sure the kids stand on the Heavens Heart stone on the circular mound (there may be a queue) so they're closer to the sun.

The kids will also enjoy the Three Echo Stones. Stand on the first stone, facing the vault, and when you speak, you will hear one echo. If you stand on the second stone, you will hear two echoes, and the third stone, three echoes. The circular Echo Wall is a feat in sound-wave science if kids and a friend stand at opposite internal sides of the 65 metre wall and whisper, they will hear each other from the other side!

Dont miss the 500-year-old Nine-Dragon Cypress, whose branches are said to look like nine dragons winding their bodies together.

Yongdingmen Dajie, Chongwen district (tel 6702 8866). Open daily 6am-8pm. 15RMB for park only, 35RMB for park and historical sites.

The Summer Palace

Located in the far north west of Beijing, the Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan, or Pleasant and Peaceful Garden) is absolutely worth a visit, though try to go early and on a weekday, to avoid the crowds and the stunning scenes ruined by vista-hogging. The grounds are large, so plan at least a half, if not full day with picnic.

The Summer Palace has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its gardens are amongst the most noted classical gardens on the planet. Kids will love exploring the myriad of pavilions, temples, halls and the Long Corridor, a 728 metre-long walkway covered in a stunningly bedecked roof, where Empress Dowager Cixi would walk, unfettered by the elements. The Empress also (controversially) syphoned Navy funds into the construction of the famed Marble Boat sitting heavily in the water towards the north west side of the lake.

The huge Kunming Lake can be traversed by any kind of boat, large or small, and the series of traditional arched bridges (including the Seventeen Arch Bridge) will have you snapping photos till your fingers twitch.

Suzhou Market Street is probably the most intriguing part of the Summer Palace for kids. Entry is at the north side of the Palace grounds via the arched Long Bridge, with the recreated water town streets of Suzhou stretching out on either side (Suzhou, near Shanghai, is considered the Venice of China).

Be warned, typical of many sites in China, there are no fences, no barricades, no ropes to prevent little ones tossing themselves headlong into the waterways. Keep a tight hold at all times and everyone will remain happy and dry. The streets of this faux Suzhou are breathtaking in their simplicity, mirrored in the dead still water and dotted with little shops selling all manner of kitsch goodies and handicrafts. There's even a spot where little Emperors and Empresses can dress up and have their photo taken.

Be sure to meander through the Halls on the north side of Kunming Lake and up onto Longevity Hill. There are petrified forest remains for the kids to get lost in and wonderful views over the parklands.

Yiheyuan Lu, Haidian district (tel 6288 1144). Open daily 6.30am-8pm. Prices vary according the season and what you want to see its worth buying a ticket for the lot, especially as entry fees are nominal. Adults around 50RMB.

Beijing Botanical Gardens and Fragrant Hills

Situated in Beijing's north west, at the foot of the Fragrant Hills, these lovely gardens are a treat in spring (when the parkland is packed with blossom-seekers) and are equally splendid in autumn. Take a taxi if you want to view blossoms or if you want to go on a sunny day; you'll struggle to find a parking space unless you go in the dead of winter.

The gardens are extensive and feature small lakes, pagodas, statues, an Exhibition House jammed with flowers and a huge Rain Forest Conservatory. Plants are divided into sections according to plant, and include the Rose Garden near the south gate, the Autumnal Garden, Lilac, Crabapple, Magnolia, Bamboo and Peony gardens.

In warmer weather, kids can take little boats on the lake or flail around inside massive plastic balls on the water. They can also explore Wofosi Temple (Sleeping Buddha Temple) and the myriad of pathways leading to endless treasures.

Wofosi Road, 10km from the Summer Palace (tel 62591283). Open daily 7am-5pm. Adults 5RMB, kids 2.5RMB, entry to temples, conservatory extra.

The Fragrant Hills are only a few minutes away from the Botanical Gardens and are worth a wander, particularly in autumn when the leaves are turning gold and fiery red. This is when the weekends get very busy, so try to go during the week.

Kids will enjoy boating on Yanjing and wandering the temples, particularly the Bright Temple, a large Tibetan-style lamasery and glazed-tile archways and pagodas where bells tinkle on the breeze. Be sure to visit Incense Burner Peak and Shuangqing Villa, once a home of Mao Zedong (and an early Party HQ for those interested in breathing in a little historical air).

Xiangshan, Haidian district (tel 6259 1283). Open daily 6am-7.30pm. Adults 10 RMB/kids 5RMB, depending on the season.


There are many temples in Beijing, though three stand out as the largest and most interesting, especially to kids.

Arguably Beijings finest temple, the Lama Temple (Yonghegong) just inside the north second ring road, is well worth a visit. Kids can trail around the gardens, see the enormous bell and check out the ancient halls. Beautiful in summer time. 12 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng district (tel 6404 4499). Open daily 9am-4.30pm. 25RMB.

The Dongyue temple is a Taoist temple in full operation. It's much quieter than the other temples and is a truly calm oasis, hidden away in the bus Chaoyang district, on Chaoyangmenwai Dajie. Buy enormous sticks of incense from the entryway shop and light them in the centre courtyard. Kids can also buy a prayer tag and hang it outside the prayer hall of their choice; these fascinating halls run around the perimeter of the central courtyard. Dongyue temple has Beijing's largest collection of historical stone tablets. 141 Chaoyangmen Outer Street, Chaoyang district (tel 6551 0151). Open daily 8.30am-4.30pm. 10RMB.

Not far from the Llama temple is the Temple of Confucius, initially built in 1302. Kids will marvel at the 700 year old cypress tree, Chujian Bai (Touch Evil Cypress), said to be able to tell the difference between good and evil people. Youll also find the Bejiing Capital Museum here. 13 Guozijian Jie, Dongcheng district (tel 6404 2407). Open daily 8.30am-5pm. Adults 10RMB, kids 3RMB.

Footnote: The opening times and cost of all sites are subject to season and other exogenous factors. If you want to go early or late in the day, check opening times in advance.


Megan said...

Fantastic article, Tania! I love travelling and, despite so many people telling me how 'impossible' it is with kids, I've been determined to keep at it. It's great to have some child-friendly tips for future places to visit, so thanks!

Lewis Sandler said...

Great article. Im a long time Beijing resident from Boston, MA and may do a video on some of these places to post on my website, just for fun..


Family Travel Scoop said...

I recently returned from a trip to China with my kids. We had a blast. In Beijing we loved the acrobats show and the toy market. My kids have become bargain experts now with all the practice they had. We also had fun at the park at the Temple of Heaven.

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