China is known for a lot of great things. The Great Wall. Great take-out. And great deals on cheaply manufactured goods. But it is a little-known and rarely heralded fact that is my favorite of all Chinese contributions to our world heritage.
Their buildings have the coolest names.
While most Western buildings are named after architects, politicians – or even worse – corporations, ancient edifices in China retain majestic sounding monikers like Earth Tranquility Palace or Hall of Supreme Harmony. Even the Flatiron Building would have to admit that their names are way cooler than ours.
Granted, most people aren’t going to visit someplace just because it has a cool name. It would also have to have sites worthy of making a voyage halfway around the world. So of all the places that there are to see in China, the spot that gives you both some from Column A and some from Column B (you had to expect there was going to be a Chinese menu crack in here somewhere) is the capital Beijing.
In China’s great rush to modernize, many if not most of the crumbling traditional homes built around courtyards in narrow lanes have been replaced by modern high-rises. The armada of bicycles – once a staple and stereotype – is steadily being replaced by personal vehicles once reserved for only the well-to-do. All around, this monolithic grid of development centered on the Forbidden City is advancing into the modern world, impelling the present day visitor to see the old before it’s completely swallowed by the new.
The good news is that while not as cheap or simple to navigate as it used to be (i.e. when I last visited a dozen years ago) it still is a decent value, and the major sights – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and nearby Great Wall – have withstood the onslaught of change, providing a safe haven for those wishing to witness the crowning works of Chinese heritage from an age before globalization. And fortunately a lot of the cool names have remained as well.
Located near the absolute center of the city, the Forbidden City was once the center of Chinese culture, housing the emperor and his court in an enclave off-limits to commoners for some 500 years. In this sprawling compound of ornately designed pavilions and sculptured stone, you can catch a glimpse of the same recurring theme that plays out in all former seats of empire, namely, that it truly is good to be the king. At least here the buildings all have grandiose sounding names like The Hall of Preserving Harmony or the Palace of Heavenly Purity. In my house we just call it the living room, but whatever.
Allow for at least half a day to explore, preferably with a knowledgeable guide to take it all in. You might not care which emperor did what, where and with whom, but the buildings certainly impress with their architecture and artistry. It’s not for nothing that 35% of all Chinese take-out restaurants in the US are named after the Forbidden City* (* this figure is just approximate and not based on any actual facts other than that’s how it seems to me. For more accurate information, please consult your phone book).
Literally just outside the door from the Forbidden City is massive Tiananmen Square – site of the infamous uprising and many important buildings to the Chinese people, such as The Great Hall of the People (where the “legislature” meets), the Monument to the People’s Heroes (a granite obelisk commemorating key revolutionary events), and the morbidly fascinating Mao Zedong Mausoleum, or ‘Maosoleum‘ housing the embalmed remains of the man himself. While foreigners may view him with disdain, he is still a much-beloved character to the Chinese nation, so keep your wisecracks to yourself. You can also snag souvenirs imprinted with the image of his chubby cheeks (just like the one above the Gate of Heavenly Peace leading into the Forbidden City) on just about everything from key-rings to towels to any other trinket you can imagine. Where you’d actually get to display it is another story.
On the southern end of the square you’ll find the Qianmen section, which affords some great shopping opportunities as you make your way toward Tiantan Park, or Temple of Heaven. It is here that you’ll find the complex’s masterpiece The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests sitting on a terraced marble platform. Once an essential part of various rites performed on temple grounds, today it stands more as a tribute to architectural ingenuity, as the wooden pillars support a 100+ foot high ceiling without nails or cement. I don’t know how many take-out joints are named after it, but it still ranks as a must-see for visitors to Beijing.
The remaining two must-see attractions are located outside the city center. The Summer Palace, sitting only an inexpensive taxi ride away to the northwest, abounds in ambiance, water features, and buildings with really cool-sounding names. Situated around Kunming Lake, with plenty of gardens, visitors can take in the lovely setting by walking the shoreline and crossing ornate bridges with inspirational names like the Jade Belt Bridge or 17 Arch Bridge (OK, maybe that last one is a little less imaginative) to small islets housing structures with even-more inspirational names, like the Knowing in the Spring Pavilion, whose name, in my opinion, raises more questions than it answers (Know what? Know what???!!!!).
From the ferry dock on obviously-named South Lake Island, you can cross to the northern section of the palace grounds which houses the bulk of the fanciest structures as well as the bulk of the coolest names such as the Cloud Dispelling Hall, Wisdom Sea Temple, and the reassuringly-named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Brimming with color and artwork, a stroll around here will make your uphill climb well worth the effort – especially when you look back at your photo album.
Of course, visiting Beijing without seeing the Great Wall would be like visiting Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower, though the Badaling section of the wall is located an inconvenient fifty miles or so out of town. For the least amount of hassle, I recommend visiting on a guided tour, and if you’re already on one, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop here and likely the nearby Ming Tombs as well.
Seeing the wall zigzagging along the irregular contours of the hilly landscape, you can easily understand why it is considered an ancient wonder, despite ridiculous claims that it is visible from space. Walking the wall is an undertaking in and of itself, as there are a plethora of stairs to be scaled from one tower to another. Supposedly Chairman Mao said that “a real man walks the Great Wall.” That may be true, but I say a smart man takes the cable car to the top and then makes his way down. Write that in your little red book!
A few words of advice regarding getting around. First of all, like objects in the rear-view mirror, distances between streets on a map are much greater here than they appear. Beijing is a very broad city, so if you plan to walk (or bike) keep this in mind. The subway, when I was there, couldn’t have been any easier to navigate. It consisted mainly of a loop line following the path of the boring but informatively-named Second Ring Road, intersected by a straight line crossing right through Tiananmen Square. It was a cheap and convenient way to cover large distances, and my only disappointment was the unimaginative names of Line 1 and Line 2. Now, there are over 14 lines, allowing for greater coverage of the expanding city at what are still very reasonable prices. Most of the names aren’t any more interesting, but it’s still better than walking.
Beijing is a city with feet planted in two very different worlds and I recommend that you see it before one foot slides to meet the other. In the meantime you can count on seeing sterling examples of Chinese cultural heritage, honest-to-goodness wonders of the ancient world, and as you may have noticed, some of the coolest names around. You’ll never look at take-out quite the same.