Travel Report Eight


A walled city was built on the site 3000 years ago, but Beijing only became a contender for capital following the Mongol invasion in 1213. it was a northwards shift of power, consolidated when Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Kahn) formally became the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty in 1271.

The urban population of Beijing is more than 18 million, and the metropolitan area has close to 25 million. It has the world’s busiest metro system , and is famous for poor air quality (caused by a combination of dust from deserts of northern China, and the emissions from cars, factories and heating systems).

Alas, many hutongs were destroyed and replaced by modern towers. It was well-meaning, of course, but a tragic loss. Fortunately, many still stand, and their value as communities is now recognised.

The hutongs are part of Beijing’s character – narrow lanes of dull grey brick, unexciting on the outside. But inside there are often courtyard residences, which are wonderful famiy-centred havens from the busy city.

The writer seems to have been a pioneer. Just twenty years ago the hutongas were still undervalued as a special feature of Beijing.

They were built over a long period, starting more than 700 years ago and continuing up until the final imperial dynasty, the Qing. So they have seen fascinating history.

“The highpoint of my first visit to Bejing in 2003, was a visit to a courtyard home. I emerged from the Forbidden Palace to be confronted by an array of pushy trike riders, offering me a ride to my hotel. I was declining, but one young guy looked more earnest than most. I asked him to take me to the hutongs. I had no idea where we were going. Sometimes, you just choose to trust. He took me to the old home of a political leader from the 1950s – I can’t remember who. It was the significance of the place, not of any individual, that struck me.”

Following a peasant revolt in 1644, Manchu people (from Manchuria, in China’s northeast) took Beijing and established the final imperial dynasty. The Qing emperors built the Summer Palace, which lies northwest of the city.

This is one of seventeen arches of an ornamental bridge at the Summer Palace.

Dynasties end and new ones emerge through life and death power struggles – certainly that was the case in the transition from Yuan to Ming dynasties, culminating in 1368. During the Ming era, Beijing and Nanjing were ‘co-capitals’, but it was at Beijing that the Forbidden City was built, between 1406 and 1420. The Temple of Heaven dates from the same era.

Marco Polo and Beijing
Contact across Eurasia is not a modern phenomenon. People move, people trade. They just don’t always write about it. Marco Polo did, and so his name is associated with east-west contact. The Silk Road was already trading between east and west, when the Polos travelled. Indeed, the Polos were travelling with a caravan of traders when it was attacked by bandits.

To Marco Polo, who travelled with his father and uncle from Venice to China, and back, in the years 1271 to 1295, the city was Cambuluc, probably based on its Turkic name of Khanbaliq, city of the Khan. This would be Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Kahn, and first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty, between 1271 and 1294.

It is not one wall but several, built at different times, from the time of the ‘first emperor’, Qin Shi Huang around 220 BC to the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century. It formed a division between the settled agricultural populations to the south and the nomads to the north.
The Great Wall

A section of the Great Wall is not far outside Beijing’s northern outskirts. Certainly the city makes the most convenient point from which to reach it.

The sections nearest to Beijing are of the later kind (Ming Dynasty) with parapets, roadways and towers of wonderful brickwork and masonry. But what makes it most beautiful is the way that it rises and falls along line after line of hills.

Badaling is probably the most popular (that is, crowded) location and is 70 km from Tiananmen Square, whereas Simitai is about 130 km away. Both of these locations have cable cars from the valleys. Walks are possible between some but certainly not all of the access points. In parts, the walls are unrestored, rough underfoot, and steep. It is important to seek detailed information before travelling. For the casual visitor, hotels will provide this, as well as travel details. Those intending to walk any distance should research carefully.

Peking Duck is the famous local dish. Peking is the former name given by westerners to the city. They presumably found that ‘Peking’ sounded almost the same as ‘Beijing’, as in the modern pinyin representation.
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