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Great Wall

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

The Great Wall of China was a series of fortifications at the northern border of China. it is also said to be a dragon, whose body stretches across China. It was build by Qin Shi Huang (the famous emperor, who also built the famous Terracotta Warriors). Qin Shi Huang was most portrayed in the film 'Hero'. The earliest parts were build in the 7th century BC. Most of these fortifications are today in a bad shape and very dangerous places to visit. Every year several people die in climbing accidents at the "wild" parts of the Great Wall. However, there are some places, where you can safely climb the great wall.

One of these places is the Great Wall at Badaling. The Great Wall at Badaling was built in 1505, but has undergone restoration in the last 30 years. Therefore, it is safe to climb the Great Wall here. Nowadays up to millions of tourists visit this site. There is even an expressway from central Beijing, so you can be there in less than an hour.

Frankly speaking, at first I was a little bit disappointed. The renewished part of the Wall looked like it had only been built a recently and had no feel of mystery about it. However the sorounding mountains are spectacular. When you can out run the other tourists and climb higher than the mostly older tourists can, you can enjoy the great wall just for yourself. When I was way up, I could not see anyone for several minutes and found here a peaceful spot (which is hard thing to find in Beijing). But be warned not to go to fast. The Great Wall can be quite dangerous in some places. As you can see in the pictures, the angle of descent is steep and this is not a journey for the feint of heart. Chinese people do not seem to have a problem with these steep steps, since at several points you can find street vendors selling cold drinks to tourists. When you see the amount of bottles they have carried up you can hardly believe it.

To descent from the wall you just have to go on, since at Badaling you can go in circle. To walk arround the full circle you will need about 3-5 hours. At the foot of the mountains you can find a tourist market.

more photos of the Great Wall of China (Badaling)

You can find more photos of the Great Wall of China in a flick-gallery, which I curate.

Forbidden City

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

The forbidden city was once home to the emperor and his 1000 concubines. The name derived from the law, that punished everyone, who visited the palace unauthorised, with death. Today you can see here:

  • 9000 rooms for concubines, eunuchs and officials
  • 750,000 m²
  • 600 years old
  • many small museums
  • home of 24 emperors

You can find more photos of the forbidden city in a flickr-gallery, which I curated.

Chinese Opera and Chinese Circus

Near the forbidden city are many theaters in which you can see Chinese opera and circus shows. I put both of these arts into one chapter, since both heavily use acrobatic elements in their shows.

When you travel to china it might be a good idea to listen to its local music, since its traditional music tells you a lot about its culture. Even if you have already seen a Chinese opera you should watch a Chinese opera in Beijing, since there are many different forms of operas in China. While the chinese opera was first performed in the 3rd century and has evolved into many variations, the Beijing opera is with 300 years much "younger" and it combines dances, songs and acrobatics. So if you go with your family to see the Beijing opera, there is something to watch for everyone.

In a chinese opera the faces of the actors are painted in a specific color code. The patterns of the actors gives the audiance a hint about the characters personality. Here are some colours and their connotations.

  • red, purple - a good character, which is oftern very brave and wise
  • black, blue - can be an ambiguos character or the audiance is not meant to know if the character is good or evil
  • green, yellow and white - the bad guys
  • silver, gold - a fantastic creature (dragon, ghost, monster...)

Temple of Heaven

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

The Temple of Heaven is a UNESCO world heritage sight and is centered in the temple of heaven park. It is unique for its architecture and a popular tourist destination. The temple complex was founded, like the forbidden city, in the 15th century. In contrast to the forbidden city the temple of heaven is a holly place. The largest building is the Hall of Prayer for good Harvest, where the emperor had to pray every year. The Temple as well as the Hall of prayer symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven. In ancient China people believed that the emperor is the son of heaven and therefore it was important for him to show respect to his father, the heaven.

kids-and-adults-like-to-play-hacky-sackIn the popular temple of Heaven Park you can see kids playing hula-hoop and jumping rope. Adults were dancing, singing, playing badminton, practicing taichi or kite flying. What I found most remarkable was, that some old people were playing hacky sack and that they were really good at it. One sixty year old grandfather performed some tricks I have never seen before and which were absolutely incredible to watch.
In Germany playing footbag is something only teenagers do to pass time. However, my colleagues told me that playing hacky sack (or ti chian zi) is a fun game both kids and adults like to play. The idea is that you throw a small ball (sometimes with feathers) in the air and keep it there by bouncing it from your feet, knees, elbows or head.

Hutong (alleyways)

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

One of the best advises I got from my chinese colleagues was to visit the hutongs of Beijing. Indeed, in the hutongs you can find the heart of the capital. Here, you can see the life of ordinary people driving trishaws, practicing caligraphie, playing badminton or cards.

    Some of the hutongs:
  • are 900 years old,
  • became nightlife hotspots,
  • or became shopping streets.

One of the hutong I visited was one of the oldest and best preserved hutongs in China. It was build in the 13th century and was home to merchants. In most courtyard houses there still live families and they are not open to the public. However, other courtyard houses have become stores, restaurants or coffee shops. What is nice about these coffee shops is that they blend traditional china with the modern china.

The traditional architecture of the houses in the hutongs was strongly influenced by the climate. While sloping roofs are very common in the south of china (because these houses have to withstand much rain), the houses in Beijing have steep roofs. In contrast to the houses in the south the houses of Beijing are constructed to maximize sunlight exposure. Therefore, the biggest and most important window looks always to the south, so that in the long cold winter month the house do not get to cold. Furthermore, the houses were often arranged as courtyard houses, so that the thick outer walls could keep out the cold wind, which blows in from the north and brings much dust.

Remark: Beijing houses do not look like westeners expect them to look. That is because our image of china comes mostly from the southern parts of china. If you want to see architecture which resembles the whole traditional china, you should go to "beihai" imperial garden near the forbidden city. It was build in the 10th century and reflects scenic spots from all over china. You will find there pavillions, water ways and the nine dragon wall.

Summer palace

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

When westeners think about Cixi and the last emperor, they talk often about "The Summer Palace". However, there are indeed two summer palaces. While the the summer palace near the Kunming Lake is best preserved and known to most tourists, the "old summer palace" is best known by people of Beijing as a nice place to take a stroll.

The summer palace was used in ancient times by the royal court during hot summer months. Today you can stroll along

  • beautiful pavillions and gardens
  • 300 years old temples
  • the beautiful Kunming lake.

You can find more pictures of the summer palace in a flick-gallery, which I curate.

the "old" Summer Palace

When I was at the nearby Peking university, my colleaugues took me to the "old" summer palace to see the ruins of an old palace. The palace was destroyed by european forces during the opium war. However, you can still see how magnificicent it has been once. Afterwards we strolled on through the large park to see the beautiful white orchids.


Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

window-shopping-at-wangfujingBeijing is a good place to go shopping. You can make good bargains, if you want to buy clothing (especially silk), (new) chinese art and pearls. However, do not buy antiques. The reason is that during the cultural revolution almost all genuine treasures were destroyed. Therefore, it is illegal for foreigners to take the few remaining antiques back home. There are basically three options to go. You can either go to

  • to the shopping malls: In the shopping malls there is a lot of stuff to find. In these malls prices are fixed and everything has a price tag. Basically there is no bargaining, but sometimes there might be a sale. The most famous and most expensive shopping strip is located next to the forbidden city (Wangfujing). It is a impressive pedestrian-only shopping haven. It is open at the weekends, but most people just window shop. Here you can find an array of restaurants, both Chinese and Western style. The service is very good but I find it rather offish.
  • the open-markets: In contrast to this you can find many street-vendors in Beijing. Here bargaining is expected. They sell anything from clothes, to sweets, from parfume to soap. The things they sell are often very cheap, but sometimes you can find good value. Although they are selling from dawn to nightfall they hardly make a earn some money. However, I found that these people were always very friendly and helpful
  • to the hutongs: Shopping in the hutongs is something in between these two extremes. Furthermore, while many hutongs have become very famous with tourists, others are not so well developed. 

haggling prices

Well the first thing to know is that you do not haggle prices everywhere and that not all chinese people like to haggle prices. So consequently there are some places, where bargaining is expected and some where it is not and you can decide for yourself how you like to buy stuff. At the malls and often/sometimes in shops prices are fixed, but almost everywhere else you should haggle hard.

The most important thing you need for buying stuff on the market is not money but time and patience. Here are some advices I got from my colleagues:

  • do not go shopping, when you are in a hurry
  • do not say what you are willing to pay
  • do not be fooled by price tags (they just let you know where you should begin bargaining)
  • the price the seller names first is at least twice (up to 10 times) to high
  • do not buy directly, go away, check the other sales booth and come back later (at least one time)
  • ask for offers (da zhe)
  • check your change (especially 50 and 100 yuan notes)
  • be friendly and have fun, think about it as a game

what to buy, what not to buy

Obviosly you can buy (with your money) whatever you like, but there are some things you might want to consider first.

you could buy:

  • fashion: Beijing is a good place to buy fashion either modern or traditional. If you are looking for a traditional dress you could ask for a "qipao" (旗袍). There is also a very popular legend how the qipao was invented, which sellers usually like to tell you. (Once there was a beautifull fisherwoman...).
  • tea: I do not know much about tea, if you find a good web page please send me an email.
  • chopsticks: Some chopsticks are designed for women and some for men.
  • kites: There are two kinds of kites.
    - The ones which are meant for flying and
    - the ones which are just beautiful (and probably fly like a stone.)
    If you buy a (flying) kite do not forget to also ask for rope. In Beijing I found two places which are perfect for kite flying. The first is the Tianmen square and the second is the park near the temple of heaven. There are also a lot of older chinese men, who enjoy kite flying and are very helpful.
  • opera masks: Opera masks are colour coded. hint about the characters personality. (red - good, black - ambiguos, green - bad, gold - a fantastic creature)

do not buy:

  • Antiques: They are either faked (best case scenario) or they are genuine (hardly ever). It is illegal for foreigners to take home antiques.
  • Art: Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, it might be better to buy art at home.

electronic city in Beijing

electronic city in Beijing


Electronic City is a multi storey building in which you can buy cheap electronic stuff. You will not find anything fancy there, but you may make a good bargain. All in all, it is never-ending accumulation of sales booth, which sell all the same (apple) products. To be fair, I have to admit that I only went there once to buy a simple usb-hard drive. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry, hungry and therefore not in the right mood for haggling a fair price. So I found the whole experience very tiresome.


living-fish-and-crab-in-chinese-supermarketGiven the number of food scandals, buying branded products in a supermarket might be a wise choice. While there is a huge number of small supermarkets everywhere, the larger supermarkets are four storeys high and on my first visit I spent four hours there. Here you will find anything that you would find in a westener supermarket (with the exception of good bread and chocolate), but also stuff you have never heard of.

In the big supermarkets you can find all kinds of meat, as well as living fish and crabs. Since labour is cheap, you will also find an army of sales clerks, who advertise their products via loud speakers turned to its maximum volume. If you do not pay attention you might find yourself surrounded by three or four of them advertising juice, fruits, wine.... Prices were very low in 2010, but my friends tell me that prices for food have increased strongly since then.