Our second day in Beijing started early. Due to the time difference from California, we end up exhausted by early evening and wake up early. The kids had gone to bed by 7:30 the night before, and I didn’t stay up much later after our first day in the Chinese capital (SEE: 5 Days In Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital). After tossing and turning for ages, I called it quits at 5:00 and decided to shower.
The kids were starting to stir when I was done basking in the glorious hot water, which lasted upwards of a half hour. We definitely need one of these rain shower things at home (and a better water heater). After a quick jaunt downstairs to inquire about a phone charger, both children were fully awake when I returned. An early day it would be.
Excursion to the Temple of Heaven
We left the hotel at 7:30, bound for Dongsi station where we would catch the Line 5 subway to the Tiantan East Gate stop. The entrance to the Temple of Heaven is a very short walk from this station.
Entry to the Temple of Heaven is cheap, like pretty much all of the major Beijing sights. I bought an adult combo ticket for 28 yuan, which is the off season price, and I believe kids are half off. All said and done, it was less than $9 USD.
We headed through the gardens, making our way toward the center where the temple itself stands. A couple things jumped out at me. First, there were a large number of people doing aerobic exercise. Or is it dance? I really couldn’t tell. So much of it was set to music with groups of people doing synchronized moves. There was one are filled with many middle-aged and elderly Chinese folks who were engaged in this activity. The kids and I paused for a bit just to observe.
From there we made our way along a long open-air hallway. Here there were groups of Chinese men gathered to play cards. It would seem the Temple of Heaven grounds are more a place to simply hang out rather than a tourist attraction!
Eventually we came to the temple itself. You have to buy a special ticket that allows you access to the main sites. Initially, I wondered why multiple ticket types were offered, but now the answer was obvious: many people come to simply enjoy the green space. But that wasn’t why we were here.
The Temple of Heaven was originally constructed in 1420 by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty as a place for the millennia old Chinese tradition of Heaven worship. Sections were expanded and rebuilt during the reign of two other emperors. Pictured above is the Temple of Heaven itself. There are numerous other buildings as well, spread across the large temple grounds. Below is the Imperial Vault of Heaven.
Surrounding the Vault of Heaven is the Echo Wall, a circular wall with two buildings inside, situated such that if you stand near the wall behind one of them, you can converse with someone on the opposite side of the other building, completely out of line-of-sight of each other. The kids and I tried to talk to each other, but with the numerous other visitors, including some attempting the same feat as us, it was impossible to hear each other.
We finished up our visit by walking past the Palace of Abstinence and through the gardens. November really isn’t the time to visit gardens; the only real color was found in some of the trees that were a lovely autumn yellow.
Just like what I’d read, our visit of 90 minutes was sufficient to see most of the sites within the temple. If you’re especially interested in Chinese history, or like to linger, you could probably take twice as long, although I think 2 hours is a decent amount of time to budget.
Wandering the hutongs
From the Temple of Heaven we hopped back on the subway toward Nanluoguxiang, one of the must-see Beijing “hutongs”. Hutong literally means “alley”, but don’t let that conjure up visions of dark, unkempt alleyways of other cities. Many of Beijing’s are lined with shops, restaurants and trees and make for a perfect morning outing.
Nanluoguxiang did not disappoint. The kids and I strolled slowly along, perusing the shops that piqued our interest. The smell from the various food vendors was intoxicating. We finally broke down and bought a sweet snack. I really don’t know exactly what it was, but it was utterly delicious. I can best describe it as butter with a layer of butter and sugar on top, broiled just slightly to give it a bit of color. But it may have had other ingredients.
We spent maybe another half hour wandering in and out of some of the shops before exiting along one of the side hutongs. Even though Nanluoguxiang was not really crowded, it was a whole lot quieter off the main stretch. These other hutongs also allow a glimpse into the more everyday lives of the people who live here, as many of the low lying buildings were obviously dwellings.
Eventually the side hutong brought us to a narrow canal, which we followed back to the main road.
Lunch and the Grand Canal
Since we’d started our day early with breakfast at 6:30, lunch came early. It was barely after 11:00 when we are all thinking it was time for food. I thought the snack would help tide us over, but it basically just whet our appetite for more food. Once back to the main road, I spotted a place across the street that looked appealing enough. It’s really hard for me to tell what quality and price a restaurant is going to be, although the couple we’d been to already had been very affordable.
Another thing I worry about is whether the restaurant will have a picture or English menu. But my anxiety was baseless. Our experience at pretty much all the restaurants we ate at in Beijing was that they had something with photos that we could thumb through the make choices. They just may not have descriptions in English. We ordered noodles with chicken, some dumplings, and pumpkin soup. I tried to point the kids to a few other options, but they are far less adventurous than I am.
I think the total came to like $11. China is a land of cheap, delicious food. It’s one of those places that you can visit very inexpensively if you can work out the flights and hotel for free. Traveling alone, I probably could have budgeted $30 per day and been entirely content.
Stomachs filled, we headed down the street to the Jinding bridge by Qianhai Lake . This is supposedly the end of the Grand Canal, the oldest canal in the world of its size (it is UNESCO listed). It would be cool to see other parts of the canal, but we would have to head to a different area of Beijing (or outside) to get more of a taste of it. The main purpose of the canal was to link the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, allowing commerce to flow far more rapidly across 1,000 miles of China.
From there we wandered a few more hutongs, including the “skewed tobacco pouch street.” The section along the water would be a great place to spend an afternoon, although the southern end is under renovation. You can cross a bridge over to Houhai Bar Street where there are many bars, cafes and more shops. If wandering the hutongs of Beijing is up your alley (get it?), this whole section from Nanluoguxiang past Shichahai is the place to explore.
At many points we were accosted by rickshaw drivers who wanted to tour us around. If we weren’t on a schedule to fit in a couple more sights, I probably would have said yes.
Drum and Bell Towers
The Drum and Bell Towers were not specifically on the list of things to see, but since we were already in the area, I decided we should probably take a peek. These two towers at located on the central axis of the city, just like Forbidden City and the structure at the top of Jingshan Park. The Drum Tower is to the south while the Bell Tower sits to the north, across a small open square. You can get a nice view straight down the road to the south, which is also the central axis of Beijing.
The entrance fees for both are reasonable, as all entry fees have been during our time in China. It’s nice not being gouged as a foreign tourist. A combo ticket to see both towers is just 30 yuan (~$4.35), and I think kids were half price. I can’t recall every time, but that is generally the discount.
The towers piqued the kids’ interest, but it abruptly died when they saw the giant flight of stairs leading up to the top of the Drum Tower. My daughter asked why the didn’t install an elevator. Hadn’t quite invented those yet.
I, on the other hand, thought the stairs were awesome. If you’re afraid of heights, these would probably be intimidating. The rise to run ratio is also terrible, so it would be hard if you are of limited mobility. But if you make the climb, you are rewarded with some fantastic views. Here is Chaoyang in the distance, where we spent our first night and day.
The Drum Tower had drum performances several times a day, but our visit didn’t coincide with any. We could have hing around for 45 minutes to catch one, but the schedule didn’t have that wiggle room, as I still wanted to fit in the Summer Palace. On to the Bell Tower it was.
The towers are literally a couple hundred yards (or less) from each other, so it was a quick walk. The Bell Tower is smaller, but more impressive in some ways. The giant bell at the top is exquisite. It would be fun to ring with that large post.
From there we continued north at a fast pace. There was still time to have a couple hours at the Summer Palace.
Afternoon at the Summer Palace
Since we’d spent more time visiting the Drum and Bell Towers and wandering the hutongs than I’d anticipated, we didn’t make it to the Summer Palace until 2:30 p.m. With a suggested visit time of three hours, we would be pushing it a bit to see a lot of the historic Emperors’ escape of before it closed at 5:00. We would also be headed back to the hotel in the dark.
The ticket agent refused to sell us combo tickets, which included entry to some of the scenic areas within the Summer Palace. But it was for the best. The areas were closing anyway when we arrived. We at least get to walk most of the grounds. One of the first things that greets you is the palace itself, towering over you.
The grounds are huge. You could spend all day here. We climbed through the palace, enjoying winding our way along the rocky paths and then made our way down the other side to the lake. The bulk of the palace area is water, and the views of it and across is are lovely.
A visit in summer might be a whole lot more colorful. But it would just be too cliche to visit in summer. Gotta visit the Summer Palace in winter, I say!
We meandered along the water’s edge until we came to the bridge to Nanhu Island. The bridge is called “Seventeen Arch Bridge”. Talk about literal naming. It became part of my favorite selfie from the trip.
It was quite a walk from the east gate of the palace, much longer than I anticipated. The kids had had fun, but they were getting tired, and by this point we all just wanted to be back at the hotel.
The exhaustion sets in
This was still just day 2 of our adventures in Beijing, and the afternoon/evening jetlag was brutal. The fact we had walked miles didn’t help things at all. It was a stroke of good fortune that we scored seats on the metro leaving the Summer Palace, pretty much the only time this happened during our entire visit to Beijing. We had 11 stops to go before we transferred, and sitting for a while was welcomed.
One transfer later and we were walking back to our hotel. Most of the light had left the sky. The easiest course of action was to stop for dinner at the same restaurant we’d visited the night before (how I wish I’d known from the beginning that the hotel lounge served a full dinner spread). The kids could barely keep their eyes open and were pretty grumpy. Gotta keep things real, here.
Bed came early since we had an early wake up call. But it was for a good reason: we were going to visit the Great Wall!