Beijing - Great Wall at Badaling

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Where: Northwest of central Beijing for about 45 - 75 minutes, depending on traffic. You can’t miss it.

When: June 2007

When Beijing decided in the late 1970s that they were going to open the country up to the West, someone very smart must have made the point at a regional governors’ meeting: the Great Wall would be one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, but it was in sorry shape and would cause China to lose face if put on stage without repairs (and restrooms.)

So they got to work, plotting out the places where the Wall would be most easily reached by tourists and prioritizing the spots for rebuilding where traffic would concentrate first. That first point was Badaling, a key mountain pass for the main highway and railroad running northwest from the capital to Inner Mongolia. 

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Now, all the bricks you see are new; the Wall itself was rebuilt for only about a half-mile to the east of the tourist gate and a mile to the west. The resorts on either side, shopping streets, concert venue, ziplines and gondola cable cars weren’t there in ancient times. Heck, they weren’t there in the 1970s, either.

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But it doesn’t matter, because the sight once you get up on the Wall is so amazing. There’s nothing else that compare to actually standing in a place to understand why earlier generations made their choices and how they fought their battles. 

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I’d say though that the crowd on the Wall is even more significant than the bricks and towers. Because that consultant in the 1970s was only half-right: yes, regardless of international politics, people from all over the world do want to come see it – but even moreso, the Chinese middle class which didn’t even exist at that point would grow to have the desire and income to come, too.

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Those hotels and resorts in the surrounding valleys aren’t for Westerners, and the shops aren’t particularly trying to get your dollars. It’s mass tourism for and by Chinese – the hundreds of parked buses on the access road and army of families walking for miles from the far-remote parking lots that you passed in your bus are the proof. They scrimped and saved, and are glad to participate in the capitalist hustle ahead, because they want to see for themselves. Tens and tens and tens of millions every year.

That’s got to mean something for the future of China.

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How to get there

High-speed and metro services are going to eventually reach the Badaling site, but realistically you’ll want to join an organized tour leaving from your hotel or one nearby. The bus ride is about an hour each way in light traffic, but the expressways can clog up unexpectedly at any time… and parking for the buses can be challenging at times. Here’s where a travel agent is a true value to you if you want everything booked before your departure – otherwise talk to the concierge at your hotel.

Nearby accommodation and activities

As a Western tourist, you would not be staying in or around Badaling, but rather at a hotel somewhere in central Beijing. Improving transit options make the central city’s key features accessible: the Temple of Heaven and Qianmen neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square; the Forbidden City at Beijing’s heart, of course; Jingshan Park and Houhai Lake and the hutong district to the northwest; the Summer Palace and Olympic Park further out.

The Wangfujing district just east of the Forbidden City is a family-friendly hub for hotels, shopping, dining, and nighttime entertainment. Respected hotel chains are represented there with:

  • Crowne Plaza Beijing Wangfujing
  • Novotel Peace Beijing Hotel
  • Park Plaza Wangfujing Hotel
  • The Peninsula Beijing (a chain usually priced out-of-reach for families, but rather reasonable rates at this location)
  • Lee Garden Service Apartment
  • NUO Hotel Beijing
  • Novotel Beijing Xinqiao

Other links

Impressions of… Beijing Hutong School

Impressions of… Beijing Forbidden City

What Your Kids Should Eat in Beijing

Our Beijing folder on Pinterest

Beijing - Hutong School

Where: Beijing Liuyinjie Elementary School, just southwest of Houhai Lake in the Changqiao Residential District, about 2 kilometers northwest of the Forbidden City in central Beijing.

When: June 2007

During our adoption trip, we first stopped in Beijing for several days to get used to the time zone and meet up with the other families in our cohort. We had the opportunity to take a pedicab tour of the hutongs on the north side of downtown. The neighborhood is a living museum of the city – not just families live and work there but also offices, shops, restaurants, parks, and government functions are interspersed.

Our tour guides were able to take us to the Liuyinjie Elementary School to walk around the grounds and observe classes in session – this school has cultivated relationships with American teaching institutions and regularly participates in cross-cultural exchanges, so no one, least of all the children, was surprised to see Westerners on site.

Our visit also coincided with the pre-2008 Olympics preparations, so the school had recently had a facelift with fresh paint and signage ready to be shown to outsiders.

My wife is a middle-school teacher, and I’ve worked in the education market from the publishing side for decades, so this stop was of particular interest to us. We knew this was a “model school” and intentionally staged in the best light to present to foreigners, so during class time we hung back and kept a low profile (unlike most of our fellow travelers) so that we could be unobtrusive and watch the students’ and teachers’ behavior as discreetly as we could, given the circumstances and our menial understanding of Mandarin.

And what did we notice?

Kids being kids: some were engaged with the lesson, and others goofing off or lost in their own thoughts. The students in red scarves, being marked as future Party elites.  Teachers making do with the materials they had: expensive projection systems hanging unused from the ceiling and the latest version of Windows on their computer, but still delivering lessons with chalkboards, worksheets, and lectures. Peeling paint and uninsulated concrete walls inside the classroom, but adorned with bulletin board set cutouts and cheerful messages.

Halfway around the world, not being able to speak the language or even find our way back to the hotel, and knowing that in just a few days we would become parents, our minds were on the brink of panic. Yet standing in this remarkably familiar place and experiencing our common humanity helped us tremendously.

Click above to open in Google Maps

Click above to open in Google Maps

How to get there

The Shichahai station off Subway Line 8 serves the heart of the Drum and Bell Tower / Qianhai Lake / Houhai Lake area. It’s one stop south of the Gulou Street station off Line 2, and one stop north of the South Luogu Alley station on Line 6. Line 8 also connects farther north with Line 10 at Beitucheng, and Line 15 at Olympic Park.

Nearby accommodation and activities

Of course, the school itself isn’t open for casual tourism, but the parkland around the lakes is quite pleasant for a family outing, with playgrounds and exercise equipment sprinkled throughout, pedal boats to rent, and numerous shops and cafes to visit during the day. The Drum and Bell Tower is also open to climb, and gives a good view of the northern side of the inner-ring of the city. At night, this is Beijing’s nightlife capital… and maybe not so much a place to take the kids…

Image by  sama093  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by sama093 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Just south of the Hutong district, and walkable on a clear warm day, is the dramatic hilltop Jinghsan Park, overlooking the Forbidden City.

Just west of the Second Ring Road are the Beijing Zoo and Beijing Aquarium.

Image by  Edward and Caroline  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by Edward and Caroline via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Subway Line 8 was built to connect downtown to the 2008 Olympics campus, and today the former Olympic Village encompasses extensive parkland and the China Science and Technology Museum, and the Olympic Park subway station is next to the InterContinental Beijing Beichen.

Line 2 follows the Second Ring Road, and international-standard hotels ready for family travelers along that line would include:

Crowne Plaza Beijing Chaoyang U-Town, by the Chaoyangmen station (this station also serves Line 6)

Swissotel Beijing Hong Kong Macau Center, next to the Dongsishitiao station

New Otani Chang Fu Gong, and Beijing Marriott City Wall Hotel, next to the Jianguomen station

Other links

Our Beijing folder on Pinterest

 

Beijing - Forbidden City

Where: according to the Emperors, the center of the world and the gateway to heaven.  By GPS, the middle of Beijing.

When: June 2007

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As an American, the thing about visiting historic sites in China is the split sense of historic time you perceive.

The building sites are literally older than our country; we have no family lineage or cultural institutions of our own that can compare. There was urban sophistication, advanced manufacturing, and military strategy underway here a thousand years before the Europeans could figure out how to make a useful roadway.

But at the same moment, you also realize the Chinese state (until the last two generations) has not cared much about historic preservation; not until tourism actually became big business. So many places you’ll visit are elaborate reproductions or re-builds of things that had faded away or become foundation bricks for something else. (At Badaling, you aren’t actually standing on stones hundreds of years old… maybe 40 years, tops?)

Walking through the Forbidden City magnifies this dual perception. Yes this is where the emperors lived; yes these are real palace treasures. No they didn’t have a café in the middle of the complex, nor did they have a gift shop strategically placed before the northern exit.

You may see construction crews at work during your visit. How old are those roof tiles, dragons, and pavers, anyway? Are the painted ceilings careful restorations like in Rome, or is that a fresh coat of Sherwin-Williams?

Battles have been fought inside these walls after all, and the Red Guards undoubtedly did massive damage in the 1960s-70s. So what is *real* and what is invented?

I don’t know. They’re not going to tell you. Does it really matter?

This is where the history happened. Things changed and continue to change. Your appreciation of the place, in the end, depends on acknowledging the duality of time and taking the scene as it comes. Appreciate the story being presented, even if all the props on stage aren’t 100% authentic.

How to get there

Frankly, you can’t miss the place. All roads lead here, or something like that. And if you’re part of an organized tour, you will be coming through.

If you’re traveling on your own, the Beijing Subway is your best bet: Line 1, Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West stations.

Nearby accommodation and activities

There’s no shortage of things to do in the nation’s capital: the Temple of Heaven and Qianmen neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square;  Jingshan Park and Houhai Lake and the hutong district to the northwest; the Summer Palace and Olympic Park further out; and of course the Great Wall at several locations to the north.

The Wangfujing district just east of the Forbidden City is a family-friendly hub for hotels, shopping, dining, and nighttime entertainment. Respected hotel chains are represented there with:

Crowne Plaza Beijing Wangfujing

Novotel Peace Beijing Hotel

Park Plaza Wangfujing Hotel

The Peninsula Beijing (a chain usually priced out-of-reach for families, but rather reasonable rates at this location)

Lee Garden Service Apartment

NUO Hotel Beijing

Novotel Beijing Xinqiao