Machine guns, Mao, and the Great Wall: Three Days in Beijing

When it comes to traveling to North Korea, most, if not all, roads lead to Beijing. The majority of flights to Pyongyang leave out of Beijing, and it is likely that your tour operator will require you to attend an orientation briefing the day prior to departure. Since I had never been to China prior to this trip, I added a few extra days in Beijing to the itinerary and basically had three full days to do some sightseeing. Granted, this was nowhere near enough time to even scratch the surface of Beijing, but it was all I could do with my limited vacation time.

My flight landed a little after 10:30 on a Saturday morning. We arrived at Terminal 3, which was built to handle increased air traffic for the 2008 Olympics. It was a beautiful and impressive terminal, especially compared to the one we had departed from in Newark. Not so impressive, however, was the smog that was so thick it obscured the hangars located just across the tarmac. I remember hearing a lot about the pollution in Beijing during the run up to the 2008 Olympics, but I never imagined it would be this bad.

Passport control was severely understaffed when we arrived; the majority of booths were left empty while long lines formed. A few minutes later, a platoon of immigration officers marched in – literally marched in – and went to their assigned booths. They were all wearing surgical masks – the major health concern at the time was H1N1, and because of this we had to fill out extra paperwork about possible symptoms as well as pass through a thermal body scanner that measured our temperature. The passport and visa check was quick and painless, and I was amused to see that each booth was outfitted with a small box containing four buttons ranging from a sad face to a very happy face. It was a rating device – you were supposed to push the button that best expressed your satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the service you received from the passport control officer. I was astounded by this. They felt so out of place. Could you imagine the US government installing these at passport control booths in US airports?

After waiting about an hour for my luggage and catching a taxi into the city center, I checked into my hotel and promptly fell asleep (because I can’t sleep on airplanes) even though it was 4pm. I woke up a few hours later in a complete daze, and wandered around the neighborhood. All I really remember was going to a grocery store, buying some pastry and Coke, and then falling back asleep.

I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in central Beijing, just a 15-20 minute walk to Tienanmen Square. This was a bit unusual for me, as I am used to staying at cheap hotels, but I received an excellent “friends & family” rate from a friend who worked for Marriott, so it was hard to pass up.

The China North International Shooting Range & the Great Wall

I didn’t really do that much planning for my short time in Beijing. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to see. Obviously, Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc etc. I also wanted to visit the Great Wall, but didn’t really care to see the Ming Tombs or Summer Palace, sights that are typically packaged with a guided tour of the Great Wall. So I opted to do something a bit more unusual – visit a shooting range. So I spent my first morning in Beijing sampling the firearms of the People’s Liberation Army (which I wrote about in detail here) followed by a hike up the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall (detailed here).

Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
My next day in Beijing was dedicated solely to Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City. In order to enter Tiananmen Square I first had to pass through a security checkpoint where you walk through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed, in case you happen to be carrying weapons or, more than likely, anti-government signs or materials.

After successfully passing the checkpoint (I had left all my weapons at home, thankfully) I entered the southern end of Tiananmen Square near the Zhengyangmen Gate.

The square itself is massive. Measuring 880m by 500m, it is the third largest square in the world. Moscow’s Red Square, at 330m by 70m, seems tiny by comparison. Tiananmen is also the location of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (more on that later).

Socialist realism statues in front of the mausoleum

Since Tiananmen Square has been the site of important, and sometimes bloody, demonstrations, the authorities continue to keep a watchful eye on any activities taking place there (exhibit any political activity and you will be quickly whisked away). You can find large lampposts with these cameras all over Tiananmen Square (these particular cameras are situated near the mausoleum) along with numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers.

Monument to the People’s Heroes erected to honor those who died for the revolutionary cause.

Tiananmen Gate

Chinese flag with honor guard.

Heading to the Forbidden City

View from the Tienanmen Gate

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City served as the home of the Chinese Imperial family from the Ming Dyanasty to the end of the Qing Dyansty (roughly 1420-1912). The place is massive, consisting of 980 buildings (and those are the ones that survived through the destruction that accompanies occupation and revolution).

The dragon turtle sculpture

The thick surrounding walls

After wandering around Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, I headed over to the Wangfujing Snack Street. There is a wide variety of street food for sale here, including scorpions and starfish on a stick.

I am willing to try a lot of different foods when I travel, but poisonous insects on sticks were just a bit too much for me. Instead I opted for a snack of noodles and veggies wrapped in a moo shoo pancake (like a Chinese burrito) and for dessert, green tea ice cream.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

At the top of my “to do” list was paying a visit to Mao Zedong’s embalmed corpse. You see, since visiting Lenin in 2002 I have made it my goal to see all of the embalmed communist leaders who are still on display (Lenin, Kim Il-Sung, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh). And yes, I realize that is ridiculously weird. Anyways, this trip to China and North Korea presented me with an opportunity to cross two off of my list (only Ho Chi Minh remains!) so on my last day in Beijing, I was up early and headed straight to the mausoleum. As expected, the line was long, but moved at a good pace. I neglected to bring my passport, however, which was apparently required for entry, and was wearing flip-flops, which was also frowned upon, according to one of the posted signs. When I finally arrived to the security checkpoint, this apparently didn’t matter much, because the guards let me through. Most visitors were Chinese citizens; in fact, I seemed to be the only Westerner there. Upon entering the mausoleum I encountered a huge pile of flowers, which was growing substantially. I was one of the few visitors who had failed to purchase flowers to honor the Chairman. We moved on to the actual room that displays Mao’s body, which was draped in a red hammer and sickle flag and enclosed in a glass coffin. You don’t have much time to gawk, as the guards move you along quickly into the next room, which, I kid you not, was lined with souvenir stands selling a variety of Mao memorabilia. It reminded me of Disneyland, when you are forced to exit through the gift shop after finishing a ride. I bought a kitschy ornament with Mao portrait that you are supposed to hang from your rearview mirror, like a Beijing taxi driver.

The Temple of Heaven
My last stop on my sightseeing itinerary was the Temple of Heaven. Built in the early 1400s, Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties came to this Taoist temple to pray for good harvests.

My embarrassing last meal
I am not proud to admit this, but for my last meal in Beijing I had a Marriott Burger delivered via room service. I know, I know, I should have gone out for Peking Duck or hot pot, but after five days of North Korean food, and several days of Chinese food, I was craving American food like crazy. So here it is, my burger and waffle fries, which I devoured quickly and washed down with a Chinese beer:

Goodbye, Beijing!
Overall, I was rather overwhelmed by Beijing. There was so much to see, and too little time to see it. I would love to go back to China someday and explore more of the country.

The rest of the photos are here.