Alternative Things To See and Do When You're Travelling in Beijing
Visiting Beijing on a university trip is pretty special, but it wouldn't have been half of what it was if we didn't join in with local culture while we were there. Here are some things to see and do when you're in Beijing to embrace the Chinese culture.
Dance at the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace felt like the coldest place on earth but our freezing fingers and toes were soon forgotten when we came across a group of local Chinese residents. Up on the hill, beneath the red and yellow pavilion, around 50 elderly people were gathered together singing and dancing while some were holding books full of musical notes and Chinese symbols. A couple tapped tambourines as a trumpet roared triumphantly in front of us. On our arrival, Chinese women grabbed our hands, pulling us deep into the crowd and encouraging us to join in.
Every morning locals gather at the same spot in the grounds of what used to be the summer residency for the Empress and sing together. It's a great way for the older generations to get together and enjoy a little bit of tradition and community spirit. When they saw us, they were more than excited and eager to get us involved, which made the day pretty special.
A shot of rice wine with your lunch
After a visit to the Great Wall we were all in high spirits and thought nothing of trying a shot of 56% rice wine with our lunch. Our faces as we swigged our shots were a picture! When you hear rice wine don't be fooled and think it's like a sip of Pinot Grigio. Think more vodka, and then a bit stronger, and you might be close. Unlike ordinary wine, it is not made from fruit but it is from a fermented grain (rice). It is often used to accompany a meal or to have with a dessert; a great lunchtime bevvy!
Games at the Temple of Heaven
It was refreshing to see local people playing games together in the park area around the Temple of Heaven. They play Hacky Sack with people they don't necessarily know; they'll play and then chat afterwards. It's a great way to meet people and warm up on a cold morning. Other people were dancing; a couple of my group joined them but we didn't want to ruin the Hacky Sack momentum as it looked pretty tricky!
Further down through the park a group of men were writing Chinese calligraphy in water on the ground. They do this to express their thoughts and opinions without it leaving a trace. We approached one gentleman and asked him to write one of our names and he wrote for my friend: ‘Little Girl Amy.' In the early morning you'll find people practicing Tai Chi too.
Sharing your meals
In Chinese tradition it's customary to share meals. Unlike a typical Western meal where you'd order separate meals for yourselves, in China you take from roughly six or seven dishes in the middle of the table.
One of the six restaurants we visited specialised in dumplings, a Chinese speciality since the Sung Dynasty. Dumplings can be filled with pretty much anything sweet or savoury and can be cooked in a number of different ways. It was fun guessing what was inside them; I'm not quite sure that any of us really knew but we gave them a go!
Eating dumplings with chopsticks was quite a challenge. It goes without saying that in China it's polite for visitors to give chopsticks a try. In most restaurants however, a waiter isn't too far away with a fork for when you start to make a mess and embarrass yourself. I'd like to think my chopstick skills had improved by the end of the week, although some may disagree.
Wish at the Temple of Heaven
At the Temple of Heaven there is a raised circular area known as the Circular Mound. Inside the circle symbolises heaven while the circular white marble platforms leading down symbolise earth. It's believed that if you stand in the middle and wish for something it would come true. If it does, you're expected to return here to give thanks. Of course we took it in turns to run into the middle and have our picture taken making our wishes. At least if it does come true, there's a reason to go back, though I'm not sure I really need one...
If you're interested in Beijing and China then make sure you head over to our China country section for more advice, information and inspiration.
Also, make sure you read Gemma Knight's Top 5 Things to do in Shanghai for info on another Chinese metropolis.
And finally, jump on the message boards and speak to some other travellers going to China!