Beijing is by far China’s most popular tourist destination, but, in my opinion, it isn’t very representative of the others. People flock to Beijing because it is the capital, the center of government, and the closest point for easily visiting the Great Wall of China, the most iconic tourist site in China, and, without doubt, a wonder.
Beijing has blossomed in recent years with construction cranes in constant motion building the necessary offices and apartments to house the increasingly large number of people arriving for the opportunities that Beijing offers.
Still, unlike Washington, D.C., the presence of police is minimal, except in sensitive government sites. The city feels free from the authoritarian government that keeps it under tight control. Every corner of the city is under electronic surveillance. It is impossible for all the cameras to be monitored. But if a need arises, the video footage can be reviewed to track anyone’s current and historical whereabouts.
When entering the country, each tourist’s face is put into the national databank for facial recognition, the best in the world. So, as you tour around, remember, you can be traced.
Beneath the veneer of civility, the police have the right to ask anything of you. The Bill of Rights do not apply in China. People can be and are taken to jail without a phone call, a lawyer, or explanation. So, keep the number of the American Embassy handy just in case the facial recognition software tags you.
Besides the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square is the next most-visited site in China. You really cannot avoid it as major Beijing streets pass it. At night it is nicely illuminated, but by day there are many crowds. Expect lines, unless you are with a tour group. Tour groups get priority with special entrance to the grounds and the ability to skip the lines.
I didn’t visit Mao’s tomb on Tiananmen Square, but the line to gain entrance there is unavoidable, even for tour groups. The Chinese now recognize that Mao made many mistakes in his leadership, but they still revere him and want to pass by his body on display. Do dead politicians always look better in hindsight?
The history of Tiananmen Square is one which isn’t speakable in China. Most Chinese today don’t know the history in 1989 when some 10,000 Chinese students in a pro-democracy protest were massacred by police. The Chinese washed all information about this from the Internet. Those Chinese that do know the history, from studying abroad, for example, do not discuss it for fear of being jailed. So, unless you have a particularly close relationship, and a very secluded place for conversation, you have to learn it on your own, preferably before you go.
The main sights of Beijing include the Forbidden City, next to Tiananmen Square. The Emperor’s exclusive playground during his rule covers a huge area, including gardens, palaces, and museums. Walking is the only way to see it. There are many steps. Everyone I know who visited it was exhausted afterward. So, plan accordingly. Don’t plan to see it and something else in the same day. Plan something where you can sit, such as sampling the favorite local food, Peking Duck.
Another two must-see sights are the Buddhist Temple of Heaven and the Emperor’s Summer Palace, both very beautiful places, except for the throngs of people visiting with you, par for the course in China.
Hundreds of fellow tourists—mostly Chinese—make getting around difficult. A tour is a good way to maximize efficiency in seeing as many sites as possible if you have limited time. Otherwise, to get from one tourist site to another, a taxi is the preferred means of transport, requiring you to have someone translate your destination to the driver, as few people speak English. And given the Chinese tight control over the Internet, don’t count on your cell phone translation apps to work if connectivity is required.