A visit to Beijing can pay witness to what is happening across the whole of China within the scope of one city. In Beijing, hutongs and historical buildings are torn down to make way for apartment skyscrapers, office towers, and shopping malls, a common occurrence in Shanghai, Xi’an, and other cities and locations. This was notable during the city’s preparation for the 2008 Olympics, in an attempt to demonstrate the country’s modernisation. In China, the main reason to whether a historical site or place remains standing is whether or not it generates tourist revenue.
As a result, the sights that can be seen in Beijing are often renowned. The Forbidden Palace, located opposite Tienanmen Square, is one such example. As the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, its approximately 1000 buildings were used to accommodate emperors and their households for nearly five hundred years. Surrounded by a moat, half of it is dedicated to an outer court of large courtyards and exquisitely designed gates, the other half to a maze of buildings within an inner court. Within them, it’s easy to get lost for hours, peering into seemingly forgotten buildings in various states of repair.
One of the lesser-known best ways to view the Forbidden City is from the top of Jingshan Hill, just opposite the north exit. It’s a steep hill, insufferable to climb during the blistering summer months, with innumerable steps weaving between temple after temple from one side of the hill to the next. But at the top, the view over the Forbidden City – just enough to peek at the tops of the buildings without seeing the tourists within – allows you to imagine it in its historical days, with concubines in their dwellings, servants rushing around from house to house.
The Summer Palace, further from the centre of Beijing, is ideal for tourists and locals alike looking to momentarily escape the smog of the city. With over seven hundred acres of lakes, gardens and palaces, it is home to historical palaces and halls built over the past thousand years by various emperors. At the top of Longevity Hill, the presence musical performers and the soft bells of the Buddhist Temple bring forth a soothing, calm meditation feel to the park.
Of course, one place hugely protected by the government of Beijing is the Great Wall. Located just miles outside of the city, there are several sections of the wall that are most frequently visited. Badaling is the most popular section by far, easy to reach and fully restored but brimming with tourists. Mutianyu offers as many spectacular views as Badaling, if not more, with watch towers built into the walls that wind up the mountains. It also offers the very attractive possibility of a return toboggan ride back down to its base, for an extra £5 or so. Other parts of the wall, such as Jiankou, offer different perspectives of the wall, but sometimes in various states of disrepair.
This is the story throughout much of Beijing – the places with the most tourist attention are those that are afforded full renovation and restoration. Despite China’s rich historic background, it can therefore be difficult to find unique niches outside of the main tourist run. The battle between those who want to protect China’s heritage and those who urge it to be modernised has found no fruitful conclusion yet; it seems, therefore, that only the strong voice of tourist revenue is the steering oar towards conservation and preservation.