Today’s guest post is by Author Melissa Addey! She recently came to China on a research trip for her next novel, and she was gracious enough to share some highlights from her trip and some tips for your own trip to Beijing!
I recently made a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated research trip to Beijing. It was in part for my Creative Writing PhD and in part for the historical novels I write set in the Forbidden City of the 1700s. These are the things I found out about being a tourist in Beijing that really made the trip the most fun – for me and for my family: husband and two small children aged 2.5 and 5.5.
Get up early! My first day of sight-seeing was a massive disappointment as we visited the Yuan Ming Yuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness). It’s an exquisite, huge park full of lakes and tiny waterways that used to be the summer home of the imperial family. It opens at 7am but we got there in a leisurely way about 10am, by which time it was already chock-a-block with tourists. It was hard to move around (the walkways are often very narrow), impossible to take scenic photos and quite tricky to experience the ‘atmosphere’ of the 1700s I’d come in search of! I got stroppy and disappointed and worried that the trip would be a disaster from the point of view of my research. I learnt from this. I started rousing the family at 5.30am and getting us to locations by 7am. It was a transformation. We had beautiful locations almost to ourselves and it stayed peaceful for a few hours. When it started to get crowded we frequently hopped onto a little pleasure boat if we were near a lake and escaped the crowds while the kids had fun steering (with us grabbing the wheel to avoid accidents!). It was magical. Then we’d retreat for lunch and a little nap or rest to make up for the early start.
Eat local! Looking back, the best food we had came from the tiniest street stalls. We experimented with dough sticks and dumplings for breakfast and they were not only delicious but extremely cheap by London standards: you could feed a family of four for less than £2. I found a tiny store near us that made noodles and little breads, some of them stuffed with greens, which swiftly became my favourites for lunchtimes, along with made to order crunchy savoury pancakes at stalls all over the city. We ate in a few fancy restaurants because we wanted to try out specialties like food the imperial household would have eaten or Peking Duck (well it would be rude not to), but mostly we ate simple and local and it was delicious. We rented a spacious Air BnB apartment for about the same money as one hotel room and it made us feel like we had a little neighborhood of our own to explore.
Don’t just gawp at it, get inside it. A popular tourist activity is supposed to be getting a rickshaw to drive you through the hutongs (old and tiny original streets with original housing, some built around courtyards: there aren’t many left) but I found the drivers a bit pushy and the whole notion a bit ‘gawping at the locals’. Instead we walked through quite a few on our way to other locations as well as booking a noodle and dumpling making class in what was originally a home within a hutong and had a fantastic time, fully converting my usually picky son to dumplings. You can also stay in a hutong.
Avoid the obvious. The Forbidden City receives an average of 40,000 visitors a day. This blew my mind. Of course we went, it’s one of my key locations, but instead of walking down the central axis (where all the tour groups go and you could barely move), we meandered off to the sides of this vast location and found ourselves almost alone on occasions, or with a perfectly manageable 20-50 people around rather than literally thousands. Result: I soaked up the 1700s atmosphere and could poke around the areas where the imperial family actually lived, my husband got about a million gorgeous photos, the kids got to pet stray cats and run around safely without getting lost. Also, if you’re visiting, go nice and early and visit the Workers’ Cultural Palace park, located just before you get to the Forbidden City. It’s an unprepossessing name but it was actually originally a temple complex and is filled with beautiful buildings (which everyone back home mistook for the Forbidden City as the architecture is exactly the same style), lovely gardens and hardly anyone around except some older people doing their Tai Chi and sword practice.
Embrace the kids’ stuff. If you have kids, Beijing is very child-friendly and I have to say everyone we met was super-kind as well as very affectionate to our two little ones. Two of our most fun activities were the kids painting ‘longevity’ peaches made of clay in a tiny pottery shop using red gold and green paints on offer for less than £1 to take their masterpieces home and the return trip from seeing the Great Wall: on a toboggan! I’m not kidding. It’s a giant slide to get you back down the mountain, you sit on a little toboggan which thankfully has brakes and zoom down, with mountain goats barely a yard away ignoring you as you zip past them. Authentic and cultured? No. Loads and loads of fun? Absolutely.
Buy something different as a souvenir. I’ll be honest, the souvenirs I saw were in the main pretty awful, made of poor quality materials and not very desirable. The things we did find to bring home which we loved were the hand-painted tourist maps for key locations that are beautiful enough to frame, the shards from broken Qing pottery turned into jewellery by The Shard Box store and the incense bought from little shops near any of the main temples. Friends and family back home also liked the tea and sweets we brought home: probably run-of-the-mill to locals but their different tastes and packaging made them fun and easy to transport as small gifts. Oh and yes: we did succumb to dressing-up fever and get done up as the imperial family and have our photos taken on lavishly golden sets. Too irresistible.
The trip was an eye-opener for us: having not been away long-haul since our children were born, we realised they are now a good age for starting more interesting adventures again. We did have to pack ludicrous amounts of entertainment and snacks in our carry-on luggage to get through the flights. But Beijing was definitely worth it.
Melissa Addey writes historical fiction set in China and Morocco and is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. She has two small children and lives in London.
If you’d like to try The Consorts, a historical novella set in the Forbidden City and the Yuan Ming Yuan you can get it for free at www.melissaaddey.com/free.