Deep in the heart of Beijing's sprawling metropolis, JAMES WOOKEY shares his favourite places to escape the crowds.
There’s a Chinese saying that roughly translates as “to see something once is better than to hear of it one hundred times” (bǎi wén bùrú yī jiàn). When you’ve heard of the possibilities on offer in Beijing well over one hundred times, it makes sense to come and see first-hand whether the reality lives up to the hype. And it does - Beijing is truly an exciting place to be.
However, the reality is also that, at more than 21 million inhabitants, Beijing’s population is almost equal to Australia’s entire population. This makes the city a frenetic place to be. And as more people from across China and all over the world are drawn to Beijing, it’s not getting any quieter. The streets and parks and restaurants and tourist attractions just get all the more crowded.
When you’re craving some time-out, the good news is that it’s easy to escape the crowds. Here are my current favourite places to get away from it all for a few hours.
Jingshan Park (Jǐngshān Gōngyuán)
When they dug the moat around the Forbidden City, they piled up all the soil to make what is now Jingshan Park. The 45m high artificial hill is directly north of the Forbidden City, and offers unparalleled views over central Beijing. Whilst at any given time there will be a steady stream of tourists traipsing up to the top of the hill after leaving the Forbidden City, the rest of the park is largely a tourist-free zone. Thanks to the winding paths and abundance of trees, you can leave the traffic behind and have nothing but the birds and leaves for company. The best part? It’s right in the centre of Beijing.
The Foreign Legation Quarter (Dōng Jiāo Mín Xiàng)
Southeast of the Forbidden City, just a stone’s throw from the throngs of tourists at Tiananmen Square, lies the Foreign Legation Quarter. In the 19th century this small grid of streets was home to Beijing’s foreign population, and their embassies, post offices, churches and banks still stand. In spite of its central location the streets are dead-quiet, and you can stroll down the leafy streets in almost complete peace and quiet. The variety of European architecture is worth the detour alone, as are the old French-language street signs - a small piece of the Peking of days gone by.
Fragrant Hills Park (Xiāngshān Gōngyuán)
At the western edge of Beijing, the Fragrant Hills Park is a world apart. The crisp, clean air makes it very popular with locals, but it’s surprisingly easy to leave the crowds behind. You can hike for hours past the ruins of imperial villas and temples, and not encounter another soul. And best of all, on a clear day you can see all of Beijing laid out right before you.