♥ Big Bell Temple (Dazhong Si)
31ABeisanhuan Xilu (daily ; ¥10; Dazhong Si subway or buses #302 & #367)
If you want to see the biggest bell in China this temple is certainly worth a visit on the way to or from the Summer Palace. The bell is almost 20 feet tall and weighs in at around 50 tons. There are nearly a quarter-million Buddhist scripture characters inscribed on its bronze exterior. The bell is only rung on New Year’s Eve and during Chinese New Year, but its gong can supposedly be heard up to 25 miles away.
♥ White Cloud Temple (Baiyun Guan)
6 Baiyunguan Jie, Xibianmenwai, Xuanwu (daily ; ¥10; bus #212 from Qianmen)
Originally built in 793, this temple is a center of Taoism in Beijing and offers a sneak peek at China’s only indigenous religion (given that Confucianism is a philosophy), a visit made all the more enjoyable by the fact it’s more popular with worshippers than tourists. Inside, you’ll see blue-clad pony-tailed Taoist monks and might even get to see them performing the art of qi gong (breath control) if you’re lucky.
The temple is a popular pilgrimage sight and it is thought to bring good luck if you find all three of the temple’s monkeys and rub their bellies! There are also Taoist monk physicians on hand who can give you the once over if you’re feeling poorly!
♥ The Old Summer Palace
(Daily ; ¥10 for the park, ¥15 for the ruins; bus #375 from Xizhimen subway)
A little east of its successor, the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) now lies in romantically crumbling
ruins and makes a great escape from the city. Transporting you halfway to ancient Rome, the European-style palace originally held some 200 buildings in its vast enclosure and was the imperial summer retreat until 1860. It was first constructed under Emperor Kangxi and was modeled on Versailles, but was destroyed and looted by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War.
The palace is centered on a large lake where you can hire boats, go fishing as the locals do, and in the winter you can ice-skate. Although the only sight as such is the few standing columns of the Hall of Tranquility, the palace grounds are wonderfully atmospheric and are a popular spot for a romantic sunset rendezvous.
♥ The Ancient Observatory
2 Dongbiaobei Hutong, southwest corner of Jianguomen Bridge (Tues-Sun ; ¥10; Jianguomen subway)
Understanding the skies was perceived as fundamental to maintaining power by the rulers of dynastic China lest they lose the Mandate of Heaven. To this end they invested much time and effort in trying to predict eclipses and comets, which were seen as omens of change.
The current observatory was established in 1442 and was initially guided by Muslim astrologers, reflecting the advanced state of Islamic science in the medieval world, until the arrival of the Jesuits in 1601, who took the reins until the early 19th century. The Jesuits sought to use their superior knowledge and equipment to impress the court, with the aim of eventually converting the emperor, and China, to Catholicism.
Under the guidance of a Belgian priest, Father Verbiest, the Chinese learned how to accurately predict eclipses and the astrological instruments you can see on the roof were mostly designed by Jesuits on the orders of Emperor Kangxi in 1674, although the large azimuth was a gift from Louis XIV.
Today, in true Beijing style, the ancient observatory, housed in a former watchtower, is dwarfed by the modern buildings that surround it. Special evening events are held here to observe cosmic events such as comets and eclipses but modern Beijing’s polluted skies means that it’s hardly the best place to enjoy a stellar spectacle.
Immediately south of the gate of the same name, Qianmen developed something of a seedy reputation during the imperial era as an area that offered all the vices lacking in the Forbidden City. Alongside the brothels and opium dens, plenty of respectable businesses also flourished in the hutong.
These days Qianmen still holds some its shady charm and is a great place for a wander, which will reveal century-old shops and teahouses alongside more modern businesses. However, this is all set to change with Qianmen’s redevelopment, which was being carried out at the time of writing.
The southern part of Qianmen around the Ox Street Mosque has long been home to Beijing’s Muslim population and the area retains its unique character.
♥ Ox Street Mosque
88 Niu Jie (daily ; ¥10; bus #6 from Tiantan)
Both the street and mosque take their name for the Muslim preference for beef over pork and this area offers a distinctly different feel from other old parts of the city. The mosque, which was built in 966, sits on the eastern side of Ox Street (Niu Jie) and initially appears little different from a traditional Chinese mansion. Indeed, the main entrance (which isn’t used these days) is faced by a distinctly Chinese spirit wall, designed to prevent ghosts from entering, and the color scheme is equally Chinese.
However, closer inspection reveals the mosque’s heritage, from the Arabic you’ll see inscribed on the walls to the more obvious bearded and white-capped Hui men who come to pray here. There are some 200,000 Hui in Beijing and the Ox Street Mosque is one of the focal points of Islamic life in the capital.
The mosque contains a MoonObservationTower used to determine the start of the fasting month of Ramadan and a prayer hall, but both of these are off-limits to non-Muslims so you’ll have to be satisfied with the tombs of its founder’s son and those of two Persian sheikhs who traveled here across the Silk Road.
If you plan to visit the mosque, you should dress conservatively (covered knees and shoulders) and avoid Friday prayer times, when you won’t be allowed in (unless you’re a Muslim). A trip here can be nicely rounded off with a meal at one of the halal restaurants that line Ox Street.
Getting to Beijing, Getting around Beijing
The Forbidden City
The Temple of Heaven
The Summer Palace
Tian’anmen Square and Hutong
Jingshan Park, Shichahai, & Tibetan Lama Temple
Around Beijing : The Ming Tombs
The Great Wall, Great Wall pictures
The Western Hills
Zhoukoudian & Peking Man Site
The Qing Tombs
Chengde , Bishu Shanzhuang
Shopping in Beijing
Beijing Opera, Shows, and Nightlife
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