Best Side Trips - Fodor's Beijing (Full-color Travel Guide) (2015)

Fodor's Beijing (Full-color Travel Guide) (2015)

Best Side Trips

Main Table of Contents

Welcome to Rural China

The Great Wall

Thirteen Ming Tombs (Míng Shísānlíng)

The Western Temples

Eastern Qing Tombs (Qīngdōnglíng)


Welcome to Rural China

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Top Reasons to Go | Getting Oriented | What’s Where | Planning

Updated by Yuan Ren

The wonders of Beijing aren’t confined to the city center. Venturing into the outskirts and beyond, you’ll discover a wealth of sights that provide a further look at imperial might, offer natural delights and some refreshing relief from city crowds, and even deliver a whiff of adventure.

Of course, the Great Wall is a good starting point for any exploration, and while it isn’t (as the old propagandist myth goes) visible to the naked eye from space, it’s nonetheless an awesome sight. It might have failed to prevent the Manchus from invading, but few more soaring testimonies to human endeavor are more visually rewarding. You needn’t stop there, though. Imperial tombs and Buddhist temples also surround the capital, with remarkable mausoleum complexes to the east near Changping and the west at Zunhua and a satisfying swath of temples in the western suburbs. A bit farther afield, a half day’s travel by train brings you to Chengde, where emperors left behind lavish summer pavilions, pagodas, and gardens. Beijing might be one of the most intriguing cities on earth, and you’ll soon discover the fascination extends well beyond the city limits.

Side Trips from Beijing

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Walk on the Wall: Postcard views of large sections of the restored wall rise majestically around you. The sheer scope of this ancient project boggles the mind.

Add Ming to the Mix: It’s easy to arrange a tour or your own transportation to the Great Wall and the Thirteen Ming Tombs—especially if you go to the Badaling section of the wall.

Have an Adventure: Traveling through rural China, even for a day trip, is always something of an adventure. Endless greenery peppered with ramshackle villages and roadside fruit stalls ensure that short stops along the way are a must rather than an inconvenience.

Meet the Locals: People in rural China can be extremely kind, inviting you to their homes for tea, a meal. If you accept an invite, a small gift is always appreciated.


With the exception of Chengde, the best side trips from Beijing, including the Great Wall, can be visited on a day trip. It’s easy to get out of Beijing by taxi, even to sites as far away as farther-flung sections of the Great Wall and the Qing Tombs in Zunhua (126 km [78 miles] northeast). Train travel is an option for some side trips; organized bus tours are especially convenient as they take care of the details. Chengde, a 4-hour train ride from Beijing, needs more than a day.


The Great Wall. The longest man-made structure on Earth is one of the country’s most accessible and cosmopolitan attractions. On any given day you’ll find hikers, hawkers, and sightseers at various points along this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thirteen Ming Tombs. The grandeur of the final resting place for 13 Ming Dynasty emperors gives you an idea of the importance of ancestor worship in ancient China.

The Western Temples. Li Tong, a favorite eunuch in Emperor Zhengtong’s court, built Fahai; its frescos are considered some of the finest examples of Buddhist mural art from the Ming Dynasty. Jietai, China’s most ancient Buddhist site, is located just west of Beijing. Don’t miss the 14,278 delicately carved Buddhist tablets at Yunju.

The Eastern Qing Tombs. This mausoleum complex was modeled after the Thirteen Ming Tombs in Changping, but the tombs are even more extravagant and much less touristy.

Chengde. Originally an imperial summer retreat, this town’s magnificent temples, palaces, and deer-filled parks now attract weekenders hunting for culture.



Taxi Travel

Taxis, which in Beijing are both plentiful and reasonably priced, are a good way to get to sights outside the city. Set a price beforehand; the metered fare can add up quickly (generally, rides start at Y13 for the first 3 km (2 miles), with an additional Y2.3 for each additional km and another Y2 per every five minutes of waiting time during rush-hour (Y1 otherwise). Also make sure that this covers the return journey, or face the prospect of haggling with illegal cab drivers on the way back—and they will fleece you! At the time of writing, a Y1 fuel surcharge is added for all trips. A small surcharge is also added between 11 pm and 5 am. Private-car services are available, and even if they aren’t always cheap, they’re in most cases worth the investment for the comfort, reliability, and ease of dealing with English-speaking operators and drivers.

Beijing Limo.
A variety of cars and buses, complete with English-speaking drivers, are available. Prices range from Y900 for four hours of rental within the city to Y1,500 for trips farther out into the countryside. | 010/6546-1588 | | Mon.-Sun. 9-8.

Train Travel

Some day-trip-worthy sites, such as Yesanpo, Tianjin, Beidaihe, and Shanhaiguan, are accessible by train. Plan to get to the station at least 30 minutes before your train leaves, as stations are huge and often confusing for visitors (as well as being crowded). It’s easy to buy train tickets once there, but these sell out fast on peak dates, so if you’re on a tight schedule and can’t afford a delay, buy a ticket beforehand.

If you decided to take the train to Chengde, most hotels will help you buy tickets up to four days in advance for a fee (typically Y5 to Y15 per ticket). There are also small train-ticket windows scattered around the city: look for the China Railways logo and make sure to bring your passport.


It’ll take you several days to see all the sights outside of Beijing, and visits to the various sites require separate, often day-long excursions. If you only have time to see one site, you’ll want to go to the Great Wall; if you go the section at Badaling, you can also work the nearby 13 Ming Tombs into one outing. If you want to treat yourself to seeing several sites in one outing, and get an eye full of temples, head west, where you can make stops at the Fahai Temple, about an hour’s drive from the center, as well as the tomb of Tian Yu, and the Jietai and then the Tanzhe Temples, all in one day if you’re touring by car. Another rewarding day’s outing takes you east to Zunhua, and the elaborate Qing Tombs complex. Wear walking shoes and bring a lunch to enjoy the surrounding countryside.

If you have time and inclination to go farther afield, consider a four-hour train trip and an overnight in Chengde, where in the 18th century Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi established a summer retreat of temples, gardens, and monasteries. If you’re looking for a little summertime relaxation, take a day and a night (or, for real relaxation, two days) at Beidaihe, to bask on the beach, chow down on seafood, or see where the Great Wall meets the sea at Shanghaiguan.


The weather in Beijing and neighboring areas is notoriously fickle, so make sure you dress appropriately. In the summer it’s hot; travel with sunglasses, sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat. It gets terribly cold in the winter, so dress in layers and pack gloves, a hat, and a scarf. And if you plan to do any hiking, make sure to bring sturdy, comfortable shoes.

Also, checking the weather forecast before an excursion is always a good idea for last-minute wardrobe changes. TIP Don’t carry too much cash or expensive jewelry. Other things to bring along? A camera, a change of clothes if you’re staying overnight, and your common sense.

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The Great Wall

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60-120 km (37-74 miles) north and west of Beijing.

Any visitor to Beijing should aside at least a day to visit one of the incredible sections of the Great Wall, just outside the city. Badaling is the closest to Beijing, just about an hour from the city center. The farther you get from Beijing, the more rugged the terrain, so you’ll add the excitement of seeing the wall tumbling across the countryside.

Getting Here and Around

The easiest and most comfortable way to visit the wall is by private car. Though taxis are occasionally willing to make the trip to more accessible sections like Badaling and Mutianyu, most hotels can arrange a four-passenger car and an English-speaking driver for eight hours at around Y500-Y700. Settle details in advance, and remember that it’s polite to invite your driver to eat meals with you. To ensure your driver doesn’t return to Beijing without you, pay after the trip is over.


In addition to the tour buses that gather around Tiananmen Square, most hotels and tour companies offer trips (in comfortable, air-conditioned buses or vans) to Badaling, Mutianyu, Juyongguan, and Jinshanling. Smaller, private tours are generally more rewarding than large bus trips. Trips will run between Y400 and Y1,500 per person, but costs vary depending on the group size, and can sometimes be negotiated. Wherever you’re headed, book in advance.

For further help in planning your trip to the wall, while adding a bit of adventure to the mix, consider the following.

Albatros Adventure Great Wall Marathon.
Not for the faint of heart, the Great Wall Marathon (and half marathon) takes place each May and covers approximately 6.5 km (4 miles) of the Great Wall, with the rest of the course running through lovely valleys in rural Tianjin. Visitors must book through Albatros, a Danish tour company that arranges weeklong packages, or a local operator. | Albatros, Tøndergade 16, | Copenhagen, Denmark | 45/3698-9838 |

Beijing Hikers.
Arrange weekly day-treks to the wilder parts of the Great Wall throughout the year, as well as personalized tours. | 010/6432 2786 |

Beijing Service.
Private guided tours by car include stops at Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling, and Juyongguan for small groups of up to four people. | 9-6 West Block of Chang’an Block, Miyun | 010/5166-7026 |

Bespoke Beijing.
This firm designs private tours with English-speaking guides to suit your interests. | 107 Dongsi Bei, Dongcheng District | 010/6400-0133 |

CITS (China International Tour Service).
The company runs bus tours to Badaling and private tours to Badaling, Mutianyu, and Jinshanling. | 1 Dongdan Bei, Dongcheng District | 010/6522-2991 |

Cycle China.
This company runs good guided hiking tours of the unrestored wall at Jiankou. | 12 Jingshan East St., opposite of the east gate of Jingshan Park, Dongcheng District | 10/6402-5653 |

Stretch-A-Leg Travel.
These off-the-beaten-track tours of the wild Wall, sections of which are usually accessed through someone’s backyard or by hopping over a fence, are perfect for escaping the crowds. | Qian’gulouyuan 2, Jiaodaokou, Dongcheng District, | Beijing | 010/6401-8933 |

Wild China.
The company arranges camping trips underneath the Great Wall. | Room 803, Oriental Place,9 East Dongfang Rd., Chaoyang District, | Beijing | 010/6465-6602 |


Great Wall at Badaling.
Only one hour by car from downtown Beijing and located not far from the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall at Badaling is where visiting dignitaries go for a quick photo op. Postcard views abound here, with large sections of the restored Ming Dynasty brick wall rising majestically to either side of the fort while, in the distance, portions of early-16th-century Great Wall disintegrate into more romantic but inaccessible ruins.

The downside is that Badaling suffers from its popularity, with tour groups flocking here en masse. This has led to its reputation as “one to be avoided” by those allergic to shoulder-bumping and being gouged by hawkers. Nevertheless, with popularity come tourist-friendly facilities, and those with disabilities find access to the wall here to be far better than at other sections. Either take the cable car to the top or walk up the gently sloping steps, relying on handrails if necessary. On a clear day, you can see for miles across leafy, undulating terrain from atop the battlements. The admission price also includes access to the China Great Wall Museum and the Great Wall Circle Vision Theater.

A car for four people from central Beijing to Badaling should run no more than Y600 for five hours, and you can sometimes make arrangements to include a stop at the Thirteen Ming Tombs. By public transportation, trains leave Beijing North Station for Badaling Station (Y6) almost every hour from 6:12 am and take 1 hour 20 minutes. From there, it’s just a 20-minute walk to the entrance to Badaling Great Wall. Or, take Line 2 on the subway to Jishuitan and walk to Deshengmen bus terminus. From there, take Bus 880 to Badaling (Y12). Be warned: private taxis hang around the station and drivers will try to convince you that it’s easier to go with them. It isn’t. Stick to your guns and get on that bus.

TIP Most tours to Badaling will take you to the Thirteen Ming Tombs, as well. If you don’t want a stop at the tombs—or at a tourist-trapping jade factory or herbal medicine center along the way—be sure to confirm the itinerary before booking. | Yanqing County | 70 km (43 miles) northwest of Beijing | 010/6912-1383 | | Wall Y45; cable car Y80 one-way, Y100 round-trip | Apr.-Oct., daily 6:30-6.30; Nov.-Mar., daily 7-6.

Great Wall at Jinshanling.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling is perhaps the least tamed of the restored Great Wall sections near Beijing, as well as the least visited. Besides being the starting point for a fantastic four-hour hike toward Simatai, it also stands as one of the few sections of the Great Wall on which overnight camping trips are available. A starry night here is gorgeous and unforgettable—go with a tour group such as Cycle China or Beijing Hikers. However, some have argued that unregulated tourism such as this goes against the efforts of others to preserve the wall, so tread carefully and leave nothing behind in order to reduce your impact. If you must take a souvenir, pack a piece of charcoal and paper to make rubbings of the bricks that still bear the stamp of the date they were made.The trip by car to Jinhshanling from central Beijing should cost around Y700 and take about two hours. By public transportation, take a train from Beijing North Train Station to Luanping and a local bus or taxi from there. Trains leave almost every hour until 8 pm. | Jinshanling | 110 km (68 miles) northeast of Beijing | 031/4883-0222 | Apr.-Oct. Y65, Nov.-Mar. Y55; overnight stays at campsite Y150 | Daily 5-7.

Great Wall at Juyongguan.
Juyongguan is a quick, easygoing alternative for those not willing to blow a whole day traveling to Mutianyu or Jinshanling, or brave the more testing, unrestored sites such as Jiankou. It’s the part of the wall that runs closest to Beijing and once guarded a crucial pass to the city, repelling hordes of Mongol and, latterly, Japanese invaders. The section also lies not far from Badaling, essentially acting as an overflow for its oversubscribed neighbor. It certainly loses nothing in the comparison, boasting similarly impressive views but with far less abrasive crowds. However, Juyongguan has been heavily restored and does feel a little sterile and commercial as a result.The main attraction here is the Cloud Platform (or “Crossing Street Tower”), which was built in 1342 during the Yuan Dynasty. In appearance, it now resembles a rather squat Arc de Triomphe. The three white Tibetan stupas that originally sat atop it were destroyed during the early Ming period, only to be replaced with a Buddhist Tai’an temple, which was later toppled by fire in 1702. Today, carvings on the inner portal depicting the Four Heavenly Kings (Buddhist gods who defend the four compass points) and some elegant script work make for fascinating viewing on the way up the pass.The trip by car from central Beijing to Juyongguan should cost around Y450 for the round trip and takes about an hour. By public transportation, take Line 13 on the subway to Longze. Exit the station and walk to the bus stop across the street to take Bus 58 (Y12) to Shahe; take bus 68 at the same stop to Juyongguan Gongjiaochang and walk to the wall from there. The trip takes about 2½ hours. | Juyongguan | 59 km (37 miles) northwest of Beijing | 010/6977-1665 | Apr.-Oct. Y45, Nov.-Mar. Y28 | Apr.-Oct. daily 8-5; Nov.-Mar. daily 8:30-4:30.

Great Wall at Mutianyu.
Only slightly farther from downtown Beijing than Badaling, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is more spectacular and, despite the occasional annoyances of souvenir stands, significantly less crowded. This long section of wall, first built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (6th century) and restored and rebuilt throughout history, can offer a less busy Great Wall experience, with unforgettable views of towers winding across mountains and woodlands. On a clear day, you’ll swear you can see the deserts of Mongolia in the distance.

The lowest point on the wall is a strenuous one-hour climb above the parking lot. As an alternative, you can take a cable car on a breathtaking ride to the highest restored section, from which several hiking trails descend. Take a gorgeous 1½-hour walk east to reach another cable car that returns to the same parking lot. Mutianyu is also known for its toboggan run—the perfect way to end a long hike.

The trip by car from central Beijing to Mutianyu should cost around Y600 and it takes about an hour. By public transportation, take bus 936 from Dongzhimen to Huairou bus stop. From there take a minibus to Mutianyu (Y25-Y30) or hire a taxi to take you there and back (about Y100-Y150 round-trip).

TIP For those taking a car, the road from Huairou, a suburb of Beijing, to Mutianyu follows a river upstream and is lined with restaurants selling fresh trout. In addition, Hongluo Temple is a short drive from the bottom of the mountain. | Huairou County | 90 km (56 miles) northeast of Beijing | 010/6162-6022 | Apr.-Oct. Y25; cable car Y80 one-way, Y100 round-trip | Apr.-Oct., daily 8-5; Nov.-Mar., daily 8:30-4:30.

Great Wall at Simatai (Sīmătái chángchéng).
Remote and largely unrestored, this section of the Great Wall is ideal if you’re seeking adventure. Near the frontier garrison at Gubeikou, the wall traverses towering peaks and hangs precariously above cliffs. Be prepared for no-handrails hiking, tough climbs, and unparalleled vistas.

The first 10 watchtowers are currently accessible to visitors, and the hike to the top and back is just under two hours. Alternatively, a cable car takes you two-thirds of the way up; from there it’s a steep 30-minute climb to the summit.

The trip by car from central Beijing to Simitai costs about Y800 and takes about two hours. By public transportation, take the 980 (fast bus) from Dongzhimen bus stop to Miyun, getting off at Gulou. Cross the road to the opposite bus station and transfer to Bus 51 or 38 toward Simatai and get off at Gubeikou Water Town (or Gubeikou Shuizhen). Follow directions to the ticket hall where you can pick up your pre-booked online tickets for the wall.

TIP It’s necessary to reserve a ticket online using a Chinese mobile number, to which a ticket code will be sent (your hotel or a travel agency can help with these arrangements). | Near Miyun, Miyun County | 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Beijing | 010/8100-9999 | | Y40 (Y110 including Gubeikou Water Town); cable car, Y80 one-way, Y120 round-trip | Apr.-Oct., daily 9-6; Nov.-Mar., daily 9-5.

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Thirteen Ming Tombs (Míng Shísānlíng)

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48 km (30 miles) north of Beijing.

A narrow valley just north of Changping is the final resting place for 13 of the Ming Dynasty’s 16 emperors (the first Ming emperor was buried in Nanjing; the burial site of the second one is unknown; and the seventh Ming emperor was dethroned and buried in an ordinary tomb in northwestern Beijing). Ming monarchs once journeyed here each year to kowtow before their clan forefathers and make offerings to their memory. These days, few visitors can claim royal descent, but the area’s vast scale and imperial grandeur do convey the importance attached to ancestor worship in ancient China. A leisurely stroll down the Sacred Way, inspecting the series of charming larger-than-life statues of imperial officials and animals, is a wonderful experience. Many visitors combine a stop here with an excursion to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is found off the same expressway.

Allow ample time for a hike or drive northwest from Changling to the six fenced-off unrestored tombs, a short distance farther up the valley. Here crumbling walls conceal vast courtyards shaded by pine trees. At each tomb a stone altar rests beneath a stele tower and burial mound. In some cases the wall that circles the burial chamber is accessible on steep stone stairways that ascend from either side of the altar. At the valley’s terminus (about 5 km [3 miles] northwest of Changling), the Zhaoling Tomb rests beside a traditional walled village that’s well worth exploring.

Picnics amid the ruins have been a favorite weekend activity among Beijingers for nearly a century; if you picnic here, be sure to carry out all trash. | Changping District | Apr.-Oct. Y35; Nov.-Mar. Y25 | Apr.-Oct., daily 8:30-5:30; Nov.-Mar., daily 8:30-5.

Beidaihe and Yesanpo

Beidaihe (Běidàihé).
Chairman Mao and the party’s favorite spot for sand, sun, and seafood, Beidaihe (250 km [170 miles] northeast of Beijing) is one of China’s few beach resorts (though it’s definitely no Bali). This crowded spot is just 2½ hours by train from Beijing Station. Nearly every building in town has been converted to a hotel, and every restaurant has tanks of pick-your-own seafood lining the street. | West of Beidaihe District, | Qinhuangdao.

Yesanpo (Yěsān pō).
Yesanpo (150 km [90 miles] northeast of Beijing) is a sleepy village between Beijing and neighboring Hebei province, nestled in a national park of the same name. Go here if you’re craving a slower-paced scene and some outdoor fun. The accommodations aren’t first class, but there are plenty of opportunities for boating, hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities. Several trains leave from Beijing West Station daily for the two-hour ride. Yesanpo is also known for its whole barbecued lamb. Traditionally, locals have houses with extra rooms for guests, and owners will strive to make your stay as comfortable as possible. A clean room with two beds and an air conditioner should run you no more than Y150. There are also a few hotels on the main street by the train station. Train 6437 leaves Beijing West Station at 5:29 pm and arrives at 8:29 pm. Return train 6438 leaves at 9:35 am daily|Yesanpo.

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The Western Temples

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20-70 km (12-43 miles) west of Beijing.

Some of China’s most spectacular temples and other monuments are on wooded hillsides west of Beijing. Here you’ll discover magnificent murals at Fahai Temple, about an hour’s drive from the center, and Jietai, an ancient Buddhist site nearby. Tian Yi Mu is not a temple but the elaborate tomb of one of the high-ranking eunuchs who once played a vital role in affairs of state. Yunju Temple is best known for its mind-boggling collection of 14,278 minutely carved Buddhist tablets. While all these sights are in the western suburbs of Beijing, you will probably want to approach them as three separate excursions: Fahai Temple and Tian Yi Mu on one; Jietai Temple and nearby Tanzhe Temple on another; and Yunju Temple on a third. If traveling by taxi or private car, you could work visits to Fahai Temple, Tian Yi Mu, and Jietai and Tanzhe temples into one full day.

Fahai Temple (Făhăi sì).
The stunning works of Buddhist mural art at Fahai Temple, 20 km (12 miles) west of the central city, are among the most underappreciated sights in Beijing. Li Tong, a favored eunuch in the court of Emperor Zhengtong (1436-49), donated funds to construct Fahai Temple in 1443. The project was highly ambitious: Li Tong invited only celebrated imperial and court painters to decorate the temple. As a result, the murals in the only surviving chamber of that period, Daxiongbaodian (the Mahavira Hall), are considered the finest examples of Buddhist mural art from the Ming Dynasty. Sadly, statues of various Buddhas and one of Li Tong himself were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution.

The most famous of the nine murals in Mahavira Hall is a large-scale triptych featuring Guanyin (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Wenshu (the Bodhisattva of Marvelous Virtue and Gentle Majesty) in the center, and Poxian (the Buddha of Universal Virtue) on either side. The depiction of Guanyin follows the theme of “moon in water,” which compares the Buddhist belief in the illusoriness of the material world to the reflection of the moon in the water. Typically painted with Guanyin are her legendary mount Jin Sun and her assistant Shancai Tongzi. Wenshu is often presented with a lion, symbolic of the bodhisattva’s wisdom and strength of will, while Poxian is shown near a six-tusked elephant, each tusk representing one of the qualities that leads to enlightenment. On the opposite wall is the Sovereign Sakra and Brahma mural, with a panoply of characters from the Buddhist canon.

The murals were painted during the time of the European Renaissance, and though the subject matter is traditional, there are comparable experiments in perspective taking place in the depiction of the figures, as compared with examples from earlier dynasties. Also of note is a highly unusual decorative technique; many contours in the hall’s murals, particularly on jewelry, armor, and weapons, have been set in bold relief by the application of fine gold threads.

The temple grounds are also beautiful, but of overriding interest are the murals themselves. Visitors stumble through the dark temple with rented flashlights (free with your ticket). Viewing the murals in this way, it’s easy to imagine oneself as a sort of modern-day Indiana Jones unraveling a story of the Buddha as depicted in ancient murals of unrivaled beauty. Fahai Temple is only a short taxi ride from Beijing’s Pingguoyuan subway station. | Moshikou Lu, Shijingshan District, | Beijing | Take an approximately Y19 taxi ride from Pinguoyuan subway station directly to the temple | 010/8871-3975 | Y20 (Y100 including Buddhist murals) | Daily 9-4.

Fodor’s Choice | Tian Yi Mu (Tiányì mù).
Eunuchs have played a vital role throughout Chinese history, frequently holding great sway over the affairs of state. Their importance, often overlooked, is celebrated in the Beijing Eunuch Culture Exhibition Hall and the tomb of the most powerful eunuch of all, Tian Yi (1534-1605). Tian Yi was only nine when he was voluntarily castrated and sent into the service of the Ming emperor Jiajing. During the next 63 years of his life he served three rulers and rose to one of the highest ranks in the land. By the time he died, there were more than 20,000 eunuchs in imperial service. Thanks to their access to private areas of the palace, they became invaluable as go-betweens for senior officials seeking gossip or the royal ear, and such was Tian Yi’s influence. It’s said that upon his death The Forbidden City fell silent for three days.

Though not as magnificent as the Thirteen Ming Tombs, the final resting place of Tian Yi befits a man of high social status. Of special note are the intricate stone carvings around the base of the central burial mound. The four smaller tombs on either side belong to other eunuchs who wished to pay tribute to Tian Yi by being buried in the same compound.

The small exhibition hall at the front of the tomb complex contains the world’s only “eunuch museum” and offers some interesting background (albeit mostly in Mandarin), particularly on China’s last eunuch, Sun Yaoting (1902-96). It’s worth visiting, if only to see the rather gruesome mummified remains of one castrato that holds center stage—you can still make out the hairs on his chin. Another equally squirm-inducing sight is the eye-watering collection of castration equipment; keep a look out for the ancient Chinese character meaning “to castrate,” which resembles two knives, one inverted, side by side. The hall and tomb are a five-minute walk from Fahai Temple; just ask people the way to Tian Yi Mu. | 80 Moshikou Lu, Shijingshan District, | Beijing | 010/8872-4148 | Y8 | Daily 9-3:30.

Jietai Temple (Jiètái sì).
The four main halls of one of China’s most famous ancient Buddhist sites occupy terraces on a gentle slope up to Ma’an Shan (Saddle Hill), 35 km (22 miles) west of Beijing. Built in AD 622, the temple has been used for the ordination of Buddhist novices since the Liao Dynasty. The temple complex expanded over the centuries and grew to its current scale in a major renovation conducted by devotees during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The temple buildings, plus three magnificent bronze Buddhas in the Mahavira Hall, date from this period. There’s also a huge potbellied Maitreya Buddha carved from the roots of what must have been a truly enormous tree. To the right of this hall, just above twin pagodas, is the Ordination Terrace, a platform built of white marble and topped with a massive bronze statue of Shakyamuni Buddha seated on a lotus flower. Tranquil courtyards, where ornate stelae and well-kept gardens bask beneath a scholar tree and other ancient pines, add to the temple’s beauty. Many modern devotees from Beijing visit the temple on weekends. Getting to Jietai and the nearby Tanzhe Temple is easy using public transportation. Take subway Line 1 to its westernmost station, Pingguoyuan. From there, take the No. 931 public bus to either temple—it leaves every half hour and the ride takes about 70 minutes. A taxi from Pingguoyuan to Jietai Temple should be Y50 to Y60; the bus fare is Y6. | Mentougou County, | Beijing | 010/6980-6611 | Y45 | Daily 8:30-5.

NEARBY: Tanzhe Temple (Tánzhè sì).
A Buddhist complex nestled in a grove of zhe (cudrania) trees near Jietai Temple was established around AD 400 and once home to more than 500 monks. Tanzhe was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution. It’s since been restored, but if you look closely at some of the huge stone tablets, or bei, littered around the site you’ll see that many of the inscriptions have been destroyed. The complex makes an ideal side trip from Jietai Temple or Marco Polo Bridge. | Mentougou County, | Beijing | 10 km (6 miles) northeast of Jietai Temple | 010/6086-2500 | Y55 | Summer, daily 7:30-5; winter, daily 7:30-4:30.

Yunju Temple (Yúnjū sì).
To protect the Buddhist canon from destruction by Taoist emperors, the devout Tang-era monk Jing Wan carved Buddhist scriptures into stone slabs that he hid in sealed caves in the cliffs of a mountain. Jing Wan spent 30 years creating these tablets until his death in AD 637; his disciples continued his work for the next millennium into the 17th century, thereby compiling one of the most extensive Buddhist libraries in the world, a mind-boggling collection of 14,278 minutely carved Buddhist tablets. A small pagoda at the center of the temple complex commemorates the remarkable monk. Although the tablets were originally stored inside Shijing Mountain behind the temple, they’re now housed in rooms built along the temple’s southern perimeter.

Four central prayer halls, arranged along the hillside above the main gate, contain impressive Ming-era bronze Buddhas. The last in this row, the Dabei Hall, displays the spectacular Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara. This 13-foot-tall bronze sculpture—which actually has 24 arms and five heads and stands in a giant lotus flower—is believed to embody boundless compassion. A group of pagodas, led by the 98-foot-tall Northern Pagoda, is all that remains of the original Tang complex. These pagodas are remarkable for their Buddhist reliefs and ornamental patterns. Heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation and again by Maoist radicals in the 1960s, the temple complex remains under renovation.

Yunju Temple is 70 km (43 miles) southwest of central Beijing. By bus, take no. 917 from Tianqiao Long-distance Bus Station to Liangxiang Ximen, then change to Fangshan bus Nos. 12, 19, 31 to Yun Ju Si. | Off Fangshan Lu, Nanshangle Xiang, Fangshan County, | Beijing | 010/6138-9612 | Y40 | Daily 8:30-4.

Marco Polo Bridge (Lú gōu qiáo).
Built in 1192 and reconstructed after severe flooding during the Qing Dynasty, this impressive span—known as Marco Polo Bridge because it was allegedly praised by the Italian wayfarer—is Beijing’s oldest bridge. Its 11 segmented-stone arches cross the Yongding River 16 km (10 miles) southwest of Beijing’s Guanganmen Gate on what was once the Imperial Highway that linked Beijing with central China. The bridge’s marble balustrades support nearly 485 carved-stone lions that decorate elaborate handrails. Note the giant stone slabs that comprise the bridge’s original roadbed. Carved imperial stelae at either end of the span commemorate the bridge and surrounding scenery.

The Marco Polo Bridge is best remembered in modern times as the spot where invading Japanese armies clashed with Chinese soldiers on June 7, 1937. The assault began Japan’s brutal eight-year occupation of eastern China, which ended with Tokyo’s surrender at the end of World War II. The bridge has become a popular field-trip destination for Beijing students. On the Beijing side of the span is the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance Against Japan. Below the bridge on the opposite shore, local entrepreneurs rent horses (the asking price is Y120 per hour, but you should bargain) and lead tours of the often-dry grassy riverbed. | Near Xidaokou, Fengtai District, | Beijing | 010/8389-4614 | Y20 | Apri.-Oct., daily 7-7; Nov.-Mar., daily 8-5.

Zhoukoudian Peking Man Site (Zhōukŏudiàn Běijīngrén yízhĭ).
This area of lime mines and craggy foothills, 48 km (30 miles) southwest of Beijing, ranks among the world’s great paleontological sites (and served as the setting for Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter). In 1929, anthropologists were drawn to Zhoukoudian by apparently human “dragon bones” found in a Beijing apothecary and unearthed a complete cranium and other fossils dubbed Homo erectus pekinensis, or Peking Man. These early remains, believed to be nearly 700,000 years old, suggest (as do similar Homo erectus discoveries in Indonesia) that humankind’s most recent ancestor originated in Asia, not Europe (though today some scientists posit that humans evolved in Africa first and migrated to Asia). A large-scale excavation in the early 1930s further unearthed six skullcaps and other hominid remains, stone tools, evidence of fire, plus a multitude of animal bones, many at the bottom of a large sinkhole believed to be a trap for woolly rhinos and other large game. Sadly, the Peking Man fossils disappeared under mysterious circumstances during World War II, leaving researchers only plaster casts to contemplate. Subsequent digs at Zhoukoudian have yielded nothing equivalent to Peking Man, although archaeologists haven’t yet abandoned the search. Trails lead to several hillside excavation sites. A small museum showcases a few (dusty) Peking Man statues, a collection of Paleolithic artifacts, two mummies, and some fine animal fossils, including a bear skeleton and a saber-toothed tiger skull. Because of the importance of Peking Man and the potential for other finds in the area, Zhoukoudian is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it may not be of much interest to those without a particular inclination for the subject. If you should find yourself here with little to do after your museum visit and the few dig locations, consider a little hike into the surrounding hills, which are named the Dragon Bone Mountains. | Zhoukoudian | 010/6930-1278 | Y30 | Daily 8:30-4.

Shenyangdao Antiques Market (shěnyángdào gŭwù shìchăng).
Tianjin (96 km [60 miles] east of Beijing) is a huge port city of 10 million people known to Beijingers for its baozi (steamed buns), wonderful antiques market, and international architecture, including British, French, American, German, Japanese, Russian, Italian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Belgian examples. For the best antiques shopping in China, head to Tianjin on a Wednesday evening train, check into your hotel, have dinner, and go to bed so you can wake up early for the Shenyangdao Antiques Market, which opens at 4 am every Thursday and is well picked over by midmorning. When buying at Shenyangdao, be wary of items dubbed genuine antiques. They do exist, but are very rare; even the prettiest, oldest-looking pieces can be fake. Some are made with antique wood that has been recently recycled into “antiques” by skilled artisans. The casual collector should remember: buy things because you like them, not because you think they are inherently valuable. Feel free to haggle relentlessly. Trains (Y22) to Tianjin leave Beijing Station nine times a day from 4:22 am until 8:27 pm, taking 1½ -2 hours. The express train (Y58) to Tianjin takes around 35 minutes and leaves Beijing South Station every ten minutes from 6:13 am until 10:43 pm. The market is a short taxi ride away or a half hour bus journey from outside the station, getting off at Jintazhan or Shandonglu. | Tianjin | 022/2722-2546.

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Eastern Qing Tombs (Qīngdōnglíng)

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125 km (78 miles) east of Beijing.

Modeled on the Thirteen Ming Tombs, the mausoleum complex at Zunhua, known as the Eastern Qing Tombs, replicate the Ming walkways, walled tomb complexes, and subterranean burial chambers. But they’re even more extravagant in their scale and grandeur, and far less touristy.

These imposing ruins contain the remains of five emperors, 14 empresses, and 136 imperial concubines, all laid to rest in a broad valley chosen by Emperor Shunzhi (1638-61) while on a hunting expedition. By the Qing’s collapse in 1911, the tomb complex covered some 18 square miles (46 square km) of farmland and forested hillside, making it the most expansive burial ground in all China.

The Eastern Qing Tombs are in much better repair than their older Ming counterparts—and considerably less crowded. Although several of the tomb complexes have undergone extensive renovation, none is overdone. Peeling paint, grassy courtyards, and numerous stone bridges and pathways convey a sense of the area’s original grandeur. Often visitors are so few that you may feel as if you’ve stumbled upon an ancient ruin unknown beyond the valley’s farming villages.

The tombs are a two- to three-hour drive from the capital and are surrounded by dramatic rural scenery, making this trip one of the best full-day excursions outside Beijing. Consider bringing a bedsheet, a bottle of wine, and boxed lunches, as the grounds are ideal for a picnic.

Fodor’s Choice | Yuling (Yùlíng).
Of the nine tombs open to the public, Yuling is not to be missed. This is the resting place of the Qing Dynasty’s most powerful sovereign, Emperor Qianlong (1711-99), who ruled China for 59 years. Beyond the outer courtyards, Qianlong’s burial chamber is accessible from inside Stela Hall, where an entry tunnel descends some 65 feet (20 meters) into the ground and ends at the first of three elaborately carved marble gates. Beyond, exquisite carvings of Buddhist images and sutras rendered in Tibetan adorn the tomb’s walls and ceiling. Qianlong was laid to rest, along with his empress and two concubines, in the third and final marble vault, amid priceless offerings looted by warlords early in the 20th century. | Hebei province, Zunhua County, | Malanguan | 0315/694-0888 | Y152 (with rest of tombs) | Daily 8:30-5.

Fodor’s Choice | Dingdongling (Dìngdōnglíng).
The most elaborate of the Qing tombs was built for the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). Known for her failure to halt Western-imperialist encroachment, Cixi once spent funds allotted to strengthen China’s navy on a traditional stone boat for the lake at the Summer Palace. Her burial compound, reputed to have cost 72 tons of silver, is the most elaborate (if not the largest) at the Eastern Qing Tombs. Many of its stone carvings are considered significant because the phoenix, which symbolizes the female, is level with, or even above, the imperial (male) dragon—a feature ordered, no doubt, by the empress herself. A peripheral hall paneled in gold leaf displays some of the luxuries amassed by Cixi and her entourage, including embroidered gowns, jewelry, imported cigarettes, and even a coat for one of her dogs. In a bow to tourist kitsch, the compound’s main hall contains a wax statue of Cixi sitting Buddha-like on a lotus petal flanked by a chambermaid and a eunuch. | Hebei province, Zunhua County, | Malanguan | 0315/694-0888 | Y152 (with rest of tombs) | Daily 8:30-5.

Eight Outer Monasteries

On the eastern and northern slopes of the Mountain Resort, this collection of temples offers a powerful insight into Chengde’s role as not just a royal getaway, but as a political arena. Each temple was built to reflect the architectural style of a different minority, so when meetings with rival border groups took place, they provided handy diplomatic currency (the large Tibetan influence was for the benefit of the Mongols, who were devout Lamaists).

Of the dozen monasteries originally built during the Qing Dynasty, only eight survive today in good condition (two were destroyed, two are now dilapidated). Just a few are open to the public. Buses Nos. 6 and 10 take visitors from the Mountain Resort to the eastern and northern temples respectively. If you’re strapped for time prioritize the Temple of Potaraka Doctrine, which is a stunning replica of Tibet’s Potala Palace, and the Temple of Universal Peace, which is still in use by monks today. The other temples include the Temple of Universal Happiness, Anyuan Temple, and Puren Temple.

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Exploring | Where to Eat | Where to Stay | Nightlife and Performing Arts

4 hrs (230 km [140 miles]) by train northeast of Beijing; 7 hrs (470 km [291 miles]) by train southwest of Shenyang.

An increasingly common stop on the China tour circuit, some visitors regard Chengde as one of the highlights of their trip. It had been just another village until the 18th century, when Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi stumbled upon it during a hunting trip. With the Wulie River gurgling through and the Yanshan Mountains providing an impressive backdrop, Chengde was deemed an ideal spot to establish a summer retreat where the Emperor could escape the heat of the capital and indulge in hunting and fishing. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the magnificent Mountain Resort. It’s best to visit in summer or early autumn, as some tourist facilities close in the off-season.


Train Travel

Most travelers take the K7711 direct train from Beijing, departing from Beijing Main Rail Station. It is by far the fastest train of the day, departing at 7:56 am and arriving in Chengde at 12:31 pm. Chengde is on a northern rail line between Beijing and Shenyang, and the journey from the capital takes 4½ hours.

Taxi Travel

Chengde is a small city, so you shouldn’t have to pay more than Y15 to get from the city center out to the temples.


Like most Chinese cities, Chengde is a very safe place to explore. Violent crime is extremely rare, but petty theft can be a problem. Keep a close eye on your personal belongings in crowded places.


Chengde is a small city, and most of the main attractions are bunched northeast of the Mountain Resort, so one or two full days should be enough time to see the sights. That said, the Mountain Resort is huge, and could easily take up a full day. If you want to do any hiking in the surrounding countryside, plan on three full days.


All hotels in Chengde run tours covering the main sights, at least during the high season. An English-speaking guide costs around Y100.


Medical Assistance
Chengde Chinese-Western Hospital. | 12 Xi Da Jie | 0314/202-2222.

Train Contact
Chengde Train Station. | Chezhan Lu.

Visitor and Tour Info
Chengde CITS. | Yun Shan Lu | 0314/2061848.


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Don’t waste your energy wandering around the city itself. The massive scale of the Mountain Resort, twice as large as Beijing’s Summer Palace, means you will be doing plenty of walking.


Fodor’s Choice | Mountain Resort (Bìshŭ Shānzhuāng).
Moved by Chengde’s lush mountains, cool weather, and plentiful game—along with a desire to enjoy the first two while shooting arrows at the latter—Emperor Kangxi ordered construction of the first palaces of the Mountain Resort in 1703. Within a decade, what was previously just a simple village had dozens of ornate temples, pagodas, and spectacular gardens spread out across 1,500 acres. By the end of the 18th century nearly 100 imperial structures filled the town.

The result was more than just a smaller version of the Summer Palace, however. Besides luxurious quarters for the emperor and his court, great palaces and temples were completed to house visiting dignitaries and to impress them with the grandeur of the Chinese empire. The location was useful, as Chengde lay far enough away from Beijing to host talks with rivals groups who wouldn’t otherwise set foot in the capital. From the interconnected palaces, each built in a different architectural style, to the replicas of famous temples representing different Chinese religions, everything about the resort was designed to reflect China’s diversity. In retrospect, it was as much a Qing statement of intent as it was a holiday home.

Today the palace (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the surrounding landscape of lakes, meadows, and forests make for an engaging stroll. The mountains in the northern half of the park and giant pagoda in the center afford beutiful panoramas. The resort is also home to the largest imperial garden in China. Even during peak season (April to October) it rarely feels crowded. | Center of town | 0314/2029771 | Apr.-Oct. Y120; Nov.-Mar. Y90 | Apr.-Oct., daily 7-5; Nov.-Mar., daily 7:00-4:30.


Club Rock (Bàngchuí Fēng).
A cable-car ride and a 30-minute hike lead from Pule Temple up to a phallic protrusion that spawned a local legend: if the rock should fall, so will the virility of local men. | Y50 | Daily 8-5.


Given Chengde’s role as a royal hunting ground, it’s no surprise that the local specialty is wild game. Spiced deer meat sold in clusters for Y5 and pheasant-and-mushroom-stuffed dumplings can be sampled at the visitor-friendly shops on the street south of the Summer Resort.

Da Qinghua.
CHINESE | Overlooking Lizheng Gate, this cheerful place with a rustic wooden exterior is a good choice if you want to sample local dishes. Try the specialty: homemade dumplings filled with pheasant and local mushrooms. The picture menu helps, as the staff does not speak English. Look for the dragons on the building’s exterior. | Average main: Y80 | Shan Zhuang Lu | 0314/2036-2222 | No credit cards.

Dongpo Restaurant
SICHUAN | (Dōngpō Fānzhuāng).
With one branch near Dehui Gate (east of Lizheng Gate) and two others around town, Dongpo serves hearty Sichuan fare. There’s no English menu, but classics like gongbao jiding (chicken with peanuts) and niurou chao tudou (beef and potatoes) are available. | Average main: Y80 | Shanzhuang Dong Lu | 0314/208-1886.


Bifeng Hotel.
HOTEL | Although not fit for an emperor and not much to look at from the outside, this city-center choice is clean and comfortable inside. The beds are typically hard, so be sure to exhaust yourself at the nearby Mountain Resort, making it easy to sleep anywhere. Pros: central location; decent home cooking in the restaurant. Cons: a bit scruffy; no Western breakfast. | Rooms from: Y170 | Dehui Building,9 Huoshenmiao, Tower B | 0314/205-0668 | 71 rooms.

Puning Hotel.
HOTEL | Location is everything, as they say, and the historic setting, adjoining Puning Temple, and a pleasant courtyard place it high above the other options in the center of the city. It’s true that the rooms have seen better days and the mattresses defy comfort, but the peal of early-morning bells and the multitude of hills and temples to explore mean you won’t spend too much time here anyway. Pros: convenient location; easy access to sights; vegetarian dining options. Cons: indifferent service; small rooms. | Rooms from: Y320 | West Courtyard of Puning Temple, Puning Lu | 0314/205-8888 | 100 rooms | Breakfast.

Shenghua Hotel
HOTEL | (Shènghuá dàjĭüdiàn).
At 14 stories tall, this silver tower of glass and steel soars above the city, and beyond the rather dark reception area the rooms have wide windows letting in lots of natural light.An excellent restaurant serves local specialties like lightly battered stir-fried venison. The hotel’s bilingual tour operator can help you plan trips around the region. Pros: tasty restaurant; reliable service; near bus and train stations. Cons: a bit far from the main sights. | Rooms from: Y430 | 22 Wulie Lu | 0314/227-1000 | | 111 rooms | Breakfast.


The main shopping street, Nanyingzi Dajie (parallel to Wuli River), is a good place to stroll in the evening, when a night market stretches all the way down the street. Many of the vendors sell antiques and fun knickknacks.

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