10 city secrets from Beijing tour guides

From lesser-known facts to insider tips, Beijing tour guides share all

Illustrations: Jinna Kaneko
Whether its the capital's biggest attractions or its hidden gems, few can claim to know Beijing past and present as well as its many tour guides do – they've covered almost every square inch of the city between them, so who better to let us in on a few lesser-known facts, alternative tourist spots and unlikely stories? We asked guides from five of Beijing's best tour companies to tell us their favourites that they've picked up along the way.
The Temple of Heaven had its own mountain during the Cold War

The Temple of Heaven had its own mountain during the Cold War

‘Most people have heard that Jingshan Park is a manmade mountain constructed of earth from the Forbidden City's moat, but few know that the Temple of Heaven used to have one just like it. The reason? During the tensions between the Soviet Union and China in the 60s and 70s, locals were braced for an imminent attack. Beijingers had been called on to dig air raid shelters throughout the city. The only problem was the huge amounts of leftover earth and stone.

‘Where to put it all? At the time, Premier Zhou Enlai's solution was to fill Beijing's parks with the rubble; not long after, an enormous mountain appeared at the south gate of the Temple of Heaven. It was finally removed in 1987, but if you ever get the chance to drop into Beijing's busy Dongdan Park, you'll see a pretty hill covered in trees and green grass – still remaining from the Great Air Raid Construction of the 1970s.'
Jennifer Zhang, Bespoke Travel Company

Dumplings were invented to cure frostbitten ears

Dumplings were invented to cure frostbitten ears

‘Zhang Zhongjing, a prestigious TCM practitioner during the Eastern Han (25-220AD) made dumplings in the shape of ears and stuffed them with curing and warming herbal elements. They were called jiao er (娇耳) or 'tender ears' to begin with and eventually evolved to get their own character for jiao, and became known as jiaozi (饺子)’.
Jamie Barys, UnTour Food Tours

The Bell Tower is rumoured to be haunted

The Bell Tower is rumoured to be haunted

‘Legend has it that when the giant bronze bell in the Bell Tower was commissioned by Emperor Yongle, the bronze smith's daughter threw herself onto the flames of the furnace to help create just enough heat to cast the bell in time for the Emperor's deadline. On the rare occasion the bell is struck these days, some locals claim you can hear the voice of the girl from beyond the grave.’
Daniel Newman, Newman Tours

British troops once stole the empress’ dog from Beijing

British troops once stole the empress’ dog from Beijing

‘Animal statues weren’t the only things boosted from the Old Summer Palace by the Anglo-French Expedition of 1860; an actual pooch was also snatched as part of the war booty. This diminutive Pekingese, rumoured to have been the possession of the Empress Dowager, fell into the hands of a British officer who then arranged for the dog to be presented as a “gift” to Queen Victoria. The puppy’s new name? Looty.’
Jeremiah Jenne, Beijing by Foot

Overwhelmed by imperial architecture? Try a Gothic church instead

Overwhelmed by imperial architecture? Try a Gothic church instead

‘The Beitang Cathedral, a nineteenth-century French Gothic church, is pretty spectacular – probably Beijing's most beautiful, and a spot few tourists ever visit. Sadly it's also where a couple of thousand people died in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. They were besieged inside the church grounds for nearly two months without supplies, so many starved to death.’

Sarah Keenlyside, Bespoke Travel Company

You can’t see the Great Wall from space, but you can see Beijing from the Great Wall

You can’t see the Great Wall from space, but you can see Beijing from the Great Wall

‘You need a really clear day – a big wind helps – and from a few spots on the Great Wall at Jiankou you can easily spot the huddle of tall buildings around Guomao. Why would you want to see Beijing from the wall though? Because it means the air quality is 100% amazing.’
Hayden Opie, Beijing Hikers

There used to be elephants on the streets of Beijing

There used to be elephants on the streets of Beijing

‘If you’d been hanging out in Xuanwumen 150 years ago, you would have seen an enormous row of 48 elephant stables. Elephants were an essential part of court life in the Qing Dynasty, trundled out for imperial ceremonies; they would line the entrance to the Forbidden City when officials reported to the emperor and even pulled the imperial chariot to the Temple of Heaven for prayers. They were so prevalent that Peking ladies would regularly purchase elephant dung from the keepers and apply it to their hair to make it bright and glossy!’
Sarah Keenlyside, Bespoke Travel Company

Visiting relatives want to go to the Forbidden City on a busy day? Take them next door instead

Visiting relatives want to go to the Forbidden City on a busy day? Take them next door instead

‘No, not to Zhongnanhai, unless you really don’t like your relatives. Take them to the Ancestral Temple, also known as the Workers’ Cultural Palace. This park just to the east of the Tiananmen Gate features much of the same architecture as the Forbidden City with far less traffic. A good place to get a photograph of a loved one standing amidst palatial architecture without a bevy of tour groups in the background.’
Jeremiah Jenne, Beijing by Foot

Sichuan peppercorns really do make your lips vibrate – and quite a lot

Sichuan peppercorns really do make your lips vibrate – and quite a lot

‘If you've ever wondered if your lips are actually vibrating after a mala hotpot, the answer is yes: Sichuan peppercorn gets them going at 50 Hertz – the same frequency of Beijing's power grid. But the mouth-numbing peppercorn is not actually a pepper: it's a member of the citrus family, and the United States banned all imports of it in 1968, for fear it would infect the lucrative domestic orange crop with the citrus canker. The ban was lifted in 2005, but all imported Sichuan peppercorns must be heated to 60 degrees Celsius for ten minutes before they can enter the States.’
Jamie Barys, UnTour Food Tours

It’s unlikely, but you might get chased by an angry camel in Beijing

It’s unlikely, but you might get chased by an angry camel in Beijing

Over all this time out and about on the Beijing streets, or in the case of Beijing Hikers, its surrounding mountains, the city’s tour guides have picked up a few tales along the way. The most bizarre? ‘We got chased by an angry camel once. Strange, because we weren’t too far from the Fragrant Hills and weren’t really expecting camel danger so close to the city.’
Hayden Opie, Beijing Hikers

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