If you’re worn out from the stampeding hoards at the more popular historical sites, reprieve awaits at Tuanjiehe. A public park, there is perhaps no better place to go to experience the life of a local.
At dusk (or dawn) you’ll find, dotted in concrete courtyards and beneath willow trees, groups of ‘ordinary folk’ congregating in the hundreds. Elderly men and women practice tai chi; ordinarily timid office workers jump up and down to vigorous aerobics routines; and amorous couples stare longingly at each other while lilting to the Viennese Waltz. Participation is free.
Elsewhere, old comrades bellow out communist, red songs under dimly-lit rotundas; university students feed docile carp from a stone bridge running over a lake and children float around on peddle boats (60RMB per hour; 100RMB deposit) while their parents watch on.
There is even a roller skating rink (5RMB entrance, 10RMB skate rental) illuminated by fairy lights. The park is a perfect exemplar of a typically close-knit local community.
Your next destination: Take a taxi to the Olympic Park. It should take around 25 minutes.
The dust may have long since settled on the historic 2008 Beijing Olympics but the Olympic Park site has remained relatively unchanged since – a shrine to China’s grand debutante ball on the world stage.
The iconic Birds Nest stadium is open to tourists (50RMB) – you can even walk on the hallowed track on which Usain Bolt made history – and the National Aquatics Centre (Water Cube) is now a water park.
Indeed, the site of Phelps’ feats is now full of splashtastic slides, rides, a wave machine and all the usual refinements (200RMB; 160RMB for children under 1.5m) – genuinely good family fun and a nice day-long break from the sightseeing. If you can, return in the early evening when both structures are lit-up and at their most spectacular.
The nearby Olympic Forest Park (a 30-minute walk or one stop north on subway line eight) is a verdant expanse centered around a large, shimmering lake. Winding pathways, grassy knolls and a commanding vista of the surrounding mountains make this a perfect picnic spot.
Your next destination: The subway is definitely the quickest way all the way south, through the city, to the Temple of Heaven. Take Line 8 from Olympic Green Station to Gulou Dajie Station. Transfer to Line 2 and head east to Yonghegong station. Finally, transfer to Line 5 and head south eight stops to Tiantan Dongmen.
Immersed in history, the Temple of Heaven is a masterpiece. This 600-year old landmark symbolizes the greatness of Chinese civilization during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and was justly recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That a temple of great cultural significance is situated in such a charming park is an added bonus and ensures that a day at the Temple of Heaven is a must-do on any tourist itinerary.
In the surrounding park you’ll see a fair amount of local colour; middle-aged women dancing to Chinese folk music; their husbands squatting on the street, staring at a Chinese chess board though a cloud of cigarette smoke; people of all generations enjoying the great outdoors together.
From the East Gate entrance a spacious and lavishly tree-lined boulevard leads straight ahead, directly to the three-tier round stone terrace which encompasses the ancient temple. On a clear day the terrace commands a magnificent 360 degree view. Sadly you can’t enter the vast hall but you can peer up from here and marvel at its majesty.
Snakes and dragons – traditionally mythical Chinese animals – are carved into the temple with staggering detail in an array of vivacious colours. It’s no hyperbole to say: the building’s splendour is almost breathtaking.
Your next destination: Taxi will be quickest to either theatre. The taxi to Li Yuan is around 25 minutes; Imperial Granary is nearer – around 10 minutes.
A night at the (Peking) opera
Peking opera is an acquired taste, but a night spent appreciating this centuries old art form is a quintessential part of any Beijing experience. Of the myriad local varieties and sub-varieties, Kunqu and Jingju are perhaps the most popular.
The refined, 400-year old Kunqu
hails from Jiangsu province, setting epic stories in magnificent gardens. Beijing visitors can catch Peony Pavilion
, about a woman who falls in love with a dream and dies of a broken heart; later, her fantasy man sees her portrait and his love brings her back to life. Directed by international theatre master Lin Zhaohua, this version cuts the original from nine hours to one, takes place at the 800-year old Imperial Granary
(Fridays and Saturdays; 380-1,980RMB) and has solid performers.
The infinitely more popular Jingju – what is now typically recognized as ‘Beijing opera’ – began over a century ago when an Anhui opera troupe performed for Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi and never went home. Jingju focuses on acrobatics and martial arts – these days many shows are combat-heavy highlight packages.
Your best bet is Li Yuan Theatre
(daily performances; tickets 200-580RMB) for sharp, clever vignettes with English subtitles; come early and see the actors making themselves up. Chances are you won’t be leaving with any Jingju CDs, but this fantastic, unique storytelling should not be missed.