Travel to Tibet: a how-to guide to travel permits

The month of March marks the third anniversary of anti-government riots and unrest in the troubled region in 2008, themselves an anniversary of the failed uprising in 1959. In light of this, Beijing has decreed (through a some somewhat botched PR spiel laying the blame on cold weather and overcrowding in the TAR) that foreign tourists are not permitted to enter Tibet in March and restrictions may continue into April, 2011. Though Tibet is rapidly making its way up the list of the hottest travel destinations of the year, accessing to the “Rooftop of the World” hasn’t been easy in recent years. Over the last decade, travel restrictions for foreign tourists have proved changeable to say the least, with political unrest, rioting and demonstrations leaving the Autonomous Region shut off for months and even years at a time. Today, travel to Tibet needn’t be as complicated as it sometimes seems. No longer quite the remote and mysterious land it once was (the new Lhasa-Shigatse area). The big issues you’re likely to face these days concern time, money and independent travel. You can get in, yes, but to make the most of your time in Tibet, careful research can make a big difference. And on the question of independent travel in Tibet, let’s get that cleared up from the get-go—there is none, at least not legally. Tibet is currently a “tours only” zone. If the idea of spending your trip cooped up with a group sends shivers down your spine, then the only way to skirt round this is the more costly option of a private tour, but note, there’ll be no ditching the tour guide. If you’re only planning to stay in Lhasa you can lose the car-and-driver and use public transport to get around the city, but really, if you’re going to Tibet, go see Tibet and not just the capital. The best (and cheapest) option is to join a group of three or four with similar interests (track them down on travel forums and websites or inquire with travel agencies). You’ll need to get your travel plans and schedule in order before arriving in Lhasa and it’s advisable to give yourself at least three or four weeks to do this. Read on for the latest on travel in Tibet…. What you’ll need to visit Tibet To enter Tibet, you will need a valid passport,China visa (as Tibet is part of China a single entry will suffice as you are not “leaving” the country) and a Tibet Travel Permit (TTB permit). This will get you as far as Lhasa and Shigatse. If you plan to travel beyond these areas, you will also require an Alien Travel Permit (PSB permit). For anyone venturing further afield and wishing to head overland to Kashgar, Nyingtri and Chamdo prefectures or Mt Kailash—all sensitive areas of land dispute with India—you’ll need a Military Permit. For more even highly restricted areas, a Foreign Affairs Permit is required. With the exception of journalists and government officials (who should apply to through the Foreign Affairs Office of Tibet), there are no restrictions on who can apply for a Tibet Travel Permit, and all of the above can be arranged by a travel agent, provided you book a tour and guide. How to get travel permits for TibetTibet Travel Permits are issued by the Tibetan Tourism Bureau only. A two-page piece of paper, this document details your personal information and travel plans and must be obtained through a travel agent (applications by individuals are not accepted) who will also be booking your tour and guide (though not necessarily your accommodation; see below). If anyone tells you they can offer a permit only service, they can’t. What they can do is arrange your permits to almost anywhere, as long as you book a Land Cruiser and a guide. The process takes three to five days and costs RMB 350-650, depending on where your chosen travel agent is based. The general rule is the closer to Lhasa the better, with those located in Xining, Beijing and Chengdu offering some of the cheapest and fastest services. Scanning and emailing a copy of your passport and China visa to your travel agent provides all the required information and they will manage the application process for you. You may need to show a copy of your TTB to purchase your flight or train tickets, but if you plan to fly to Lhasa, be sure to request they send the original—copies are not always accepted for boarding. Copies are acceptable, however, when boarding the train. Once inside Tibet, your guide will retain your TTB, though seeing as you are required to have both a guide and Alien Permit to travel beyond Lhasa, this is not really a big deal—if you are stopped without any of these three you’ll be sent out of Tibet and could face legal difficulties, as will the travel agents who got you your permit. If your itinerary requires an Alien Permit, Military Permit or Foreign Affairs Permit, your travel agent will arrange these for you.

Choosing your Tibet guide Though you can’t travel in Tibet without a guide, if you’re just staying in Lhasa, they’ll only be with you four to six hours per day while you visit the main attractions. However, with the number of tourists flocking to Lhasa growing rapidly, reports of poor guide services are also on the rise, so remember: once you head out of Lhasa, you’ll be stuck with them for a great deal longer. Be sure to raise any issues to ensure you have a guide you are happy with before departure. Booking hotels in Tibet Having a tour and a guide booked does not mean you need to have all your accommodation pre-arranged. You’ll get the best deals on hotels in Lhasa by booking yourself, though the summer months get busy, so book early. Outside of Lhasa there’s no need to book; although there are fewer hotels, there are also fewer tourists and unoccupied rooms can always be found. Finding a travel agents for Tibet For the best prices use a China-based travel agent to book your tour—price decreases the closer you get to Lhasa you get so cities like Chengdu and Xining offer good choices. Before arrival in China If you are applying for a China visa in a Chinese embassy in another country, don’t mention plans to visit Tibet. This could complicate and delay your application. Apply first for the regular China visa and and then the Tibet Travel permit after. Travel to Tibet from Nepal, Bhutan and India All of the above information relates to entering Tibet from mainland China. If you are traveling to Tibet from Nepal you’ll be faced with a different, more complicated and more expensive set of regulations. Only group China visa and Tibet Travel permits are available (again through travel agents only). This group permit and visa will override any existing China visa you have in your passport. It is a separate piece of paper and you must enter and exit with the same group, or you will face serious problems. There are currently no open border crossings into Tibet from India or Bhutan. And if all this seems like too much hassle or you are simply short of time and money, then a visit to Qinghai, western Gansu or the western reaches of Sichuan could be the way to go to experience Tibetan culture. Once part of the Tibetan region of Amdo, there are still a wealth of temples, monasteries, markets and museums to be enjoyed in an area that is geographically, physically and culturally (though not politically) largely Tibetan. For more detailed information on destinations and attractions in Tibet, check out our Tibet destination guide. You can also pay a visit to our China Travel Forum for useful tips and hints about travel there ,and if you’re looking for fellow travelers to make up a tour, start up your own forum thread. There are also plenty more photos, in-depth travel reports and blogger comment to read about Tibet on the China Travel Blog, and our sponsors Ctrip will soon be offering travel packages to Tibet (making it even easier to set up your Tibet trip), so watch this space!


China Travel Photo of the Day: Om panamana om

These two smiling monks were snapped by photographer Lhasa in Tibet. We love their rich crimson robes against the green mountains draped in the background and the blue Tibetan sky, what an awesome shot. If you recognize Sarah’s name, that’s probably because we recently featured her in our China Through My Lens series where the Shenzhen-dwelling Canadian shared some of her other great China images and stories to go with them. Check out more of her work on her Flickr photostream where she goes by the name of Pezgirl.Got some great some China travel photos? Then enter our Ctrip China Travel Photography Contest for the chance to win fantastic prizes and share your photos with the rest of the world.


A Tibetan journey

Monastic student, Ganzi Roger Jones teaches English at Sichuan University, in Chengdu, Sichuan. A resident of China since 2006, he has survived culture shock, language difficulties, and midlife crisis. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, USA, he gained an M.A. in art history before moving to Los Angeles, California. After many years as an employee of arts organizations, he decided to become a teacher, mainly to travel the world and learn about other cultures and has documented his thoughts and experiences on his blog Running into Myself. A keen photographer, here Roger takes some time out to share some of his images and travelers’ tales from a long-yearned for journey to Tibet. >>> Like many people, I suppose, I had a romanticized vision of Tibet before I ever laid eyes on the place: the land of snows; the land of impenetrable mysteries, including those of a uniquely Tibetan brand of Buddhism; a land and people living in captivity, whose ancient culture had virtually been destroyed under Chinese occupation.

The reality, of course, is both the same and different. When I decided to come to China as an English teacher, I chose to live in Chengdu, Sichuan. My reasons were practical: I loved the region’s spicy food, and Chengdu was the gateway to Tibet. In addition, a huge chunk of Sichuan province was formerly the Tibetan region of Kham. The region still retains its ethnic and cultural distinction, and unlike the neighboring Tibet Autonomous Region, is easily accessible to solo travelers without the hassle of special permits.

I made two forays into Kham, the ethnic Tibetan area of western Sichuan, in 2006 and 2007. The region, roughly aligned along three great north-south valleys between high mountain ranges, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but access is still not terribly comfortable or convenient. For example, in 2007 I traveled from Chengdu to Kangding, and from there onward to Tagong, Ganzi, and Dege, which lie close to the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region. It involved three days of butt-busting travel on aged buses, along roads that were narrow, bumpy, and full of holes. The rewards, however, were worth it: jaw-dropping scenery, beautiful Buddhist monasteries, a 16,000-foot pass over the Tro La Range to Dege, and the historic Dege Printing Press, a 400-year-old repository of Buddhist scriptures and Tibetan history. I found the Tibetans to be friendly, curious, and full of good-natured humor.

Still, I ached for a journey to the “real” Tibet, fueled by reading travel accounts by authors such as Alexandra David-Neel (the first Western woman to enter the holy city of Lhasa), Andrew Harvey, Michel Peissel, and Peter Matthiessen. Since the Tibetan unrest during the Olympic year of 2008, however, travel to the Autonomous Region has been severely restricted, and prohibitively expensive. The minimum amount I could spend, for a basic eight-day tour from Lhasa to the Nepal border, was about $1,000 US. After a year of saving money, I bit the bullet and obtained a Tibet Travel Permit for foreigners. Although confined to a package tour with a small group, in a Land Rover with guide and driver, I still saw most of the sights of which I had dreamed for half a lifetime. In July 2010, armed with all the required visas, permits, and cash, I boarded a plane in Chengdu for the two-hour flight to Lhasa.

I don’t think I realized that I was in Tibet until I stood in front of the Jokhang Temple inhaling the fragrant smoke from the huge incense burners. For me, the Tibetan areas of China will always mean smells: burning juniper branches, incense, the buttery aroma of Tibetan tea. I knew that I was in another world, of course, the minute the rocky, lunar landscape began to peek through the clouds as the plane descended toward Lhasa airport Saturday morning. The airport is about 65 km from Lhasa–bout an hour by bus–through a valley at once rocky and watery. The spell cast by my disbelief at being on the roof of the world was briefly broken as we passed new hotels, Ford and VW dealerships, and shopping malls. Lhasa today is a modern Chinese city, with about 400,000 people in its environs.

In Lhasa, we saw the predictable sights: the Potala, the Jokhang Temple, the Barkhor street market, Norbulingka park, summer home of the Dalai Lamas, and Sera Monastery. When not enjoying the crystal-clear air and deep, deep blue skies, however, I spent my time adjusting to the 12,000-foot altitude. My hotel accommodation was a cheap RMB 40 single room (about $5). During the brief Lhasa stay, I got reacqainted with such things as yak meat and Tibetan butter tea, both acquired tastes.

In my journal on the first day of my Tibet sojourn, I wrote: “Tibet seems to be the land of sky and rock. Even a cloudy sky here is dazzlingly different from the monotone smoggy gray that hovers over Chengdu. The clouds here have texture, shape, and color, and between them peeks a sky of unimaginably deep blue.” Our itinerary would take us to Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse, Shigatse, Everest Base Camp, Tingri, and finally to Zhangmu, on the Chinese border with Tibet. The Tibetan part of my journey was only the beginning: my summer travel would eventually last six weeks, taking me through Nepal, India, and eventually back to China.

The Tibetan landscape has been described as “lunar,” “a land of rock, sky, and water,” and “a desert at the top of the world.” To me it was a landscape of continual amazement, with constantly-changing colors, direct, blinding sunlight, and vast stretches of rock, brown-green grass, and undulating hills all the way to the horizon.

It was a fast tour. In better circumstances (less expense, fewer Chinese government restrictions), this itinerary could be stretched into two weeks or more. However, that’s what it is: an itinerary. That means being shepherded from sight to sight, ticket booth to ticket booth, paying special “tourist” prices to see monuments, and traveling a well-worn path during which we saw the same people over and over again. Call it the Tibetan conveyor belt. Not to say it detracted from the magnificence of what we were seeing, but I couldn’t help feeling that Tibet is being commodified, prettied up, and selected portions Disneyfied, with the same manufactured trinkets for sale wherever we went.

The highlights of the trip, for me, were the Gyantse Kumbum (Kumbum means “Ten thousand Buddhas”), a huge and multi-layered building, and the sight of Mount Everest in its mantle of clouds, a rare opportunity in the cloudy summer weather. My first sight of the snow-capped Himalaya range, from a high Tibetan mountain pass, with an icy wind whipping the lines of prayer flags into a frenzy, was an event that I was unable to put into words. Like one’s first view of an ocean, it was an experience so big and overwhelming that the mind has trouble coping with it all at once.

Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, in his sequel Return to Tibet, describes the Tibetan landscape perfectly:

Tibet will always remain the country of my dreams. My future trips there will include excursions to Mount Kailash and to the ancient Guge kingdom in the far west of the country. For now, I’m content that my home in Chengdu, under gray and smog-laden skies, is close in both distance and spirit to the land in the clouds, Tibet. All photos by Roger Jones.Read more from Roger at his blog Running into Myself and also check out his Flickr photostream for more superb photos.


Shenyang’s Manchu Mukden Palace: The other Forbidden City

When one thinks of the Forbidden City, the image of the palace in Beijing comes to mind. However, few know of the other Forbidden City that lies in the city of Shenyang in Manchuria, also known as Mukden Palace. As an ethnic Manchu myself, I decided to go visit this historical site….

Shenyang’s Forbidden City, while not nearly as big as its Beijing counterpart, has a rival history. Built in 1625 by the first Manchu king, Nurhaci, shortly after creating the Manchu nation, which was originally a military federation and political union connecting Jurchen tribes and various groups of Mongolians, North Han Chinese, and Koreans through assimilation and conquest, the palace became the seat of power of the Manchu kingdom. The first three Manchu kings lived in Mukden Palace until Nurhaci’s successors Dorgon and Huang Taiji conquered Ming Dynasty China, formally initiating the Qing Dynasty in 1644 AD.

A stone tablet with decrees written in the Manchu script. Although the script itself is borrowed from the Mongolian alphabet, the spoken language is that of the old Jurchen speech.

For a while, I have been trying to teach myself the language, but the resources are extremely difficult to find on your own unless you study this language in a formal class setting (there are just a few schools in Manchuria that offer Manchu language classes).

Examples of the traditional dress of the Manchu nobility during the Qing Dynasty. The people in this picture, when I asked, were not of Manchu ethnicity, rather they were Han Chinese tourists having photos taken of themselves in royal clothes.

To most Chinese people today, these clothes are simply those of the ruling class in Qing Dynasty, considered just one Chinese national clothing style among others, along with the hanfu, or traditional Han Chinese dress. In the national sense, they are correct, but in the cultural sense, these outfits are part of the Manchu identity, separate from Han Chinese identity represented by hanfu. According to my grandparents, my own ancestors were part of the noble aristocracy in Manchu society; perhaps they wore similar outfits at the time.

Dazheng Hall is the main hall of Shenyang’s Forbidden City. Renovated to exhibit characteristics not only of Manchu and Han Chinese architecture, it also displays Mongolian and Tibetan characteristics, a symbolic representation of unity within the young Manchu empire.

For me personally, this purpose of this trip was to reconnect with my ancestry at one of the last places in Manchuria representing a people who once thrived. This trip was of great worth, for I feel that recognizing and acknowledging the people from whom one came, and feeling pride from one’s origins, is one of the most fulfilling experiences one can ever have.

Yet many people of Manchu descent today don’t acknowledge their ancestry, and some even regard it as insignificant. However, no matter how much a person changes his nationality, language, or even living style, he cannot hide the truth of his parents, family, and identity. After all, ere oci mini buyere bana: This is our beautiful land. And this is who we are.


China Travel Photo of the Day: Lake Yamdrok’s photogenic black yak

Unearthly blue of Lake Yamdrok-tso behind and below, one very photogenic yak shows off in its Tibetan finery. Lake Yamdrok (Jade Lake) is one of Tibet’s three largest lakes. About 100km south of Lhasa and 4400m above sea level, it’s not the easiest place in the world to visit, but its astonishing beauty and purity (not to mention its adorable yaks) make it well worth the trouble. Look for more from Chen Bing on her October travels to Tibet here and over at Ctripper.


Dunhuang: The gorgeous edge of the Gobi

Dunhuang desert The sand dunes of Dunhuang were one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen in my life. Where is Dunhuang, you ask? Dunhuang is a town in the north west of Gansu province, 15 hours by train from Lanzhou. It’s definitely quite a trek out to Dunhuang, and once there, even further trekking is inevitable. But the views and experiences are irreplaceable and definitely worth the journey to the west of China. In such a remote area, what can one do? Well, I ended up riding a camel, climbing hundred-foot-tall sand dunes, having a bonfire with friends under starry desert skies, and marvelling at the millennia-old Mogao Caves. Read on after the jump for more pictures and details! I was traveling to Gansu with a group of classmates from New York University’s Shanghai study abroad program.

A Crescent Moon Lake Park sunsetMy intrepid fellow students and I were incredibly excited about going camping and riding camels in the Gobi Desert, and the experience definitely lived up to my expectations. We mounted camels (my trusty steed was named Seabiscuit because he kept charging ahead of the other camels) and marched out into the wilderness for three and a half hours. Once we came to our camping spot, which was located in Crescent Moon Lake Park, we enjoyed the sunset. Just that view was worth the long train from Lanzhou. The dunes were barely lit by the fading sun, which cast a rosy glow over the dun-colored hills. In Crescent Moon Lake Park, there are many activities available for a relatively small fee. Among these are riding in a small hang-gliding plane, riding camels, driving ATVs, and driving Jeeps up and down the dunes, which I opted for. Maneuvering a stick shift car in the sandy hills was unbelievably tricky and even more fun, and it only cost about 70 RMB once I split the cost with a few friends who rode with me.

We also visited the incredible Mogao Caves. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted inside, but the caves hold the third-largest Buddha in the world and are host to many caves containing 1500-year-old paintings and statues. The grottos, as they are often called, are awe-inspiring and beautiful, with art influences from as far away as Greece and India thanks to Dunhuang’s role on the Silk Road. Though they have only been open to the public since the late 1960s, the caves are already experiencing damage from tourists, so visit sooner rather than later (and, when you go, try not to do any damage yourself!). Getting to Dunhuang is no easy feat, but the effort my group and I exerted to arrive was nothing compared to the unforgettable sights in the area. I returned from my trip in awe and definitely a little changed by the beauty I experienced there.


The Silver Dragon: The Qiantang tidal bore hits Hangzhou (and surfers hit the bore)

Qiantang tidal bore, hangzhou, silver dragon 2010 Yesterday I encountered a mythical beast. A beast so powerful it has been feared for two millennia. A beast that in the last ten years has claimed the lives of Zhejiang, engulfing everything in its path. Ok, ok, enough of the melodrama… what I am in fact referring to is a phenomenon that is the Qiantang tidal bore, a.k.a. the Silver Dragon. Due to the particular geography of the Qiantang River where it meets the sea, the narrow bottleneck of the Hangzhou Bay causes the tide to rush in, in one gigantic wave. Though a regular occurrence on the river, once a year around mid-Autumn festival, it takes on epic proportions and has been known to reach up to nine meters in height.

It was a gray, wet and frankly, pretty miserable day. The drive from Shanghai to Hangzhou was two hours of perpetually misty spray as we negotiated around, behind and in front of the Zhejiang holiday traffic. With a rough idea of the tides in hand we arrived to the east of the city and found ourselves on a concrete strip of tired-looking promenade straddled on one side by the stretch of the calm, muddy waters of the Qiantang river at low tide and on the other, a construction site bordered by hotels and exhibition center, somewhere within which was the Action Sports China Expo 2010. Finding ourselves a spot on the almost deserted promenade was easy; there were precious few others around, though the handful there were gave us faith something was on its way. As we waited the numbers grew, though could barely be called a crowd. Jet skis buzzed up and down the river, police boats kept an eye on a foolhardy group who had ventured out on to rocks in the waters, and everyone kept their eyes fixed on the bridge in the distance.

Finally, we saw something. So subtle to start with it could almost be a mirage. A crest of white moving so slowly it seemed impossible, but within a minute several tiny black dots became visible– surfers riding the bore, cruising, cutting and slicing from side to side… approaching as if in slow motion. The wave was at least as high as the few boats still on the river (we later discovered it was just shy of three meters) and it broke upon the far side of the river with a force to be reckoned with. A murmur went through the crowd as we looked towards our own bank, the rushing wall of water hitting rock and mud with violent impact before reaching two huge outlets pipes not far from where we were standing, where it threw up a huge explosion of blackened water before filling two meters’ depth of what just seconds before had been nothing but air. It was the tide coming in at high speed, all at once, in one huge wave, and in the midst of it all, four pro surfers. Flown in from the US as part of an effort to introduce the sport of surfing and the surfing lifestyle to the Chinese masses, it was a highlight of the Action Sports China Expo. The first day of the three day event, the surfers would be out every day, taming the beast. Unfortunately, just where we stood, the wave was breaking too close to the sides for any real riding to be done. Instead they were towed behind jet skis, taking up the surge once more just tens of meters beyond, continuing the journey that had already taken them some 10 km down the river.

We’ll be checking out their efforts again over the next few days, investigating the China Actions Sports scene and visiting Yanguan, a small village 40km to the north east of Hangzhou and famed as the best spot to watch the water rushing in from the river. Stay tuned for more!


Hidden in plain sight: a secret terrace near Shanghai’s Yu Garden

While wandering around on my bike this Sunday I came across a little Japanese restaurant, Miyako No Mori, tucked away in Yu Garden Park (not actually in Yu Garden, which you must pay to enter, but just east of it towards the Bund promenade).Didn’t try the food there, (I stood there for 10 minutes and none of the staff even talked to me—so it’s not like I didn’t try!) but there is a rooftop terrace open to the public which leads to a walkway gently descending into the park behind it. As you can see from the pictures below, there are some really nice views to be had from the terrace, and it was, improbably, practically deserted. What’s more, there is a little café occupying the first floor of the building. Although the park security guards were blowing their whistles and ushering people out of the park for the 8:30 p.m. closing, the staff at Easom Restaurant on the ground floor (Miyako No Mori ison the second) told me that if I phoned them, they would come open the gate in front of the restaurant for me as they are open until 2:00 a.m. The restaurant has its own little outdoor terrace situated on a pond with a little fountain in it. It is very quiet and peaceful and there were only three tables there when I went, so if you’re looking for a totally secret chill-out spot in the middle of a park (though you can still see the top of the Westin Bund Center Shanghai—not the worst reminder that concrete-obsessed Shanghai is just beyond the trees), this little place should definitely make your list. How to get there: Go to Yu Garden via Renmin Lu heading east towards the Huangpu River and Bund promenade. The gate for the restaurant is about 50 meters north of the park’s Fuyou Lu entrance. See the pictures below for a preview, and a Google map locating it exactly.


China’s World Heritage Sites: Beijing, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall

spectacular natural scenery to historic (and prehistoric) wonders going back to the Middle Pleistocene. In this four-part series, we explore the best of China, starting with Beijing’s World Heritage Sites. We’ll follow up with China’s holy mountains, historical sites beyond Beijing, and the best of China’s natural parks and scenery. Stonehenge, Egypt’s pyramids at Giza, Easter Island… all have something in common besides Wutai Shan having been the most recent to join the World Heritage ranks, having been certified in 2009. Sites are chosen for their “outstanding universal value.” Popularity alone won’t win them recognition. World Heritage Sites must either demonstrably be a “masterpiece of human creative genius,” bear testimony to “a cultural tradition or to a civilization,” showcase “exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance” or otherwise embody some paragon of human cultural attainment or natural wonder. And the world’s oldest continuous civilization has such sites in abundance, from the world-famous to the little-known.Everyone knows about the Great Wall of China and Forbidden City, but how many travelers to China know about, say, southern Anhui Province’s ancient Xidi and Hongcun Villages, or the Zhoukoudian Peking Man site outside of Beijing? For every “must-see” straight from your guidebook there are a handful of intriguing surprises, making the UNESCO list a great guide to hitting all the old favorites while mixing in off-the-beaten path wonders seldom seen by foreign travelers. In China, everything revolves around Beijing, and the concentration of famed World Heritage sites in and around the ancient capital make it clear why. Beijing: World Heritage Site Central With the country’s best art galleries, craziest modern architecture, and a seemingly endless list of cultural and historical attractions to its name, a traveler could explore the city and its environs for weeks and just scratch the surface. However, with eight World Heritage Sites within day-trip range (often within walking distance of each other), seeing the best couldn’t be easier.

Follow the Emperor: Beijing’s Heavenly Axis Three of Beijing’s most famous World Heritage Sites are the direct result of one man’s ambition. Two of these form the axis around which Beijing as we know it once revolved. A day trip exploring the masterworks of Ming Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) traces this great ruler’s public life as well as providing great insight into the foundations of Chinese society. Following geomantic north-south lines along which construction of Beijing has long been ordered, the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, both World Heritage Sites, lie in line with a string of other major attractions: Tian’anmen Square, the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, and the reconstructed Yongdingmen, formerly a major gate in Beijing’s massive city wall (if Mao hadn’t dictated that the wall be torn down and replaced by a ring highway and subway, Beijing would almost certainly boast one more World Heritage Site). The two sites can be done in a single day if you wish, though the massive Forbidden City alone is worth repeat daylong visits. For those looking to venture deeper into the world of the Ming, the Ming Tombs further testify to Yongle’s ambition, power and aesthetic genius. Not only did he preside over the creation of the world’s largest palace and a temple dedicated to his mandate as “Son of Heaven” after relocating the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing, but he furthered his bid for immortality by establishing a new, massive dynastic burial complex.

Yongle chose the site for its excellent feng shui, created by the surrounding wooded mountains and calm waters and balancing aesthetics and the five traditional Chinese elements (wuxing), while the spare beauty of the site as a whole exemplifies sober Confucian design. Imperial playground: Beijing’s SummerPalace Contrasting with the Ming Tomb’s solemn dignity, the Summer Palace is an erstwhile playground of emperors and comprises the largest preserved historical garden in China. The Summer Palace’s expansive grounds rise from an placid lake in which the Qi , with numerous sights, can easily take a full day to appreciate. Once you’re done with sites within city limits, it’s time to get out of town. This is where you’ll find both the most and least-known world heritage sites in Beijing. While the Great Wall of China was the shield protecting Chinese civilization, Zhoukoudian is where Homo Erectus fashioned the tools promising Chinese civilization its evolution before it was even born.

The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian is where paleo-anthropological debates roared to life and huge contributions to the understanding of human evolution were made. For those interested in Chinese and world pre-history, the commute out to the museum is well worthwhile. Don’t forget the Great Wall! As the largest structure ever built, the Great Wall of China presents visitors with the unique challenge of a site that, at over 6,000 km in length, can’t possibly be fully explored in less than say, eight months. However, there are numerous spectacular spots along the Wall that can be reached and explored in a day from Beijing. As with the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall’s fame is also a detriment. Though many sections have been rebuilt to make them safe and to restore their original aesthetic

appeal, other problems such as overcrowding and commercialism make choosing the right part of the wall important to get the most enjoyment out of the experience. Badaling section of the wall is “a sea of KFCs and tour buses.” It is the most convenient section to Beijing, and there’s no doubt that the sight of the wall snaking past dramatically jutting ridges and peaks is impressive, but the view is compromised by the highway, giant parking lot and enormous crowds delivered daily. Fortunately, there are plenty of other Great Wall sites to visit, some of them more remote and rugged, others equipped with cable cars and easy-access approaches. Just north of Badaling is the Juyongguan Pass section. Featuring a massive white marble tower, it is less crowded, and at just 50 km from the city, still within easy day-trip range of Beijing, making it a fine alternative to Badaling. Connecting to Juyongguan is the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Also easily accessible at just 70 km out of town, it features a cable car that whisks visitors straight to the top. It’s also perfect for hikers, who can explore Mutianyu’s 22 watchtowers on foot. For the most dramatic scenery, and most challenging hikes, the Simitai, Jiankou, Gubeikou and Huanghua sections of the great wall are tops. You’ll see great, crumbling towers standing sentinel over vast mountain ranges as un-restored sections of the wall plunge and climb over peaks around them, and best of all, there’s a good chance that they’ll be practically deserted.

Gubeikou, in particular, was singled out by the expert’s panel as being the “best new tourist site that encompasses geotourism benchmarks,” with little to no badgering and plenty of respect for historical relics and the environment. Just make sure you’ve got a good pair of hiking boots on. The other Forbidden City Considered by UNESCO to be an extension of the Forbidden City, Shenyang’s Imperial Palace (Mukden Palace), built by China’s first Qing (Manchu) emperors, is a considerable haul from Beijing, but for true China enthusiasts, it’s a must. The “extension” classification may seem curious at first, upon further consideration it’s revealing of the breadth, depth and richness of China’s history. When the Manchus overthrew the Ming and established their own dynasty, the Qing, they took residence in Yongle’s Forbidden City. However, to distinguish themselves from their Han subjects and maintain a vital connection to their northern roots, the Manchu established a second palace in their old capital, modeling it after Beijing’s Forbidden City. And despite the distance from Beijing, it’s not out of the question to make a day trip of it; the short flight from Beijing to Shenyang can be as low as RMB 200 one way (USD 30). The reward is significant: The Manchu-built palace showcases a fusion of Tibetan, Manchu and classic Chinese architecture unique in the Chinese architectural cannon. More information To find out how to travel to these destinations from Beijing, simply click on the links of the sites in the text above. Traveling to Beijing is easy, extra affordable if you use Ctrip to book your flight! China Travel tips Booking Beijing flights and hotels is easy with our partner Ctrip, China’s leading provider of online travel services. The company’s English-language website and call center provide excellent service, and you can almost always find a deal. We suggest a hotel in the center of the city close to the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City. You’ll have the flexibility of exploring central Beijing by foot, bike or car, with or without a guide. As for the Summer Palace, Great Wall, Ming Tombs and other outlying attractions, all major tourist hotels offer transportation and tours to Beijing’s World Heritage Sites, though quality varies. Ctrip also offers quality Beijing tours (private and group) and activities, bookable online. World Heritage Sites are to be preserved for benefit of all, so always be respectful of the site and the culture of the people who live there. Leave as light a footprint as you can, appreciate the locals and try to make a meaningful connection with the place. Learning a bit of the local language opens up new worlds and will put a smile on your hosts’ faces, so give it whirl! Finally, Google provides an interesting interactive map specific to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Click here to navigate to that page and then scroll down to pick the country you’d like to find out about. Dragging the little orange man in the top left corner onto a destination should give you street level views of the selected site.


48 Hours in Beijing: Choose Your Own Adventure

Welcome to Day 2 of our 48-hour insider guide to Beijing. See Part 1 of to take it from the top. For more self-guided Beijing tours, click here.Day 2 – 8:00 am – 9:30 am The same breakfast and survival pack recommendations from day one apply.10:00 am – Choose Your Own Adventure We all have different ideas, hopes, opinions and aspirations for their China experience. Day one was jam-packed with major sites—and there are plenty more to fill many days’ worth of sightseeing—but the morning of Day 2 of High-ImpactBeijing offers four distinct options for different types of tourists. The Shopper Beijing’s “Silk Street” marketplace (Xiushui Jie, is a super-sized venue for virtually all your souvenir shopping needs. Whether seeking traditional Chinese goods (jade, silk, pearls, etc.) or knock-off brand nams (it’s okay, we all do it sometimes), “Silk Street” has it all (even a Starbucks—Beijing probably has more than Seattle). Conveniently located near the Metro Line 1 Yonganli station, it’s a great place for bargaining. The Bohemian Beijing has become home to a unique and burgeoning art scene with the epicenter lying in Dashanzi in the Chaoyang District .The 798 Gallery(constantly features interesting and provocative exhibitions from contemporary Chinese artists and is one of modern Beijing’s true gems. The gallery space doesn’t open until 10:30, so if you’re interested in an authentic bohemian morning, you have time for a few extra taps on the snooze button. A Different Kind of Museum Rather than spending your morning viewing paintings and sculptures, head west on Metro Line 1 to the China People’s Revolution Military Museum (Junshi Bowuguan, don’t worry about the pronunciation—the museum has its own subway stop) for a little modern Chinese history (spiked with a healthy dose of propaganda, of course). The 60,000 square-meter facility tells the Party’s official story of China’s Communist revolution through photographs and war memorabilia, making it a source of intrigue for Chinese history buffs and the layperson alike. The Straight-Up Tourist If you’re interested in more traditional history and culture, hop in a taxi and head northwest to the Summer Palace (YiHeYuan). Although a bit far from the city center (approximately RMB 50-60 cab fare and 45 minutes in moderate traffic), the Summer Palace is another Beijing sightseeing staple, featuring classical gardens, a manmade lake, ornate temples, monuments and pagodas. It’s great place for a picnic (which you really should pack because the on-site food is limited in variety, low in quality, overpriced and requires standing in line) or a never-ending hike. Completed around 1764, the Summer Palace was commissioned by Qing Emperor Qianlong as a present to his mother for her 60th birthday—surely one of the world’s top most extravagant birthday gifts ever. Of all the various pagodas, the amazing Pagoda of Buddhist Fragrance (which requires an additional ticket, but don’t worry, it’s cheap) offers the best view of Kunming Lake . Of course, there are many more Beijing attractions worth visiting—check out our Beijing attraction guide for alternatives to the Summer Palace. 2:00 pm – Qianmen Gate and Tian’anmen Square Regardless of your choice of morning activity, by 2 o’clock you should be ready to head back to Tian’anmen Square , this time starting on the south side at the Qianmen Gate, which also has its own metro station. Formerly Manchu-era Beijing’s main gate, Qianmen, which literally means “front gate,” offers yet another view on the capital’s military traditions, having previously served as a lookout post. Head north past Qianmen into the main square for more photo opportunities. Although one of the most famous tourist attractions in Beijing and the largest city square in the world, when you get down to it, Tian’anmen is really just a vast space dotted with a few statues of dubious artistic merit. Mao ZeDong’s Mausoleum is situated on the south side of the square; however, its hours of operation are limited and lines consistently long. Regardless, every visit to Beijing requires the requisite snapshots of you in the square making funny faces next to the constant military presence (they are not as stolid as the guards of Buckingham Palace and will occasionally crack a smirk, although come the Olympics it will no doubt be all business). 3:00 pm – Temple of Heaven Park A short cab ride, or reasonable walk (by now you realize that there are no short walks in Beijing) south of Tian’anmen lies the Temple of Heaven Park. Tiantian Gongyuan, as it’s known in Mandarin is home to China’s most famous temple and the intriguing Echo Wall. It’s true that in the past two days, if you have followed the prescribed itinerary, you’ve already seen numerous parks and temples, but several—the Temple of Heaven among them—stand out as being exceptional—and years after your Chinese expedition when you’re showing slides to the grandchildren you’ll be glad you made it. So push through any temple fatigue you might be feeling and prepare to be wowed. 5:00 pm – A Brief Intermission It’s been a long couple of days and most likely exhaustion will begin to set in after such intense sightseeing. So, whenever you are done wandering around the park, head back to your accommodations, sneak a quick shower, drop off any gifts/souvenirs, and eventually head to the northwest toward Dongzhimen Nei Lu. On the second ring road. Dinner on the “Ghost Street” – Dongzhimen Also known as Gu Jie, Dongzhimen Nei Lu. is home to dozens of excellent restaurants that feature various types of Chinese cuisine. For hot and spicy selections check out Jin Gui Xiao Shan Cheng 214 Dongzhimen Nei), while Xiao Mian Yang Dongzhimen Nei) offers up some exquisite hot pot. Regardless of your preference, Dongzhimen (located in the DongCheng district, has so many excellent choices that you could eat at a different restaurant for a month and still have great eats in your future.