After a long-grueling journey, it’s always nice to relax and rest but I sometimes tend to underestimate distances. On the map Beijing East Station looked closer to Qianmen, the area where I was staying, than it really was. Naturally I decided to walk despite having easy access to subways, taxis and buses; as it turns out the path to get to Qianmen is fairly straight but it’s 7.8 kilometers which ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t have all my luggage. After a lot of stopping and occasionally getting lost in the unfamiliar streets, I finally arrived at my room to rest. By this time though I was pretty hungry, both from the walk and my train journey.
Qianmen (The front gate) was once the southern entrance of Beijing’s inner city, the quarters of the rich and powerful and of course close to the imperial palace. The massive walls of Beijing’s city gates surrounded the perimeter of the area; these gates though were demolished starting in 1912 with the fall of the imperial dynasty and by the 1970s almost all walls were gone to make room for transportation networks, factories and buildings. Qianmen and several other gates are all that remain of a once vast network of walls that divided Beijing into the Outer City, Inner City, Imperial City and Forbidden City.
This important gate sits on Beijing’s central north-south axis, aligning it perfectly with Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum and the Forbidden City to the north. To the south Qianmen Street is located and is host to several international stores though due to catering neither to locals nor travelers, it is often empty. During the Chinese New Year festivities though, thousands of people crowded the streets of Qianmen which has many sugar sculpture shops, candied apple stalls and the iconic Peking duck restaurants, many of which trace their origins to the late Qing dynasty. One of the most iconic of these restaurants is Quanjude ( Meaning perfection, union and benevolence) established in 1864 and the first restaurant to sell the iconic Peking duck to common folk due to the dish’s imperial cuisine origins.
Another interesting note of Qianmen‘s surrounding areas is the amount of shops selling cheap clothing, street food, fireworks and other decorations for Chinese New Year which together created a livelier atmosphere away from the main’s street’s emptiness. Qianshi Hutong, in this same area, is the narrowest alley in the city at only 16 inches wide in some areas and was once famous for being the Imperial Dynasty’s coin minting hub but is now only one more of Qianmen‘s many alleyways.
To the north of Qianmen is the now infamous Tiananmen due to the incident involving the government crackdown of protesters in 1989. It is an event that is hardly talked about in China and when it is, it is done in hushed voices or through different code words such as 历史的伤口 (history’s wound) , May 35th (May 31 + 4 days = June 4th), 春夏之交 (when spring becomes summer), 那天 (that day) and many many others; all of which end up being discovered and blocked on the internet at some point or another.
Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) is within the 10 largest squares in the world and also refers to the gate dating back to the Ming dynasty that leads to the Forbidden City. By the time of the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, a major expansion of the square was underway with large monuments such as the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People also being constructed at this time. A large mausoleum constructed after Mao Zedong‘s death also was erected in the center of the square. it is possible to enter though there is high-security, long lines and a prohibition on photography but it is an interesting reminder of the respect and admiration held for the Great Helmsman of China despite what he is known for in the West.
If you visit in winter it’s probably smart to take some warm clothes but I didn’t so I quickly felt the effects of being outside in a square with little shelter from the cold winter winds and below freezing temperatures of Beijing. Still walking around the heart of Beijing and the many historical buildings dating back to the 1950s was a good introduction to the capital of China and the rest of my stay in the city.