China's long list of World Heritage Sites delivers everything from 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.
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 tipsBooking 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.