Beijing's best day trips: culture and history

Historic sites for an educational day out

Beijing is of course a city packed with culture and history. We have some crackin' museums, as well as huge sites of historic importance, such as the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. Heck, we even have the Great Wall of China winding round our daily lives. But just on the edges of the city and beyond lie even more wells of the past, many of which are off the touristy beaten track. Treat yourself to some ancient architecture, spiritualism, culture, history – or all of the above – and try one of these day trips.
Su Lawang Grave

Su Lawang Grave

The town populated by descendants of an ancient Filipino king

Turns out there’s an ancient King of Sulu buried in Dezhou, and he’s the only foreign head of state ever to have been laid to rest in China. In 1417, Ming emperor Zhu Di commissioned an elaborate memorial to honour the then East King of Sulu, Paduka Pahala, after he abruptly fell ill and died in Dezhou on a tributary mission to the Middle Kingdom. A turning point in Chinese-Filipino relations, the Sulu king’s two younger sons would go on to integrate themselves with the local Hui community, their descendants eventually taking the surnames Wen and An.

As far as tourist destinations in Shandong go, Dezhou is under the radar. Historically known as a gateway to Beijing and a major transportation hub, in recent years it’s been rebranded as a ‘solar city’. With its wide highways, manicured nature strips and solar panel-crested residential developments, it all feels distinctly new.

To get to the tomb, take the 112 bus from Dezhou East Station. After 45 minutes the bus turns left down Jiefang Zhong Lu. Get off at the junction of Jiefang Zhong Lu and Qingnian Lu, then turn right down Qingnian Lu and walk for roughly 300m until you reach the entrance. Arranged in a courtyard fashion, a covered walkway links the three separate buildings that make up the adjoining museum. The buildings are filled with relics and family trees, and it’s the written correspondence between the Chinese and Filipino governments over the years which is particularly fascinating.

The tomb itself lies behind the courtyard in a tree-filled clearing. Separated from the high-rises and main roads, Su Luwang Grave is unsettlingly quiet and peaceful. Despite being surrounded by houses, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person for miles, a rare experience in a Chinese city. When you’ve finished exploring, jumping back on the same bus takes you down to the bustle of Dezhou city centre. There’s a lot to do here, but make sure you try Dezhou braised chicken, and don’t miss the Xinhu scenic area.

Full of chicken, head back to the station (this time on the 106 bus). Like a rising sun, an enormous curved building will emerge over the horizon. This is Solar Valley. Built in 2010, Dezhou’s most famous attraction is showing signs of ageing, but if you’re into urban exploration it’s worth getting off the bus for. Like Su Luwang Grave, we don’t encounter another visitor the entire time, and it feels almost like a post-apocalyptic, abandoned cityscape.

Getting there Take the train from Beijing South and then catch the 112 bus from the depot outside Dezhou East Station.

Travel time 80 minutes on the train from Beijing South to Dezhou East, then 45 minutes on the 112 bus to Su Luwang Grave.

Cost 145RMB one-way for the train; 2RMB per bus ride.

Zhengding

Zhengding

The surprisingly pleasant northern face of Shijiazhuang

When you hear the sounds ‘shi’, ‘jia’ and ‘zhuang’, the first three syllables that come to mind are probably ‘poll’, ‘u’ and ‘ted’. You wouldn’t be totally wrong – Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, is often far ahead of Beijing in the AQI race to the top, and tourists are generally advised to steer well clear.

A short drive away from the city centre, however, lies Zhengding, a provincial county with temples, authentic local food and north China’s premier Ping-Pong academy.

The borders of Zhengding are marked by towering and ornately painted archways, which serve as gates between the ancient religious centre and the outside world. Zhengding was the founding place of many schools of Zen Buddhism, and as such has plenty of pretty spectacular temples that have survived historical assaults and have been restored to their former glory.

The most impressive of these is Longxing Temple. For a 50RMB entrance fee (half price for concessions), visitors can while away at least an hour wandering through the sprawling prayer halls, gardens and pagodas. There’s even a tranquil lake, perfect for a Mulan moment of reflective contemplation, and right at the back of the complex there’s a very nice hill from which you can gaze back over the picturesque grounds.

It’s worth taking the time to check out all the artwork on display in the temple. Intricately carved Buddhas and a huge bronze statue of Guan Yin, known as the Goddess of Mercy, are just two of the many impressive artefacts. Once you’ve had your fill of ancient religious spiritualism, we recommend slurping down a bowl of hearty lamian at the small shop opposite, which will set you back a princely 8RMB.

Also in Zhengding is the Zhengding Table Tennis Association, a training base for Chinese and foreign athletes. When we visited, the school was empty but open for having a look around, and is worth checking out for the slightly haunting feeling that only hundreds of abandoned Ping-Pong tables can provoke.

Getting there From Beijing West Railway Station, take the high-speed train to Shijiazhuang. From there you can get a taxi to Zhengding.

Travel time One hour from Beijing to Shijiazhuang; 40 minutes from Shijiazhuang to Zhengding.

Cost Train tickets are 125.8RMB each way, and the taxi should cost around 50RMB.

Miaofengshan (妙 峰山)

Miaofengshan (妙 峰山)

A spiritual focal point carved into the mountains

Mount Miaofeng (Miaofengshan, 妙 峰山) is the end point of one of the Taoist pilgrimages from Beijing. At its highest peak it reaches 1,291m, which is pretty hard going if you’ve walked all the way from Beijing, but a bit more manageable if you’ve been driven from the end of Line 1.

Once you’ve been dropped off in Miaofengshan village (Miaofengshanzhen, 妙峰山镇), where you can find quaint houses and precisely one local restaurant serving up basic but hearty dishes, it’s time to ascend.  The climb takes about an hour, depending on how often you stop to gawp at the mountainous views behind you. Don’t worry about getting lost; there’s only really one way to go, which is up towards the Miaofeng Temple looming above. 

After a pretty rugged traverse, a more touristy scene awaits you at the top. The ancient and more recent history of the temples are explained in English and Chinese on plenty of helpful signs. There’s not a huge amount to do here, but there is a huge amount to see. Just by the entrance is a small patio set up with some tables and chairs – buy a cup of tea from the woman guarding the fort and soak up the jaw-dropping landscape, which makes you feel a lot further from Beijing than you actually are.

Getting there Line 1 to Pingguoyuan, then either catch the 8.30am 929 bus to Miaofengshan (once a day), or haggle with a local driver for a lift. The return bus is at 4pm.

Travel time One hour from Pingguoyuan by car (or two if you get the bus).

Cost 40RMB for Miaofengshan; around 300RMB  for round trip with private driver from Pingguoyuan (depending on your bartering skills). 4RMB for the bus.

Peking Man Site

Peking Man Site

Pay homage to the original human

Zhoukoudian, better known as the site of Peking Man – one of the first specimens of homo erectus – is one of the most important paleontological sites in the world. A Unesco World Heritage site, the area is also regarded as having the oldest reliable evidence for the controlled use of fire. Get a map from the ticket booth and head first for the indoor museum. All of the human remains here are cast replicas (the originals vanished during transport in 1941) but the primitive tools and complete animal skeletons from the mid-to-late Pleistocene era – including a cave bear, striped hyena and a tiger – are genuine and were unearthed at Zhoukoudian.

But the museum isn’t why you’re here – get outside and explore the 15 excavation sites, which are spread over several square miles and all open for exploration. With hardly any other tourists around when we went –
admittedly on a weekday – the excavation sites make for an incredibly peaceful and not particularly strenuous ramble in lush surrounds, with the odd cave or two thrown in for good measure.

The Peking Man cave is the deepest, darkest and most bone-chilling of them all, the exact site where man’s ancient ancestor lived some 500,000 to 700,000 years ago. Don’t miss the excavation site labelled 'Locality 4', a particularly beautiful cave, which is one of the sites where burnt bones and ash remnants were discovered – evidence of the first-ever use of fire.

Getting there Take the '917 Qu' (917区) bus from Xicheng district’s Tianqiao long-distance bus terminal to Zhoukoudian, then transfer to the 'Fang 38' bus (房 38) to get to the Peking Man Site.

Travel time It takes under three hours each way if you’re relying solely on public transport; under two hours each way by private car.

Cost Buses cost 13RMB in total, one-way. Peking Man site ticket is 30RMB.

Badachu Park

Badachu Park

A peaceful temple site within the Beijing borders

Nestled in the Western Hills, the slopes of Badachu Park host an array of Buddhist temples, nunneries and shrines. Centred around the Temple of Divine Light and its ‘Buddha Tooth’ relic, the park offers a real sense of spirituality.

If you think the handful of monks at the Lama Temple make it a spiritual hub, think again. At Badachu, monks, nuns and Buddhists far outnumber tourists; the quiet shrines are active places of worship where locals come to pray for guidance, health and luck in the lottery. They may also come for the exhilarating toboggan slide (60RMB) from the top of the hill back down to the entrance of the park.

The final courtyard of the Temple of the Fragrant World is a shady haven thick with incense. Sit beneath the trees and have a refreshing slice of watermelon (which you can buy from a nearby vendor) before continuing your pilgrimage uphill.

Getting there Take the subway to Pingguoyuanstation (Line 1); leave via the north exit and take bus 972 (first bus 6am; last bus 8pm) to the entrance of the park.

Travel time Two hours.

Tian Yi Eunuch Tomb

Tian Yi Eunuch Tomb

A historic and peaceful Beijing tomb site

Tian Yi Eunuch Tomb is the final resting place of Tian Yi who was – wait for it... a eunuch. It’s an interesting spot to learn about the culture that was influential during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The moment you walk in, the surrounding ambient noise dies away and you’re greeted by an eerily calm graveyard. You can then walk down into the dark open grave, which is very well preserved despite being looting in 1911.

While the artefacts in the eunuch museum are fascinating, the info boards are in Mandarin only. Best give it a miss if your Chinese isn’t up to scratch. That being said, old-timey ceramic dildos are kind of the Esperanto of the museum world – horses for courses, really.

Getting there From Pingguoyuan station (Line 1), take buses 336, 396 or 746 to Shougang Xiaoqu. You can walk from there.

Travel time 90 minutes.

Cost 8 RMB; 4RMB for students.

Fragrant Hills

Fragrant Hills

Popular and picturesque park on the western edge of Beijing

Originally cultivated in 1186, Fragrant Hills Park has been a dynastic hang-out spot for centuries. Upon entering the park (15RMB), the etymology of the name is obvious: the delicate aroma of the cypress trees lingers in the air. Enter through the north gate and amble towards the unique Biyun Temple (10RMB). First built in 1331, it’s a beautiful house of worship in its own right, made even more outstanding by its harmonious marriage with nature: thick shrubbery shrouds the buildings, wild ivy climbs the walls, cedar trees tower above the halls of worship; mountains perfectly frame the whole scene. 

A good route is to follow the signs to Mao’s former residence (Shuangqing Villa) for an hour-long stroll through the gardens. Be sure not to miss Jingcui Lake on your left. With lily pads resting on the glistening water and wilting willow trees all around, Jincui looks like a classic Chinese watercolour, so picture perfect it almost feels clichéd.

Shuanqing Villa is equally as beautiful. Mao stayed here in the summer of 1949, overseeing the last few months of the revolution. He directed ‘the crossing of the Yangtze River’ campaign from here – a battle that was one of the final few key victories for the Communists. As military bases go, it’s not a bad place to overthrow the decadent bourgeois class. You can also enter the modest villa to peer at his office and austere sleeping quarters.

Getting there Take bus 360 (5.30am-10pm) from Beijing Zoo (Line 4) and get off at Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan; 香山) after 25 stops.

Travel time One hour

Cost 15RMB to enter the park.

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