My latest sponsored destination piece for Shangri-La Hotels Inner Circle site, this time staying at the China World Beijing.
City of Imperial Treasures
Amid the highways and high-rises of a rapidly developing metropolis, Beijing still offers visitors China’s finest collection of imperial art and architectural treasures.
Few cities on earth offer the epochal contrasts of Beijing, a city that hasn’t stopped evolving since it was first established by the Mongols, sweeping down from the plains and conquering China in the thirteenth century. It was Kublai Khan who built Dadu, as the city was then known, the crowning glory of the new Yuan Dynasty. It became capital of “all under heaven” in 1271.
Today, a few remnants live on from the days of Dadu. Beijingers strolling along a narrow raised park in the north of the city might well be unaware that they stand atop what is left 0f Dadu’s earthwork city walls. In the center of town, the lakes of Shichahai, flanked by drooping willows and Tsingtao bars, were once part of an ancient port that connected with the Grand Canal. Under the worn cobbles of Wanning Bridge on Di’anmen Outer Street, a pair of stone-carved ‘water quelling beasts’ are easily missed, but they’ve guarded this strategic waterway since the 1200s.
But the greatest living legacy of the days of Dadu is the DNA of the modern city itself. The warren of narrow residential alleyways that still crisscross the capital are called hutong, a derivation of a Mongolian word; the checkerboard layout of old Beijing still owes a great deal to its original planners. Today, these monochrome, grey-brick hutong help make the regal splendor of Beijing’s grand imperial architecture stand out all the more.
It was the subsequent Ming Dynasty that built Beijing’s single greatest art treasure. Hidden from view behind 3.5km of scarlet citadel walls, the Forbidden City is a masterpiece of architectural symmetry and grandeur. It has hosted 24 emperors, scheming eunuchs, harems of concubines, and more than a little political intrigue over the centuries, until the last emperor Puyi was booted out in 1924.
According to an audit taken around that time, the Forbidden City contained over a million pieces of art. Although much found its way to Taiwan with the Nationalists, the bulk of its collection is now on display in the Forbidden City, officially called the Palace Museum, which opened to the public barely a year after the last Emperor’s abdication. Dozens of galleries are home to everything from silk scroll paintings to antique clocks given in tribute by foreign rulers. Millions of visitors, domestic and foreign, visit the Forbidden City each year, and during public holidays the world’s largest palace complex can swell to 180,000 visitors per day.
But with over 900 rooms and halls there’s always a quiet corner to escape to. Especially as, year-on-year, more of the complex is restored and opened to tourists. In 2016, it became possible to walk atop a stretch of the battlement walls for the first time, offering stunning aerial views of gabled rooftops bedecked in yellow glazed tiles – a color reserved for the emperor alone.
For a more intimate classical art experience in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Beijing boasts a surprising hidden gem inside a glass and steel skyscraper along the city’s second ring road. The Poly Art Museum is a private collection of exquisite bronze ware, ceramics and Buddhist sculptures, gorgeously displayed, not behind glass but on exposed plinths, and with barely another visitor in sight. Much of the collection was purchased and repatriated from overseas auction houses. Look out for six of the dozen ‘zodiac sculptures’ that once adorned a fountain at perhaps Beijing’s second most important imperial site - the Summer Palace.
A royal retreat in northwest Beijing, this sprawling collection of pagodas, temples, towers and bridges flanking Kunming Lake was the favourite playground of the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who would retire here in summer to escape the stultifying heat of the Forbidden City. It was she who commissioned its most photographed folly, the Marble Boat – a mandatory stop after visitors have tramped the length of the ornately carved, covered Long Corridor on the north shore of the lake. The lake itself is bordered by willows and crossed by causeways and the 17-Arch Bridge, the largest of the palace’s 30 or so bridges. Its design echoes Lugou Bridge in the far south of Beijing, over which Marco Polo strolled in the 13th century, declaring it a “very fine stone bridge”, with “few equals in the world”.
A fitting tribute to Beijing’s imperial past, the China World Hotel by Shangri-La goes to great lengths to conjure Beijing’s rich artistic history. One of the city’s older luxury hotels, its grand lobby is inset with red columns, evoking the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony whose mighty pillars were cut from trees in distant jungles and floated along rivers to the capital. Every Sunday afternoon, opera singers and a small orchestra serenade guests enjoying traditional afternoon tea under the lobby’s chandeliers. Bespoke art pieces surround the space; motifs of golden bamboo; silk panels portraying traditional Chinese landscapes; wood panels finished with gold leaf; even model elephants, a nod to the ceremonial importance of these royal animals, once housed in stables to the south of the Forbidden City.
The location, too, is fitting for culture vultures. China World Hotel is on the very same road that passes in front of the Forbidden City, built at the same time as the palace during the Ming Dynasty. The Forbidden City sits in the middle of the zhong zhou xian, the city’s central axis of Imperial architecture, starting with the Drum and Bell Towers in the north and ending at the Temple of Heaven in the south. What this means, of course, is that the heart of Imperial Beijing can be found in a direct line from the hotel, just a sedan chair ride (or a few subway stops) away.