Brought to you in parts, lest I overload you with too many photos at once.
Part 1: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
Part 2: Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven
Part 3: Great Wall
Beijing (北京 - "northern capital") is a city of bucket list-worthy attractions: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, the hutongs, and, just outside Beijing, the Great Wall. Beijing is a mix of old and new. It is the current political and cultural center of China, the seat from which the Chinese Communist party dictates today, and was the seat of power for Chinese emperors long before. (It's easy to forget: the last of the Chinese emperors fell in 1912... during the lifetime of some of Beijing's oldest living residents.) Beijing's importance as a city and sometime-capital significantly predates the unification of China in 221 BC. Paleolithic Homo sapiens lived in the caves about 27,000 to 10,000 years ago; Homo erectus roamed the area hundreds of thousands of years before that.
While China can be difficult for the non-Chinese speaking foreigner to navigate, Beijing is (relatively) not. The city's transportation system and tourist attractions were overhauled before the 2008 Olympics; the subway is modern, cheap (2 RMB, about US$0.33, to anywhere in the city), and bilingual. The major tourist sites are well-equipped to handle multinational crowds (especially English-speaking ones). Still, the majority of tourists who visit Beijing each year are 外地人 -- Chinese visitors from other parts of the country. Considering how large the population of China is, that's not such a surprise!
Forbidden City (故宫)
The Forbidden City, the center around which ancient Beijing was arranged (continuing through today: the central north-south axis of the Forbidden City remains the central axis of Beijing; the Forbidden City is the center point of the Beijing ring roads), was the Chinese imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Built from 1406-1420, the complex is said to contain 9,999 rooms and covers 720,000 m2 (0.28 square miles). A 52 meter-wide moat rings the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City lacks the overwhelming glitz of the Grand Palace of Bangkok. The interior features large, open, treeless squares (lest an assassin hide in the shade) ringed by largely uniform buildings bearing golden roofs and red walls. Subtle details such as the statuettes on the ridges of the roofs mark the status of the buildings. The sheer size of the Forbidden City is overwhelming; it is best taken in from above, from nearby Jingshan Park.
The only trees in the Forbidden City are found in the Imperial Garden, located at the northern end of the complex.
Life in the Forbidden City was governed by strict regal protocol. To quote Lonely Planet, "In former ages the price for uninvited admission was instant execution; these days 40 RMB will do." Entrance to the Forbidden City was regulated through four gates, one on each side (today, public access is available through two: the north and south gates). The Meridian Gate, the southern and largest gate, has five arched gateways. The central opening was reserved strictly for the emperor -- the empress could join him only on her wedding day. A restoration of the emperor's wedding chamber is on display in the Forbidden City.
The symbol for "double happiness" on the emperor's wedding bedspread
Jingshan Park (景山公园)
The Forbidden City is capped by Jingshan Park to the north and Tiananmen Square to the south. The 150-foot artificial hill at Jingshan Park was constructed using soil excavated from the moats of the Imperial Palace. It fulfills the principles of Feng Shui, which say that it is favorable to build a residence to the south of a nearby hill, keeping the evil spirits (and cold winds) from the north at bay. In Beijing, no such hill existed to the north of the Forbidden City. Now, one does.
Views from atop the hill at Jingshan Park:
Tiananmen Square (天安门广场)
Walk out the Meridian gate (午门) of the Forbidden City and continue south through the Duanmen (端门) and Tiananmen (天安门) gates, and you'll reach the vast, flat expanse of Tiananmen Square. "Tian'anmen" literally means "Gate of Heavenly Peace", but most Westerners' association with Tiananmen is anything but peaceful.
Tiananmen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world, with 440,000 m2 (109 acres) of flat gray paving stones. The outside is ringed by white perimeter fences, with entrances controlled by security screenings. The military presence is meant to be highly noticeable: tall lampposts are fitted with security cameras. Actions are monitored by uniformed and plain clothes policemen, ready to jump on anyone who dares to protest. Despite the overbearing, authoritarian atmosphere, the Square swarms with people.
Tiananmen Square is flanked by the Great Hall of the People on the west side and the National Museum of China on the east side. Mao Zedong's mausoleum sits at the south end. A constant, yet quick-moving line of people wishing to pay their respects to Comrade Mao snakes out into the Square. The Monument of the People's Heroes rises from the center of the Square, contrasting its flatness.
Monument of the People's Heroes
Line to enter Chairman Mao's mausoleum
Having explored the attractions at the very heart of Beijing, we moved outward to explore the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, and then further to the Great Wall, the barrier which separated China from the northern "barbarians".