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China Travel Guide > Discovering China > Beijing & the North
 

China Travel Guide

Beijing & the North

  • Beijing
  • Hebei, Tianjin & Shanxi
  • Shandong & Henan
  • Shaanxi
  • Practicing tai ji quan, Temple of Heaven, Beijing
    Practicing tai ji quan,
    Temple of Heaven, Beijing
    Vividly painted cave interior at the Yungang Caves, Datong, Shanxi
    Vividly painted cave interior
    at the Yungang Caves, Datong, Shanxi

    Threaded by the yellow river and the Great Wall, China’s north encompasses the six provinces of Hebei, Tianjin, Shanxi, Shandong, Henan, and Shaanxi, as well as Beijing, the nation’s capital. From this vast domain, six ancient capitals governed China, leaving behind a wealth of dynastic sites, such as Beijing’s magnificent Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an, and the Buddhist carvings at Longmen and Yungang. The region’s religious sites include the Daoist peaks of Hua Shan and Tai Shan, the Buddhist Wutai Shan, and the Shaolin Temple. Along the coast are the ports of Tianjin and Qingdao, preserves of European architecture, and Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea.

    Getting around

    Beijing has good air, rail, and bus links to the surrounding region. There are daily flights to Xi’an, Luoyang, Qingdao, Kaifeng, and Zhengzhou. Express trains link Beijing directly with all the region’s large cities, while many smaller towns are served by slower trains. Tianjin is a major north-south rail junction. There is also a comprehensive long-distance bus service, while faster private buses ply the popular tourist routes.

    A Portrait of Beijing & the North

    Defender of the Buddha, Longmen
    Defender of the Buddha, Longmen

    The yellow river, the wellspring of Chinese culture and civilization, carves a course through the country’s parched northern terrain, the historic homeland of the Han Chinese and location of the most significant monuments. Thus most visitors to the Middle Kingdom usually concentrate on these historic sites, beginning with the nation’s capital, Beijing.

    For millennia, the Yellow River (Huang He) has nurtured the communities strung along its banks while sporadically washing away their settlements. The great river flows through the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, and Shandong, often forming a natural boundary between provinces. It also features in the names of Henan (South of the River) and Hebei (North of the River). In its long and looping journey it traverses a land rich in historic sights and cities, before spilling into Bo Hai (Bo Sea), north of the sacred mountain, Tai Shan. Occasionally, it comes across the vestiges of that other barrier, the Great Wall. Now a largely disintegrating bastion, the wall crawls across the face of North China, a reminder of the region’s vulnerable position so close to the border with Inner Mongolia and erstwhile Manchuria. Although the Great Wall was built as a defensive fortification, it could not prevent the hordes of nomadic tribes, the so-called “barbarians,” from entering China.

    The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha overlooking Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, Beijing
    The Tower of the Fragrance of
    the Buddha overlooking Kunming Lake
    at the Summer Palace, Beijing
    The modern skyline of Qingdao, Shandong Province on China’s east coast
    The modern skyline of Qingdao,
    Shandong Province on China’s east coast

    Neolithic finds and archeological sites wrote the province of Henan into the earliest pages of Chinese history. Here, South of the Yellow River, Luoyang and Kaifeng are two of the country’s most important dynastic capitals; another ancient city, Anyang, was capital of the Shang dynasty. However, it is Xi’an in Shaanxi province that is more eclipsed by its past than any other ancient capital. Xi’an’s most magnificent treasures are the Terracotta Warriors, created to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin emperor who unified China. However Xi’an reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty, prospering because of its position at the eastern end of the Silk Road. The Grand Mosque and sizable Muslim population testify to Xi’an’s cosmopolitan grandeur during that time.

    Lighting incense sticks Beijing’s Lama Temple
    Lighting incense sticks Beijing’s Lama Temple

    Toward the end of the 13th century, the Mongol Kublai Khan established Beijing as his capital. But it was only in 1407, when the Ming emperor Yongle moved his seat of power here, that Beijing achieved imperial status. Still organized along its grand Ming and Qing dynasty lines, it is a city of straight, wide boulevards and narrow, winding alleys around an ancient palatial core, the Forbidden City. The temples and palaces are today complemented by slick shopping streets and the commercial buzz of a people coming into their own in the 21st century.

    The kind of scenery that has inspired Chinese poets and artists for thousands of years, Hua Shan, Shaanxi
    The kind of scenery that has inspired
    Chinese poets and artists for thousands of
    years, Hua Shan, Shaanxi

    The two adjoining provinces of Hebei and Shanxi are griddles in summer and iceboxes in winter, although Hebei’s eastern seaboard towns benefit from cooling sea breezes. Shanxi, on the other hand, is sometimes affected by seasonal sand storms blowing in from the Gobi Desert. Hebei’s fertile soil and productive agrarian economy contrast with landlocked Shanxi’s mineral-rich terrain. Both provinces are heavily industrialized but there are still many sights that demand attention, such as the Buddhist monastery of Chongshan Si (see Taiyuan), the holy mountain Tai Shan, and the port of Tianjin, Hebei’s former capital. Despite modernization, Tianjin has preserved its European architecture, a legacy of its past as a foreign trading post. The Buddhist sculptures at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Longmen Caves in Luoyang are remarkable while Shandong is best known for Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the eminent philosopher-sage, whose teachings, which greatly influenced Chinese culture, are acceptable once more.

    Beijing Opera

    Emperor Qianlong, credited with starting Beijing Opera
    Emperor Qianlong, credited with
    starting Beijing Opera
    Visually stunning and with a distinct musical style, the plays are based on Chinese history and literature. Beijing Opera is a form of “total theater” with singing, speech, mime, acrobatics, and symbolic visual effects.
    Visually stunning and with a distinct musical style,
    the plays are based on Chinese history and
    literature. Beijing Opera is a form of “total
    theater” with singing, speech, mime, acrobatics,
    and symbolic visual effects.

    One among many hundreds of local operas across China, Beijing Opera began in the Qing dynasty. It is said that Emperor Qianlong (r.1736–96), on a tour of the south, was rather taken by the operas of Anhui and Hebei and brought these troupes back to Beijing, where a new form of opera was established. The Guangxu emperor and Dowager Empress Cixi were also keen devotees and helped develop the art form. Beijing Opera has proved remarkably resilient, surviving the persecution of actors and the banning of most of the plays during the Cultural Revolution.

    Dan (female) roles The sheng (male) The colors of the painted faces symbolize the individual character’s qualities. Red, for example, represents loyalty and courage; purple, solemnity and a sense of justice; green, bravery and irascibility. Souvenir mask Monkey is one of the favorite characters – clever, resourceful, and brave. He appears in Chinese classic literature.
    Dan (female) roles The sheng (male) The colors of the painted faces symbolize the individual character’s qualities. Red, for example, represents loyalty and courage; purple, solemnity and a sense of justice; green, bravery and irascibility. Souvenir mask Monkey is one of the favorite characters – clever, resourceful, and brave. He appears in Chinese classic literature.

    The four main roles

    There are four main role types in Beijing Opera: the sheng (male) and dan (female) roles have naturalistic make-up. The jing or “painted faces,” in contrast, have stylized patterned, colored faces, while the chou are comic characters.

    Gong
    Gong

    Musical Instruments

    Despite the dramatic visual elements of Beijing Opera, the Chinese say that they go to “listen” to opera, not to see it. The importance of the musical elements should not therefore be underestimated. Typically six or seven instrumentalists accompany the opera. The stringed instruments usually include the erhu or Chinese two-stringed violin, sanxian or three-stringed lute, and moon guitar, or possibly pipa (traditional lute). The main function of the instruments is to accompany the singing. Percussion instruments include clappers, gongs, and drums. These are used largely to punctuate the action; movement and sound are intimately linked. Wind instruments also sometimes feature, such as the Chinese horn, flute, and suona.

    Erhu Pipa Suona
    Erhu Pipa Suona

    Regional Food: Beijing & the North

    Chinese cabbage
    Chinese cabbage

    Regional Food: Beijing & the North

    Candied apples on the street, a feature of northern cuisine
    Candied apples on the street,
    a feature of northern cuisine

    Communities developed beside the Yellow River before 6000 BC, but it is not until about 1500 BC, when written records started, that a picture of the dietary habits of the ancient Chinese becomes clear. They kept pigs and grew millet, wheat, barley, and rice and even fermented their grain to make alcoholic beverages. Later (around 1100 BC), soybeans were added to the Chinese diet, soon followed by by-products such as soy sauce and beancurd (tofu). Beijing never had a distinctive cuisine of its own, but as the center of the empire it imported elements and influences from a variety of sources.

    The Palace Kitchen

    A whole Peking duck with traditional accompaniments
    A whole Peking duck with
    traditional accompaniments

    Kublai Khan made Beijing the capital in 1271 and brought simple Mongolian influences to the northern Chinese cuisine – lamb, roasting, and the hot pot. Prior to that, the national capitals had been centered around the Yellow River valley in Xi’an, Luoyang, or Kaifeng. Elaborate preparation and expensive ingredients – shark’s fin, bird’s nest soup, and abalone, all imported from the south – feature as well as artistic presentation and poetic names. Beijing cuisine can be summed up as the distillation of the creations of generations of Imperial Palace chefs over almost a millennium.

    Shandong

    
Some of the wide variety of foods on display at a night food market
    Some of the wide variety of foods
    on display at a night food market

    As the birthplace and home of Confucius, the cuisine of Shandong is generally regarded as the oldest and best in China. Shandong has produced the largest number of famous master chefs, and it is even said that the iron wok originated here as well. When we talk of Beijing cooking, we really mean Shandong food. As one of the most important agricultural areas of China, Shandong supplies Beijing with most of its food; its main crops are wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, and corn as well as soybeans and peanuts. Additionally, fisheries are widely developed along the Yellow River and the north China coast, particularly the rocky Shandong peninsula where the specialties are fish, prawns, shellfish, abalones, sea slugs, and sea urchins. Fruits are also a Shandong specialty, and wines and beers – especially the famous Tsingtao beer – are exported worldwide.

    Tianjin

    The art of pouring tea, shown in a Beijing restaurant
    The art of pouring tea, shown in
    a Beijing restaurant

    One of the largest cities in China, Tianjin occupies a rather unique position in Chinese cuisine. As a treaty port, Tianjin has over the years acquired a cosmopolitan nature in many aspects of its daily life, particularly that of Russian and Japanese influences, hence you will find a large number of beef and lamb dishes here.

    Mongolian & Muslim cuisine

    The Chinese Muslim school of cooking derives mainly from the Hui, the Uighur, and the Mongolian minorities. The Hui are distributed throughout China, but their traditional area of settlement is in the north. The Uighur are mainly in the northwest, while the Mongols are traditionally nomadic and spread throughout the north. As Muslims they do not eat pork, so beef, lamb, and mutton cooked on skewers are important foods in their daily diet. Hand-made noodles and flat breads also feature. On the menu

    • Drunken Empress Chicken Supposedly named after Yang Guifei, an imperial concubine overly fond of her alcohol.
    • Stir-fried Kidney-flowers These are actually pork kidneys criss-cross cut into “flowers” and stir-fried with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and black fungus.
    • Fish Slices with Wine Sauce Deep-fried fish fillet braised in a wine sauce.
    • Phoenix-tail Prawns King prawn tails coated in batter and bread crumbs, then deep-fried.
    • Lamb in Sweet Bean Sauce Tender fillet of lamb sliced and cooked in sweet bean paste with vinegar to give it that classic sweet and sour taste.
    • Hot Candied Apples A popular Chinese dessert.

    Regional Dishes and Specialties

    Duck pears – like a duck’s head
    Duck pears
    like a duck’s head

    Peking duck – an Imperial meal – must be the best known dish in north Chinese cuisine. The duck, a local Beijing variety, is carefully dried, and then brushed with a sweet marinade before being roasted over fragrant woodchips. Finally it is carved by the chef and eaten wrapped in pancakes with a special duck sauce, slivered scallions, and cucumbers. To accompany the duck, diners might also be served duck liver pâté, and duck soup to finish. Another specialty of the region is Mongolian Hotpot; a simple one-pot dish which suited the nomadic way of life. Other regional specialties are made with local resources – carp from the Yellow River, king prawns and yellow croakers from the coast of Shandong, and not forgetting the aromatics – garlic, leeks, and scallions.

    Sweet & Sour Carp: the quintessential Shandong dish traditionally made with Yellow River carp. Mongolian Hotpot: thinly sliced lamb, vegetables, and noodles dipped in boiling water and an array of sauces. Lamb & Scallions: sliced lamb rapidly stir-fried with garlic, leeks or scallions, and sweet bean paste. Mu Shu Pork: stir-fried tiger lily buds, scrambled egg, black fungus, and shredded pork – eaten with pancakes.
    Sweet & Sour Carp: the quintessential Shandong dish traditionally made with Yellow River carp. Mongolian Hotpot: thinly sliced lamb, vegetables, and noodles dipped in boiling water and an array of sauces. Lamb & Scallions: sliced lamb rapidly stir-fried with garlic, leeks or scallions, and sweet bean paste. Mu Shu Pork: stir-fried tiger lily buds, scrambled egg, black fungus, and shredded pork – eaten with pancakes.

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