One of the side benefits of traveling to North Korea is that you need to spend several days in Beijing while arranging for your visa and flight to Pyongyang. In August 2005, together with my colleagues Amy and Michael, I was able to enjoy some of the sights around China's "Northern Capital." As the Forbidden City was just a short walk from our hotel, that was the first place we visited.
Nearly as famous as the Forbidden City is the Temple of Heaven complex. The area for these temples is actually larger than the Forbidden City but its use was ceremonial. Pictured is the Imperial Vault of Heaven at the center of the temple area. During Beijing's imperial past, this is where the ancestral tablets of the Emperor were kept.
A long, broad paved avenue leads from the Imperial Vault to this impressive gate. As you pass through these arches you enter the grounds surrounding the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which can be seen in the distance. For five centuries, the Emperor came here annually in grand ceremony to pray for fertility throughout the Middle Kingdom.
And no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall. When Romans ruled the Mediterranean, large sections of the Great Wall had already been constructed. A million solders guarded its length. Now, on a typical summer weekend such as this, the Emperor's guards have been replaced by thousands of foreigners and, seemingly, much of the population of Beijing. The structure built over the centuries to separate China from the rest of the world is now accepted as a heritage for all mankind.
As you walk further along the Great Wall the crowds thin out in part due to the distance but also because the climb can be steep. Even a day's hike along the Great Wall takes you only a few thousand yards—a baby step compared to its 4,000 mile length. The scale of this construction, which extends across peaks and valleys as far as the eye can see, overwhelms everyday sensibility and is grasped only by imagination.