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Things to Do in Northern China

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Mutianyu Great Wall
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The Mutianyu Great Wall was fully restored in the 1980s as an alternative to the increasingly popular Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. The Mutianyu section is farther away from Beijing (about an hour and a half by car) than more popular sections, but it's also significantly less busy and features some fun, modern amusements, such as a cable car, chairlift, and toboggan. The long, flat segment—the longest fully restored section open to travelers—winds along heavily forested hilltops with 23 ancient watchtowers dotting the landscape.

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Tianjin Eye
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When the Tianjin Eye was completed in 2008, it officially became the first and only observation wheel in the world to be built over a bridge. The 394-foot (120-meter) tall wheel straddles the Hai River above the Yongle Bridge, offering stellar views (on clear days or nights) of this city of some 7.5 million people.

The wheel features 48 passenger pods, each with an eight person capacity. One rotation around the wheel takes about 30 minutes. The best time to ride is at night, when the wheel is illuminated in colorful neon lights, visible from around Tianjin.

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Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
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The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the world’s largest palace complex, with more than 800 buildings and some 8,000 rooms set in the heart of Beijing. Deemed off-limits to visitors for some five centuries, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

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Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si)
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Sometimes known as the Hanging Monastery, the Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si) is built into the cliff-side of the mighty Hengshan (Mt. Heng) near Datong city in Shanxi Province. Held up by oak stilts slotted into holes chiselled out from the rock, the rest of the structure that supports the temple is hidden inside the bedrock. Built in 491, the Hanging Temple has survived more than 1,500 years. The face of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the summit, which has protected it from the elements over all the years.

The Hengshan Hanging Temple is the only temple that incorporates all of China’s traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Visitors to the temple come in their droves to marvel at this architectural feat for themselves, and to peer over the railings onto the rocks 50 meters below.

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Yungang Grottoes (Yungang Shiku)
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The Yungang Grottoes (Yungang Shiku) are ancient Chinese Buddhist grottoes that reside in the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain near the city of Datong in Shanxi Province. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2001, the Yungang Grottoes are a brilliant display of Buddhist rock-cut architecture dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries.

The Yungang caves are divided into east, middle, and western sections. Pagodas dominate the eastern parts, while the west comprises small to medium sized caves. The caves in the middle section feature front and back chambers with Buddha statues at their center. In total, the complex comprises 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 stone Buddha statues.

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Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen Guangchang)
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Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public plaza, has always been a symbol of Mao’s epic Communist project—and resistance to it. Despite its bleak history, the site of the 1989 massacre is today a bustling place, often teeming with tourists and local kids flying kites.

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Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)
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Built by the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty builder of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan or Tian Tan) was a stage for important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the winter solstice ceremony, meant to ensure a favorable new year.

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Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)
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In 1750, the grand Summer Palace was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong as a lavish lakeside retreat from the heat of Beijing. With pavilions, walkways, gardens, and bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage site on Kunming Lake served as the seat of government for Empress Dowager Cixi during the last years of her life.

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Eastern Qing Tombs
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The series of Qing Tombs located 78 miles (125 kilometers) east of Beijing remain relatively off the map, despite the fact that they’re arguably more interesting than the more popular Ming Tombs. Between 1663 and 1935, 5 emperors, 15 empresses, 3 princes, 2 princesses and 136 imperial concubines were interred in this complex of 15 tombs.

Collectively, these tombs are considered the best-preserved and largest in China, and many of them are open for visitors. The tomb of Emperor Shunzhi (China’s first Qing emperor) is the oldest on the site; it’s also the largest and most elaborate. The Yuling and Dingling mausoleums are also well worth visiting.

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Shuanglin Temple
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Located in southern Pingyao County, Shuanglin Temple is famous for the 2,000 painted clay sculptures dating back to the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties of China. The temple was originally founded in the late sixth century, but the current structures were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The south-facing temple is divided into 10 halls, each containing its own collection of painted sculptures. Some of the highlights among them include the likeness of Avalokitesvara in the Hall of Sakya, a seated statue of Guanyu in the God of Battle Hall and a thousand-armed Bodhisattva inside Bodhisattva Hall.

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More Things to Do in Northern China

Wang Family Courtyard

Wang Family Courtyard

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Located in Jingsheng Town, Shanxi Province, the Wang Family Courtyard was built by the Wang family of Jingsheng, who were descendants of the Wang family of the city of Taiyuan – one of four of the most prominent families of the Qing Dynasty.

The Wang Family Courtyard isn’t a single courtyard as the name suggests; it is in fact a sprawling compound containing a cluster of courtyards and castles that demonstrate incredible examples of Chinese residential architecture from the Qing Dynasty period. The Gao Jia Ya and Red Gate Castle in particular have numerous courtyards and rooms built in this traditional architectural style.

Besides its fascinating architecture, the Wang Family Courtyard displays some ornate wood and stone carvings that demonstrate the artistic style of the time.

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The Legend of Kung Fu Show

The Legend of Kung Fu Show

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The Legend of Kung Fu Show, which premiered at Beijing’s Red Theatre in 2004, tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a kung fu master. The best kung fu practitioners from all across China tell the story through Chinese martial arts, traditional and modern dance, and Chinese acrobatics.

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Ming Tombs (Ming Shisan Ling)

Ming Tombs (Ming Shisan Ling)

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A series of temple-like structures and burial mounds, the Ming Tombs contain the remains of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Visitors come from all over to see the imperial grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage site and learn about the cultural importance of ancestor worship.

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Mountain Resort in Chengde

Mountain Resort in Chengde

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The Mountain Resort in Chengde is located just north of the city of Chengde and is China's largest imperial garden. The former summer residence of the Qing dynasty’s emperors and royal members, this vast complex took almost a whole century to complete, with constructed taking place between 1703 and 1792.

The imperial grounds comprise of the emperor's residential buildings, including the reception and entertainment halls, plus the royal gardens, as well a number of striking temples. The various styles of the buildings and landscapes appear to blend in with the surrounding lakes, mountains, and forest, with the complex incorporating classic Chinese architecture, as well as the styles of many other nations, particularly Tibet.

The site covers a sprawling 5.6 square-kilometers and is surrounded by a ten-kilometer wall. The Imperial Summer Palace of Mountain Resort was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

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Back Lakes (Hou Hai)

Back Lakes (Hou Hai)

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Located in the Xicheng District in central Beijing, Back Lakes (Houhai) is a neighborhood and one of the three lakes that make up Shichahai, along with Front Lake (Qianhai) and West Lake (Xihai). This popular area is known for its lakes, traditional hutongs (alleys) and courtyards, and a lively mix of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bars.

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Great Wall at Badaling

Great Wall at Badaling

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The best-known and busiest stretch of China’s iconic Great Wall, Badaling was restored and opened to tourists during the 1950s. The scenery is striking, with views of the wall winding its way over the rugged hills. A cable car leads up to the top, and the site offers everything from souvenir stalls to restaurants.

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Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum

Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum

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Located within the grounds of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum was built in the Ming Dynasty as a private imperial garden. Covering around 129,000 square feet (12,000 square meters), the garden features numerous pavilions, halls, shrines, ponds, rock gardens, ancient trees, and sculptural objects.

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Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan)

Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan)

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Just across the moat from the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan) is one of Beijing’s most popular open spaces. The 57-acre (23-hectare) park is a great place to watch elderly Beijingers take their morning exercise, with beautiful flowers in spring. The central hill offers sweeping views over the city on a clear day.

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Beijing Olympic Park

Beijing Olympic Park

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In the years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures at the Beijing Olympic Park have become just as representative of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the Beijing National Stadium and the Water Cube.

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Meridian Gate (Wumen)

Meridian Gate (Wumen)

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Overlooking Tiananmen Square, the Meridian Gate (Wumen) is the southernmost and largest of the Palace Museum gates, and one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Forbidden City. Comprised of five towers and five gateways, the Meridian Gate currently provides the only entrance into the Forbidden City.

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Dingling Tomb (Mausoleum of Emperor Wanli)

Dingling Tomb (Mausoleum of Emperor Wanli)

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The Dingling Tomb (Mausoleum of Emperor Wanli) was the first of the 13 Ming royal tombs to be officially opened to the public. Located on the southern slopes of Tianshou Mountain in Changping County, Beijing, Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun) and his two empresses, Xiaoduan and Xiaojing. The ancient palace is accessed via a 40-meter underground tunnel.

Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupier of the throne for 48 years, the longest of all the Ming Dynasty emperors. Built over six years between 1584 and 1590, the tomb is gigantic and extravagant, with five halls connected by giant marble archways, and floors paved with gilded bricks. The central hall is home to three imperial thrones, while the rear hall is the most important and where the three coffins of the emperor and his empresses can be found. These are surrounded by red-lacquer chests filled with precious items.

There is also a museum at the Dingling Tomb, where 3000 objects excavated from the site are displayed. These artifacts include royal robes, the emperor's crown and the empresses' tiaras, plus a number of other jewels and ceramic items.

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Longqingxia Ravine

Longqingxia Ravine

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A popular day-trip destination, the lush, green Longqingxia (aka Longqing Gorge or Dragon’s Rejoice Ravine) has been attracting visitors since the Song dynasty. Rent a boat, or just marvel at Rooster Crown Mountain—which resembles a rooster lying down, surrounded by water on three sides.

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Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai

Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai

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To experience both original and restored portions of the Great Wall of China without straying far from Beijing, many visitors choose the stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, a trek seemingly made for hikers and adventurers. The 4-hour hike ranks among the wall’s most popular and rewards intrepid travelers with some of the most photogenic views.

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Lama Temple (Yonghegong)

Lama Temple (Yonghegong)

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The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside Tibet, began as a palace for Emperor Yongzheng before he became the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the resplendent temple, with its halls, courtyards, ponds, and bronze mandala, is a lamasery for some two dozen Tibetan monks.

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