Finally a Trip to Beijing: A Personal Cross-Cultural Connection

By Iylia De Silva

April 2024 U-40
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The lake at Shichahai.

MY FASCINATION WITH Chinese culture started at age nine, when I transferred to a Chinese vernacular school. While other children watched cartoons on weekends, I settled myself in front of the television with my chopsticks and rice bowl to indulge in one of my all-time favourite series, "My Fair Princess"—a major hit set in the Qing dynasty's Forbidden City. "Why use chopsticks for rice when a spoon is much easier?", my dad would quip.

I have been hooked on palace-centred dramas ever since, featuring backstabbing concubines and power-hungry ministers. Naturally, I dreamed of visiting the palace someday. Last November, this dream came true—my first trip to China, and Beijing was my winter getaway.

Upon landing at Beijing International Airport, the immigration machines automatically detected passports and communicated with tourists in their native language, making the process hassle-free. As a Mandarin speaker, I wasn’t too concerned about communication, except for the variations in dialect and pronunciation. But even for those who do not speak the language, I would say that the systems in Beijing are reasonably tourist-friendly.

Navigating through the bustling traffic of Beijing was a breeze, all thanks to DiDi, Beijing’s e-hailing app, akin to Grab in Malaysia. I could effortlessly book a ride, and to my surprise, a Tesla or Xpeng (a leading Chinese smart electric vehicle company) would arrive—the fees were affordable, and the service was satisfactory. Most of the vehicles were electric vehicles (EVs), and there are tens of thousands of charging stations there. The city was kept clean by autonomous sweepers, both on roads and pedestrian walkways, frequently buzzing. A waste disposal method is also implemented, requiring households to sort their trash.

I wanted to experience an authentic cultural experience, and therefore, I chose a hotel located in one of the hutongs—traditional narrow alleys with houses built on each side, forming courtyards where locals still reside, some with a history of more than 700 years.

A preserved building in the hutong area.

During the first few days of my visit, I engaged with the locals and learned a number of interesting titbits of information about life in Beijing. For one, I was recommended to lesser-known, non-touristy food spots. If residents are facing issues, they can just dial the government hotline, which is 12345—yes, very memorable, with a satisfactory rate of over 90%. [1] While cash was still accepted, China's shift towards a cashless society was evident, with the majority of vendors favouring apps like Alipay and Touch 'n Go for seamless online payments.

A gazebo in the Imperial Palace.

On the third day, I visited the highlight of my trip, The Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as the Palace Museum. This architectural marvel, covering more than 7.75 million square feet, served as the residence for Chinese emperors for nearly 500 years, from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). [2] The carving details and royal ambience matched my expectations, though it would be better without the busy crowds.

The crowd in the Forbidden City.

Every day, the palace receives thousands of visitors, capped at 80,000. [3] Despite the massive throng of people, popular spots such as the palace and Universal Studios Beijing require mandatory reservations at least a day in advance, efficiently managing the influx of visitors and allowing lines to clear quickly.

The proceeds from ticket sales support ongoing restoration and maintenance, ensuring that the palace remains a historical window into China's past for future generations. As a safety measure, the palace gates close at 4pm, avoiding potential challenges of navigating the area once it gets dark.

View from outside of the palace.

Other renowned heritage sites in Beijing, such as Jingshan Park, the Temple of Heaven (a place for imperial prayers), and the Summer Palace (constructed for the Empress Dowager's summer retreat), are conveniently situated in the central part of the city. Numerous shops nearby offered hanfu and qizhuang rentals, a traditional attire worn by the Han and Manchu people in China, allowing enthusiasts like me to role-play as a young maiden.

The sight of “concubines” and “princesses” leisurely strolling is common in central Beijing, often accompanied by professional photographers. I pondered the possibility of offering similar experiences in Penang, a city rich in heritage with a variety of traditional outfits available.

The author dressed in a traditional hanfu.
Temple of Heaven.

Being a Mala addict (a spice mixture that consists of Szechuan peppercorns, giving a numbing and spicy effect), my cravings were satiated here. Aside from the obligatory Beijing Roast Duck, I savoured dishes like Mala poached fish and Mala beef hotpot—ideal for the chilly weather.

Mala poached fish.

Feeling adventurous, I tried stinky tofu, which was a funky experience I thoroughly enjoyed. For those seeking halal food options, pay attention to Xinjiang (home to the Uyghur ethnicity) cuisines, a rich culinary heritage shaped by a blend of Central Asian, Persian and Chinese flavours.

Scrolling through the hundreds of photos I took, it is obvious how much I adored my time in Beijing and I’m certain I’ll return one day. My only regret was not being able to squeeze in a visit to the Great Wall of China in my itinerary due to unsuitable weather and time constraints. It’s often said that a trip to China is incomplete without a visit to this wonder of the world, providing the perfect excuse to return—though truthfully, none is needed.

Observe closely, and you’ll spot the Temple of Heaven in the distance.





Iylia De Silva

is a law graduate from the University of London. Balancing work and play, she savours every moment by indulging in her passion for food, languages, music and engaging with people from diverse cultures.