For our final Saturday in Beijing, Peking University arranged both a bus and trusty tour guide named Joe to take us to two incredibly worthwhile stops — the 798 Art District and the National Museum.
Joe was quick to fill us in on the history of our first destination. The 798 Art District was originally one of Beijing’s factory districts — but when China began to seriously pursue its bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, it was clear that something had to be done to reduce pollution. Factories were shut down — leaving the 798 zone with huge, empty warehouses that needed tenants.
Open indoor spaces and low rent were the perfect combination to attract Beijing’s artist community, and slowly, the 798 blossomed into what it is today — a thriving art district lined with galleries and studios which attracts connoisseurs of art from all across the globe.
Don’t be surprised if you see pictures of the same studio owners you’re talking to shaking hands with a Hollywood superstar!
The 798 Art District is huge. Beyond its many art spaces, it also features a plethora of fun street murals, displays and sculptures that are sure to delight the social media oriented of your travel group. It also has artists-turned-street-vendors selling wire sculptures or gorgeous landscapes painted directly by hand, which you can watch being created on the spot.
We wandered the wonderfully kitsch and beautiful streets, popping in and out of the gorgeous galleries of the 798 until lunchtime, making vows to return when we were cashed up enough to actually buy the show stopping artworks we could only drool over as students.
Once our time in the 798 was over, we got back on the bus for our next location — the National Museum. With several floors of Chinese art and history, I’ve no doubt that anyone could easily spend a whole day there.
However, given our limited time of one afternoon inside the museum, we chose to follow a hot tip from our spoken Chinese teacher about a special exhibition that was going to end the following day.
The government commissioned contemporary Chinese artists to create artworks — mostly paintings, but some sculptures too — representing a variety of topics, events and figures from Chinese history. I had a lot of fun learning about Chinese history from a Peking University student who accompanied us, and trying to spot my favourite historical figures.
On Sunday, myself and two friends went to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where you can see the embalmed body of historic Chinese leader Chairman Mao.
Afterwards, we parted ways and I went solo shopping at Qianmen, which is nearby, to the south of Tiananmen Square. Qianmen hosts a thriving collection of shopping streets, lined with fast food chains, silk stores and little boutiques. I found it to be an excellent place for last-minute souvenir shopping — you can easily locate some traditional Chinese stone seal carving or calligraphy services.
From Qianmen, I headed to the famous Temple of Heaven — the place where the Emperor would go to worship Heaven. The grounds surrounding the main worship hall double as a beautiful park for elderly Beijing locals to practice Tai Chi, but so do most heritage sites in the city. A gorgeous landmark, well worth visiting.
After that last weekend, we all shut ourselves up in our rooms to begin cramming for the tests that would determine if we passed the unit (spoiler alert: we all passed). The program came to a heartwarming close at a scrumptious dinner, shared with our teachers, inside a Peking University function centre.
This trip has been such a huge, wonderful adventure, and while I’m not sure how well I’ll remember all of the new grammar structures I’ve learnt, I know I’ll never forget all of the amazing times I’ve had with my teachers, my classmates and my friends. I’ll miss you, Beijing.