Beijing – thousands of years of culture

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Thick smog. Serene Temples. Black bicycles. Exotic hutongs. Shiny pearls. New SUVs. Culinary surprises. Divine foot massages. Large squares. What does your Beijing look like?

A while ago I had a chance to visit Beijing, China. It had been a dream of mine to see the Forbidden City, Great Wall of China, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Badaling, and the Beijing Zoo. Most of the places were real tourist attractions, but as I had always heard about them since I was little, my mind was set on visiting them. I wasn’t sure how well my search of tranquility would go in a city that has millions of inhabitants, but it was worth a shot to go there and see. Even though I did a lot of shopping and socialized with other foreigners quite a bit, little did I know how much peace I would found from China’s massive capital and the surrounding areas. Here are some of the places in which the peace of mind was the easiest to reach:

Meditating in the Summer Palace

The gardens of the Summer Palace were heavenly. It’s no wonder that this area was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is very attractive. The Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill dominate the landscape. The pavilions, temples and bridges form a harmonious entirety against the background they create.

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I was lucky to be there around the time when there weren’t too many tourists around, so I spent the whole day in the area, walking around, taking in the beauty of the place and meditating in the gardens.

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The Qilin Statue was an interesting detail that caught my eye. It was cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Qilin was an auspicious animal that appeared in Chinese legends. It had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked. The animal took an interesting form, one that combined the head of a dragon, the tail of a lion, the hooves of an ox, and the horns of a deer with scales all over its body.

Meeting pandas at the Beijing Zoo

The giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo were the very reason why I wanted to visit the place as it is rated among the top five places to see pandas in China. Usually I find zoos quite disturbing as the animals are often confined in small spaces and express their stress by applying redundant, meaningless behaviors, but these pandas seemed to be doing well.

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The Panda Hall covers the area of 2.5 acres, and seems to manage to account for the housing of such large animals as well as offer aesthetic surroundings for them. The inside of the hall replicates the style of traditional Chinese gardens and is shaped in the pattern of a Tai Chi diagram. I loved to see these cute, furry fellows and learn more about their natural habitat and the dangers threatening to eradicate it, so even though I may not be able to call it a Zen-like experience, it was fun anyway!

Feeling the history in the Ming Tombs

The thirteen tombs of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are located about 30 miles northwest from Beijing. The area is scenic as it lies at the foot of Tianshou Mountain. In the scenic area, each mausoleum has its own independent unit. Only a few of them are open to the public.

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The Sacred Way is the approach to the Changling Tomb. It is built from north to south and considered to be the road leading to heaven. The Emperors, known as the Son of the Heaven, were thought to leave their empire through this road. The road is lined with stone statues. Human figures and animals have symbolic meanings.

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In the other end of the Sacred Way there is the Great Red Gate. This road is an excellent place for taking a moment to relax, think and meditate if there aren’t large groups of tourists passing by.IMG_0092

Changling Tomb is the tomb of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It is the largest and the most completely preserved of these tombs. It is a beautiful building with lots to see, and with the mindful attitude, it is easy to sense the past centuries that tell their stories in this attraction.

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Climbing the Great Wall

Another UNESCO World Heritage site in Beijing, the Great Wall, is the place to listen to the stories from the past. A lot of them are violent and full of anger, but some of them are also stories of perseverance, bravery, and love. The Great Wall stretches approximately 13,170 miles from east to west of China. Some sections of it are in ruins or have disappeared, but the parts of it that I saw are among some of the most beautiful and impressive places that I have ever visited.

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Walking along the Wall can be a good exercise as it is quite steep at some places. The poor condition of some steps may make it seem even dangerous, but especially if you follow (eavesdrop…) a group with a guide, the information they tell is so fascinating that the challenges are worth it.

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The views are breathtaking, and the winding wall offers plenty of spots for stopping, sitting down and taking in the magnitude of the structure. After seeing this amazing wall and practicing mindfulness on top of it, your way of looking at your life may be a little different. The serene feeling can last a long time, and even carry over to your everyday life.

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Istanbul – a controversial gem

Are you looking for a city that will definitely take your thoughts away from your normal life? Are you ready to experience something that will leave you content but confused in a way? Are you willing to jump in a roller coaster that will give you serenity and peace of mind, then grab it out of your reach, and then return it, spinning you around over and over again? If the answer is yes, you are ready for Istanbul, Turkey.

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The amount of people all around you is astonishing. Locals, tourists, people from all over the world. The hustle and bustle of the old bazaar deafens your ears, but not annoyingly. Even if you didn’t need any, the symphony of fragrances coming from spices that merchants offer makes you want to buy a little bit of everything. The visually dazzling architecture of the mosques and old churches makes you speechless. The warm weather caresses your senses while you gaze over the glistening blue strait below you, sun almost blinding your eyes. The almost-overbearing overload of stimuli welcomes you to Istanbul.

Istanbul is an amazing city that has a lot to offer but I still don’t know how to feel about it. There are parts that I absolutely love and parts that I can definitely do without – however, no point in focusing on the latter in this post, right? The city may not necessarily be the coolest place to visit due to the current political unrest, but when the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it and go see the city that stretches itself on two continents. The fact that a part of it is in Asia and a part in Europe was very fascinating to me as I had always wanted to visit a city that offers such an experience. Here is my take on the things that I love in the city.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)

This place is hard to miss. The cascading domes and six slender minarets of the Blue Mosque dominate the skyline of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is an absolute must for a tourist, but to get in, avoid the prayer times (unless you are a Muslim and go there to pray, of course). The architecture of this place is fantastic, and the way the small blue mosaic tiles have been used to decorate the mosque is so very skilled that it is almost a surreal experience to be there.

It is a quiet place, lots of light, beautiful arches high above you. If you have time to stop and take in the beauty of this place, you will notice the serenity that surrounds you. The calm atmosphere of the mosque creates a great contrast to the fuss of everyday life on the streets that will reach you immediately once you exit the mosque.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom, is located near the Blue Mosque. The former Byzantine church and an Ottoman mosque is now a museum.

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It is a very interesting place, not peaceful in the same way as the Blue Mosque, but very impressive regarding the age and the history of the building. The size of it is astonishing, so getting a good grasp of it requires some time.

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However, currently some parts of it are under renovation, so it is not as breathtaking as it could be.

Topkapi Palace

The palace is practically in front of Hagia Sophia and near the Blue Mosque. The place gives a great insight into how Sultans of the Ottoman Empire viewed the world. The beautiful collection of the jewelry is a must see if you visit the palace.

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When I was there, the place was quite crowded, and as my search for peace of mind doesn’t mix that well with loud crowds, the thing I enjoyed the most about the Topkapi Palace was its garden. I sat there for quite a long time reading about the history of the place and enjoying the sunshine and warmth.

Anadolu Kavagi

As you can guess, now we are getting to the parts (in addition to the Blue Mosque) that I loved the most in Istanbul. The boat trip along the Bosphorus is in itself an experience. The beautiful mansions are surrounded by lush gardens, and just like anywhere else in Istanbul, history of East and West surrounds you.

I was lucky enough to take the boat ride on a sunny, warm day, so the trip was a very relaxing one. It was possible to buy some Turkish yogurt onboard, so I enjoyed a nice snack along the way as I listened a tour guide (of some other group) talk about the buildings that we passed.

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Anadoly Kavagi itself is a quiet, small village. The souvenir shops there are worth a visit if you want to bring something traditional to your loved ones (I did and everybody loved them!). If you plan to take a hike up to the Yoros Castle, like I did, make sure you are wearing shoes that are suitable for a hike and take a water bottle with you as the climb up is quite steep. No matter how long it takes for you to get on top of the hill, the views from there make up for the time and effort.

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The Bosphorus Strait is absolutely stunning. The castle itself isn’t much to see, but the views, oh yeah. You won’t regret the climb. I could have stayed up there for hours, just admiring the blue water below me, but I had reserved a table from a nearby restaurant, so my appetite had an appointment with local fish dishes. The meal itself would have been alright at its best but the views from the corner table in their terrace made it excellent. Loved the view. Found my Zen.

Restaurant Juno in Nisantasi

This little place is the place to go to if you want a delicious meal in a friendly place that is affordable and cozy. I can’t compliment it enough, even the music they played there matched the place so well that even if I wouldn’t listen to it elsewhere, I definitely loved it there. I didn’t go there for dinner just once but twice during my three night stay, because I loved it so much. Their appetizer platter is something to try. It has plenty of small appetizers and the white wine the waiter suggest matched it perfectly. The music was fun to listen to, and the way to waiters took time to talk about the area and their restaurant was adorable. They seemed to be genuinely interested in their customers, so whether it was true or not, it left a nice impression. My appetite found its Zen.