When it comes to Beijing, everybody knows about the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace and the hutongs. Those places are all deservedly famous and good to visit, but there are more sites that have interesting history but are not so well-known.
These include the Marco Polo Bridge/ Lugouqiao, the Yonghegong Lama Temple and the Capital Museum.
The Marco Polo Bridge is called that precisely because the great 13th-century Italian explorer visited it during his time in China. The bridge is also notorious for being the site of an attack by Japanese soldiers in 1937, which would then lead to Japan’s full-scale invasion on China.
The bridge is kind of simple, but it boasts two unique attributes. One, it was visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century. It was built in 1192 but rebuilt in 1698 (though it may have been renovated and altered in the 20th century after the Communist victory in 1949).
Second, its stone rails are topped with dozens of stone lions, each one with a different facial expression and pose. These lions are also covered with smaller lions, so in total, there are hundreds of lions.
Before you get to the bridge, you pass the Wanping Fortress, a Ming Dynasty walled fort built in 1638 with old sentry towers at the gates. People still live in it, making it resemble an ancient living settlement.
Inside the “fortress” is the Japan resistance war museum (which has a really longwinded official name) that commemorates the fight against Japan. It’s quite decent, with weapons, clothing and equipment used by Chinese troops, photos, and some vivid audio-visual displays of battle scenes such as Chinese troops firing from a cliff onto a Japanese column below. There’s some propaganda too, though interestingly, the flag of the Republic of China (the government of China before the Communist victory in 1949) is displayed in the exhibit about the surrender of Japan. In fact, in that area, the flag of the Republic of China hangs near the flag of the People’s Republic of China, probably the only place in the mainland where you can see this.
The Temple of Heaven is probably Beijing's most famous temple, but the largest one is the Yonghegong Lama Temple. As its name infers, it is a Tibetan Buddhist temple that was created in the early 18th century during the Qing Dynasty, and you can see still maroon-colored Tibetan monks walking around today. It features several shrines and halls and a large multi-level main hall, as well as a small museum. Nearby is the former Imperial Academy or Guozijian, the nation's highest institute for training government officials that was built in 1306. The Confucius Temple also lies inside the same compound.
Located in Xicheng, the Capital Museum is in a large gray rectangular building that doesn’t give much indication about the historical treasures and fantastic displays inside. It's a museum about Beijing's history, but with more interactivity than most Chinese museums.
Inside the museum’s large open interior, on one side are the main exhibits on several floors. On the other corner is a green multi-level cylindrical structure that houses more exhibits, coated in what seems to be green jade tiles. Indeed jade is what it features inside, as well as calligraphy and paintings.
The museum features historical artifacts like weapons and coins, as well as calligraphy, pottery, and bronzes. That’s to be expected and it’s nice, but there are cooler things, such as erotic Buddhist statues featuring explicit nudity and even fellatio. On the top floor, there’s an impressive mock hutong neighborhood, with the “homes” featuring exhibits showcasing the folk customs and daily life of old Beijingers, from weddings to funerals, as well as art pieces.
The mock hutong is something that many Chinese museums, even good ones such as the Xian and Nanjing museums, don’t have – interactive displays, combining photos, artifacts, videos and sound recording as well as life-size settings. Chinese museums tend to focus strictly on history but neglect contemporary history and interactive aspects.
The basement features more exhibits, usually special temporary ones. When I went, the special exhibit was about ancient kingdoms in the northeast, including the Tungur people, the predecessor of the Manchu, and the Jin Dynasty, who ruled parts of Northern China in the 12thcentury and established their capital in Beijing.