Visiting Beijing (1995 to 1997)

The photos on this page were taken during three trips to Beijing, China during the mid-nineties. Of course, the city has changed massively since then, but let’s see how Beijing, the neighboring city of Tianjin and the small village of Shidu looked back then.

The trips were:

  • Beijing, Shidu & Tinjin: Christmas holidays 1995
  • Beijing, Xi’an, Lanzhou & Xiahe: August 1996 (the article about Xiahe is here: Visiting Xiahe in Gansu, China)
  • Beijing: February 1997

You can view the entire set of 240 photos at a higher resolution (e.g., 1840 x 1232) at Flickr or Google Photos.


Juma River, Shidu

Rather than start with places you probably already know about—the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City—let’s start with someplace less well-known—the village of Shidu. The village is a popular weekend getaway spot for Beijing residents—a place where they can enjoy barbecues, river rafting, boat cruises, horseback riding and (in more recent years) bungee jumping.

But that is during the summer. We went in the middle of winter and there was absolutely nothing going on there. When we went there, only two other people got off the train at Shidu Station.

Shidu, Beijing

Shidu, is considered a suburb of Beijing even though it is over 100 kilometres from the city center and has a completely different kind of landscape. ‘Shidu’ literally means the ‘tenth crossing’, as it is said that one is required to cross the Juma River ten times in order to reach the village.

Shidu, Beijing, 1995

The area is known for its karst landscape. Karst landscapes are formed by the dissolving action of water on limestone. Shidu’s irregularly shaped hills have been formed by the Juma River cutting through the Taihang mountains. There are somewhat similar areas such as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Phang Nga Bay in Thailand and Guilin in China.

Juma River, Shidu, Beijing, 1995

It was enjoyable to wander around the river and hillsides and take in the views. We met a young teenage boy and he brought us up one of the hillsides to get a good view of the town and surrounding mountains.

Shidu Lad

If you are in Beijing between June and October, you may want to check out Shidu on the weekend. In winter, it is really only a good place to visit if you enjoy hiking.

Family, Shidu

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

We visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu in 1995 and Badaling (I think) in 1997. The third option for visiting the Great Wall is at Huanghuachen. Badaling is the most popular spot, Mutianyu is the least crowded and Huanhuachen offers views of a lake.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu
The Great Wall, Beijing, 1997
The Great Wall, 1995

Winter Scenes

In Beijing and Tianjin, we came across groups of winter swimmers who would, on a daily basis, go swimming in frozen rivers and lakes as a way to build up their strength and immune systems.

Swimming in frozen water, Beijing, 1997
Winter Swimmer, Tianjin

I wasn’t tempted to try it. To me, it made more sense to play on top of the ice rather than below it.

Ice Hockey, Beijing

The Imperial Palace Museum

The Forbidden City, Beijing, 1995

More commonly known as the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace Museum is one of Beijing’s main attractions.

Hall at the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2015

The palace complex was built between 1406 and 1420 and served as the political center or China and home of the Emperor until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It is now undergoing large-scale renovations that are meant to return all the buildings to their pre-1912 state.

The following picture can give you a sense of the scale of the buildings.

Outside the Forbidden City, Beijing, 1996

The Imperial Palace is surrounded by a moat and walls with watchtowers. In the winter, people were ice-fishing on the moat.

Moat and Watchtower, The Forbidden City

Because of the way the buildings are laid out in series of halls, courtyards and palaces surrounded by alleyways and smaller buildings, you can only get a glimpse of a small portion of the palace complex at any one time. There are around 980 buildings in the palace complex, about 70 or which are palaces of varying degrees of size and importance.

At the Forbidden City
At the Imperial Palace, Beijing, 2015
The Forbidden City
Imperial Palace Lions

The corners of the roofs on many of the buildings are decorated with a line of figures with a man riding a phoenix at the front and an imperial dragon at the back. The number of figures represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 figures between the man and the dragon, while the Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times.

Roof figures, Imperial Palace, Beijing, 2015
Line of 10 roof figures; at the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2015

Jingshan Hill

Pavilion on Jingshan

Behind the Imperial Palace is Jingshan, an artifical hill constructed in the early 1400s during the Ming Dynasty The Chongzhen Emperor, the last ruler of the Ming dynasty (and the last Han Chinese to rule as emperor), committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on Jingshan in 1644 after Beijing fell to rebel forces.

At the top of the hill, there is a pavilion—Wanchun Pavilion—which offers views of the Imperial Palace to the South and the Red Drum Tower to the North.

View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan, 1995

As you can see from the above photo, at that time, Beijing had heavy smog, which was caused by vehicle emissions and a heavy reliance on burning coal for energy as well as by sand blown in from the Gobi desert. In 1998, the Chinese government started a long campaign to reduce air pollution. Though air pollution remains an issue, air quality is much better now than it was in the mid-nineties.

Peking Opera

During our two winter trips, we saw Peking Opera performances. These were matinee performances in tea houses that catered to locals and tourists. Rather than show entire operas, the performances would showcase different performance styles such as martial arts, lyrical aria-like songs and pieces that were more like recitative (an operatic style that focuses more on the natural rhythms of speech).

Peking Opera performance
Peking Opera Performance, Beijing, 1995

Urban Development

We visited Beijing just as the city was undergoing massive urban development.

The courtyard houses (known as siheyuan) and little alleyways (known as hutongs) were giving way to modern condominiums and apartment blocks.

Hutong house and coal (Beijing)
Bicycle Taxi and Coal

Newly built condominiums started to spring up.

Beijing: new housing developments 1995
Beijing: new housing developments 1995

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square and Tiananmen Gate, Beijing, 1995

Located just south of the Imperial Palace, lies Tiananmen square, which is named after the large gate—Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace)—at the north of the square. The square was built in 1651 and was expanded during the 1950s. There is a flag raising ceremony at the site every day at dawn.

Tiananmen Square: Monument to the People’s Heroes, 2015

In the the southern part of the square is another gate, Zhengyangmen , as well as the Mausoluem of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

Bicycle taxi, Zhengyangmen, the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing 1995

The Great Hall of the People is on the western edge of the square with the National Museum is on the eastern edge.

The square is inextricably linked with politics. It was the site of the May Fourth Movement protests in 1919, the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949, protests after the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976 and, of course, the protests of 1989. More recently, Tiananmen Square was the site of a terror attack in 2013, in which extremist terrorists associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) drove into a crowd, killing two people and injuring 38. The square’s history is…complicated and inseparable from politics.

When we visited Beijing in 1995, that was one-and-a-half-years before China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong. In front of the National Museum of China, was a digital countdown clock that counted down the number of days (and the number of seconds—yes, it was considered that important) until the return of Hong Kong.

Countdown clock (counting down the days to Hong Kong’s reunification with China), The National Museum of China, Tiananmen Square, 1995

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

Ruins of Western-style Mansions at the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace (also known as Yuanming Yuan or ‘The Gardens of Perfect Brightness’), was the main main imperial residence of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty and his successors.

The palace complex, estimated to be four times larger than the Forbidden City, was looted and destroyed by an Anglo-French force during the Second Opium War. The palace was so large that it reportedly took 4,000 troops three days to loot it it and burn hundreds of buildings to the ground.

Children clambering on a statue at the Old Summer Palace

What little remained was destroyed after a second sacking in 1900—this time by soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Germany, Japan, Russia, England, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the United States).

According to UNESCO, artwork, textiles and ceramic looted from the Old Summer Place can now be found in 47 museums around the world.

Ruins at the Old Summer Palace, Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, 1995

Almost all of the buildings were in Chinese architectural styles, with a few also being constructed in Tibetan and Mongol styles. However, the most prominent ruins are of the Western-style palaces that had been built to satisfy the Qianlong Emperor’s taste for exotic architectural styles.

The ruins serve as a vivid reminder of the royal extravagance of Imperial China, the dangers of being a weak nation and the rapacity of colonial powers.

Maze Garden, Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, 1995
Maze Garden, Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, 1995

The Summer Palace

Kunming Lake, Foxiang Ge (Tower of Buddhist Incense) at Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill), the Summer Palace Beijing

The Summer Palace is a large network of imperial palaces that was slowly developed starting from around 1271, when the existing lake (now known as Kunming Lake) was expanded. Over the centuries, temples, palaces and waterways were added and the hill was enlarged. These days it is a popular park.

The 17-Arch Bridge
Playing on the ice of Kunming Lake, Summer Palace (Beijing)
The Stone Boat at the Summer Palace
The Stone Boat, Summer Palace, (Beijing)
Waking across Kunming Lake

The Summer Palace is livelier during summer; I suppose that is unsurprising given its name.

People gathering and playing Chinses musical instruments at the Summer Palace, 1996
Flea market at the Summer Palace, 1996
Rowboats and the 17-Arch Bridge, the Summer Palace, Beijing, 1996
Sunbathers at the Summer Palace, Beijing, 1996


The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Tiantan, or the Temple of Heaven, is a temple complex built from 1406 to 1420 and was the site of annual ceremonies of prayers for a Good Harvest. It is just under 4 kilometers south of Tiananmen Square. The three main structures there are:

  • The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a large circular building with three gables;
  • The Imperial Vault of Heaven, its smaller single-gabled counterpart;
  • The Circular Mound Altar, a round marble platform.

The two main halls are built entirely of wood and were constructed without the use of nails. The following picture of the inside of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest shows some of the supporting beams and columns.

Interior: Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) Beijing, 1997
Window at Tiantan
Detail view of a gate at the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) Beijing, 1995

Besides being a tourist attraction, Tiantan Park is also place for locals to hang out.

At Tiantan Park, 1995

Behind the people sitting down in the above photo were hawker stalls selling souvenirs.

My brother bargaining with hawkers for a kite at Tiantan Park, 1997

Beihai Park

This is a large park, also known as the Winter Palace, is located just to the west of the Forbidden City. It dates back to the 12th Century, when it was first used as an Imperial Park.

White Pagoda, Beihai Park
Beihai Park
Detail view: Nine Dragon Wall at Beihai Park
View of the Beihai Bridge and the Middle Sea from Beihai Park, Beijing
Playing on the ice (near Beihai Park)

Yonghe Temple, the Beijing Temple of Confucius, the Temple of Azure Clouds and the Church of the Saviour

During our trip in the summer of 1996, we also visited Yonghe Temple (also known as the Harmony and Peace Palace Lamasery,  Yonghe Lamasery or simply the Lama Temple), The Temple of Confucius, and the Temple of Azure Clouds (also known as Biyun Temple).

Yonghe Temple

Yonghe Temple (Harmony and Peace Palace Lamasery), Beijing, 1996

The site of Yonghe Temple was originally developed in 1694 in the Qing dynasty as a residence for court eunuchs of the previous dynasty. It was later turned into a lamasery for Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The architecture blends traditional Han Chinese and Tibetan styles.

Lion statue, Yonghe Temple, Beijing, 1996
Detail: relief, Yonghe Temple, Beijing, 1996

Temple of Confucius, Beijing

The temple in Beijing was constructed in 1302. Confucian temples in China are for the veneration of Confucius and other Confucian sages and philosophers and in the past served as examination centers for the imperial examinations. Inside the temple in Beijingf, there are 198 stone tablets on which are recorded the names of more than 51,624 scholars of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Temple of Confucius; Beijing, 1996
Stele, Temple of Confucius; Beijing, 1996

The Temple of Azure Clouds

The Temple of Azure Clouds is located in Beijing’s Western Hills just outside Fragrant Hills Park. It was built in the 14th century.

Temple of Azure Clouds (Biyun Temple), Beijing, 1996
Buddhist figures, Temple of Azure Clouds (Biyun Temple), Beijing, 1996

The Church of the Savior

The Church of the Saviour (Xishiku Cathedral) was set up in 1703 by Jesuit priests in another location in Beijing (Zhongnanhai). The cathedral was expanded in 1864 and then moved to its current location in 1887 with a gothic façade being added in 1890.

Church of the Saviour (Xishiku Cathedral) Beijing, 1996


During our 1995 visit, we also spent a couple of days in the city of Tianjin, a large city located on the coast, just over 100 kilometers southeast of Beijing.

Tianjin, 1995
Child with candied hawthorn, Tianjin, 1995
Playing on the ice: Hai River Tianjin
Men hanging out in Tianjin
Hai River, Tianjin
Tianjin Street

Dates & Locations

The trips were:

  • Beijing, Shidu & Tinjin: Christmas holidays 1995
  • Beijing, Xi’an, Lanzhou & Xiahe: August 1996 (the article about Xiahe is here: Visiting Xiahe in Gansu, China)
  • Beijing: February 1997

Photo Albums

I hope you enjoyed the photos. If you are interested in seeing them at higher resolution (e.g., 1840 x 1232), you can visit the online albums:

1. Beijing, Shidu & Tianjin (240 photos) Flickr
2. Beijing, Shidu & Tianjin (95 photos)Google Photos

I am can’t remember what kind of camera I had. I wasn’t into photography at the time. I think it as a point-and-shoot Minolta model.

~ Photos and text by longzijun

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