The famous portrait of Mao Zedong still looks out over Beijing as though he's guarding communist austerity and discipline. But the Beijing he stares out upon is hardly the city he left behind.
Change is everywhere—in the clothes (you could wear them to the office in any cosmopolitan city); in the increasingly paralyzing traffic (more and more foreign- and Chinese-made automobiles jam the streets); in the electronics (smartphones, smartphones, smartphones); and in the construction (high-rises, high-rises, high-rises). If you scrub off the Gobi Desert dust, which is glued to everything with diesel exhaust, you'll find Beijing's true patina—a mixture of old and new. It may surprise you that you can still catch the glimmer of a lacquered temple or a traditional jadeite bracelet contrasted with the machine-made gleam of chrome and glass.
No doubt it's a calculated gleam. The Chinese government wants Beijing to be recognized as a modern world capital—especially modern enough for foreign investment. Beijing is a huge, burgeoning metropolis, with bulldozers carving the way to its future.
Beijing is geographically vast, exceedingly flat and largely treeless (except in parks, scenic spots and areas around the old legation quarter and Forbidden City), with a mishmash of ancient, Communist and, increasingly, futuristic high-rise architectural styles. Sights of interest to visitors are scattered. Tiananmen Square is at the heart of the modern city, but no one would call it downtown. The area east of Tiananmen Square along Chang'an Dajie, focused around the China World Center and CCTV Tower, is a modern commercial business district.
Travel with a good map (printed in both Chinese and English) and have your destinations written down in Chinese characters (ask your hotel's staff to help you). It might be helpful to ask your hotel for this information in advance for the transfer from the airport. For planning purposes, you may find it helpful to know the district where an attraction is located. For instance, Haidian District (Beijing Zoo, Summer Palace) is to the northwest, Chaoyang District (an embassy and nightlife area popular with expats and nouveau-riche Chinese) is to the east, and Chongwen District (Temple of Heaven) is to the southeast. When you're out and about, you'll discover that the city is built along avenues aligned in a grid. Roads may change their names several times as they continue across town.
Several "ring" roads form concentric circles in and around the city, with Tiananmen at the center. Somewhat confusingly, the first is not actually a ring road—it is made up of a series of small local streets. The Second Ring Road (Erhuan Lu) roughly follows the location of the old city wall, which was dismantled in the 1950s. A subway line also follows this route. The Third Ring Road (Sanhuan Lu) goes mostly through residential areas but also hits some major commercial districts, and the Fourth Ring Road (Sihuan Lu) runs primarily through suburbs and residential districts. Another subway line takes travelers along the eastern side of the Third Ring Road and along the north side of the Fourth Ring Road, connecting the Central Business District with the north side of the city. The Fifth and Sixth Ring roads, which visitors are unlikely to use, effectively orbit the city. A seventh (and regional) ring road is being considered.
The light-rail system makes a huge arc across the north of the city and connects Dongzhimen (in the east) to Xizhimen (in the west) through some of the city's university areas.
Beijing, planted on the edge of a fertile coastal plain, rose from agrarian roots. Nomadic tribes invaded and destroyed it many times over the course of several centuries, but the city was always rebuilt. By the fifth century BC, the area had developed sophisticated administrative networks under a feudal system. It became part of a vast, technologically advanced Chinese empire that was protected—and isolated—from the rest of the world by distance, harsh terrain and a huge wall.
In the 13th century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered Beijing and ran the then-sitting emperor out of town. Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan, built a new city at the site beginning in 1267 and made it the capital of his vast empire. This was the time of Marco Polo's travels—a period of extraordinary prosperity and power in China.
The area blossomed again in the 15th century when the Ming dynasty—which succeeded the Mongols in 1368—returned the capital to Beijing after some years in Nanjing. Vast sums were spent to refurbish the city as a major capital, called Beijing ("northern capital"). An immense imperial palace was built, and the Great Wall was fortified and extended by millions of laborers over a period of 100 years. Many of the city's best-known artifacts are legacies from that era, when architecture as well as arts and letters flourished. The Ming were overthrown by northern invaders, the Manchu Qing, who preserved and expanded the city during the following 300 years. Elaborate palaces and gardens still remain from what was China's last dynasty.
A chaotic period of warlord rule followed the downfall of the last emperor in 1911. In the same year, the capital was moved from Beijing to Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, and for a period it was known as Beiping ("northern peace"). Beijing became a flashpoint of political and cultural dissent, expressed in a student-led demonstration in 1919 and calls for reforms in government, women's rights, science, literature and the arts. The beginning of the Chinese Communist Party dates from this time, when a young Mao Zedong worked as a librarian at Beijing University, although the Party's first meeting was officially held in Shanghai.
A struggle for power ensued between the Communists and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), the leading political force that wanted to supplant the warlords and reunify the country under a military dictatorship. The struggle was temporarily interrupted when Japanese forces occupied the city during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). But after that war ended, a civil war broke out. It ended in 1949 when Communist forces entered Beijing unopposed. The Nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek) fled to the island of Formosa, taking the country's entire gold reserves, many art treasures and much of the air force and navy, and founded Taiwan. The People's Republic of China was founded on the mainland 1 October of that year in Beijing, when the city became the capital once again.
During the following decades, Beijing became the center of a new kind of empire. Mao tried to restore central rule, instill self-sufficiency and protect the country from outsiders, as well as to rebuild an economy devastated by huge inequalities. He oversaw the building of huge dams, canals and power-generating stations (instead of grand palaces and temples), but the country remained underdeveloped compared to the Western world.
A power struggle in Beijing between moderate reformers and Mao's revolutionary socialists resulted in the devastating Cultural Revolution that started in 1966 when Mao encouraged zealous Red Guards to root out his political enemies within the Chinese Communist Party. The violent and bloody initiative, which lasted until Mao's death in 1976, resulted in the persecution of many intellectuals and would-be reformers, effectively halting the nation's development. Since Mao's death, more moderate leaders, especially the late premier Deng Xiaoping, have opened the doors to trade opportunities and modernization.
Today, the regime continues in line with the policies set by Deng and continued by subsequent leaders, including current President Xi Jinping. Following its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, China's economic development continues to progress at breakneck speed, to the continual amazement—and some degree of concern—of the rest of the world. Trade, manufacturing, the stock market and real estate have boomed.
Crucial situations still loom: bureaucratic corruption, Xinjiang separatism, human rights, uncertainty regarding Taiwan and Tibet, a huge migrant-worker population, nationwide pollution, urban overcrowding, inflation and an economy in danger of overheating are among the problems that China must resolve in order to achieve its aims.
Beijing achieved its goal of being in the international spotlight when it hosted the Olympic Games in the summer of 2008—the world's first attempt at an ecofriendly Olympics and among the most expensive on record, costing around 1.5 trillion yuan. That was an affirmation to China of its status as a modern nation, ready to sit at the table with the other major countries of the world. But the question is, at what price? Beijing residents and visitors together mourned the death of many of Beijing's most charming historic areas, bulldozed to make way for the construction of glass and steel symbols of modernization as the city turned a new face to the world. The changes will continue to shape the city's character for decades to come.
Visitors should make the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and the Drum Tower and Bell Tower their top priorities, along with the Olympic Park for sports fans. Other temples may be of interest, too. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have flourished alongside one another since the first century. Most temples and monasteries were damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but several, including the Lama Temple and nearby Confucius Temple, have been repaired and are worth seeing.
Do not underestimate the size of the city nor its traffic. What may look like a short distance on a map can take an hour or more by taxi. Whenever possible, take the efficient subway system and its linking bus routes. Current city maps include the mass transportation system. If necessary, ask your hotel for directions; the distances are so great that most receptionists and concierges know the quickest route by public transport. If you do decide to take a taxi, show the driver the name of the destination in Chinese characters (not Pinyin) and make sure the driver turns on the meter when you get in. Legal taxis have meters equipped with automatic printers for receipts that drivers are required to give customers at the end of the trip.
Although many have been razed in the name of 21st-century progress, the city has hundreds of miles/kilometers of ancient hutongs (alleys), which are lined with housing in Beijing's distinctive, traditional low-slung style. Just pick a direction and start walking. Most lie within the Second Ring Road that runs East and West of the Forbidden City; and some of the best are located in the area just south of the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, along Di'anmen Street. Several have been redeveloped and include a growing number of small hotels, bars, restaurants and shops.
Beijing also has some of Asia's most eye-catching new architecture, including Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium (built for the Olympics), Paul Andreu's controversial domed National Grand Theater of China and Rem Koolhaas' angular CCTV HQ Tower.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without seeing the Great Wall of China. It's preferable to make a day of it; leave early, because it's quite a drive from the city. Tour companies and hotels can arrange half-day trips to the Juyongguan section for time-strapped travelers. Most tourists go to the Badaling for spectacular scenery, and Mutianyu if kids and seniors are part of the tour. For the less-visited parts of the Wall, check out Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng or Lianyunling. Although they're farther away, you'll find fewer tourists. Other sights worth seeing include the renovated White Cloud Temple (Baiyun Guan), the oldest Taoist temple in the world, and Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) Park northwest of the city.
Those who can't imagine visiting China without seeing a panda will want to stop at the Beijing Zoo although the panda parks in Chengdu offer a much more immersive experience.
Save some yuan and avoid the queue with the Beijing Museum Pass, which includes free or half-price admission to a number of Beijing's top sights, including the Confucius Temple, the Bell Tower, the White Dagoba, the Beijing Planetarium and the Beijing Natural History Museum. The pass should be available at the more than 100 participating museums and post offices, but it becomes harder to find later in the year. The price does not change even if purchased later in the year. To reserve a pass, phone 8298-6620 or 8666-0651 with a bilingual speaker on hand to translate. Passes can also be ordered online. http://www.bowuguan.com.cn.
Observant travelers will notice the repetition of the following words in place names: Lu means road, dajie means boulevard; bei means north; nan means south; dong means east; xi means west; liang and qiao mean bridge.
Note: Many sites have both winter and summer hours, reflecting Beijing's low levels of light and early sunsets in the middle of winter. Many are closed Monday, and ticket offices often close an hour or 30 minutes before closing time. Some sites may prohibit cameras or charge an extra fee for them. Security checks are common at museums and other major sites, and many require larger bags to be checked at the entrance. Additionally, some museums close for a lunch break around noon. Plan your visits accordingly.
The easing of government policies, growth of creativity in the nightlife scene and an increase in the number of foreigners living in Beijing have given rise to several thriving entertainment spots. Clubs and bars of every stripe line Sanlitun bar street in Chaoyang District, but the area around Houhai Lake (northwest of Beihai Park), with dozens of popular bars, is vying for Sanlitun's crown as Beijing's premier nightlife district. The city's luxury-hotel boom is also adding classy cocktail lounges across the city.
Karaoke bars are the nighttime activity of choice for many Chinese. You'll find them in many hotels, as well as on every corner in the tourist areas. (They're recognizable by the letters OK or KTV in their names.) Be warned: Some karaoke bars charge outrageous prices and have been known to rough up customers who refuse to pay their expensive bills; others are fronts for brothels. If you want to try a karaoke bar, go to one in a hotel. It will be expensive, but at least you'll know what you're getting into.
Beijing's clubgoers are a fickle bunch, and venues quickly fall in and out of favor. Also, the turnover rate is extremely high, as many venues in the older hutong areas are being demolished and forced to reopen elsewhere. The capital has also seen the arrival of the super-club—giant dance venues that attract international DJs such as Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold and Paul van Dyk.
The hours at Beijing nightspots vary. Bars and live-music venues in the Sanlitun and Houhai areas generally close around 2 am. Most clubs and discos stay open all night, depending on their popularity.
Both the variety and quality of Beijing's restaurants may surprise you. The city had fewer than 700 restaurants when Mao Zedong died in 1976 (restaurants were considered bourgeois), but energetic entrepreneurs have boosted that number considerably. Today, there are thousands of restaurants serving the cuisines of the world. All the usual Western chains are there, and international restaurateurs have become well-established since the Beijing Olympics.
If your itinerary will take you only to Beijing, you can visit the different regions of China by sampling their representative foods—from fiery Sichuan cuisine to the milder Cantonese (dim sum). Do try a restaurant specializing in Peking duck.
To save money, or if you are adventurous, you may want to try street food in Beijing. Although most health organizations discourage this, visitors do it all the time—usually with mixed results. The night market at Donghuamen is usually safe and is an exotic, delicious dining experience. Wangfujing Snack Street offers a delicious snack break for shoppers in an alley filled with Chinese lanterns. Ghost Street, a 1 mi/2 km strip of 150 restaurants along Dongzhimennei Dajie, is an excellent way to sample Beijing's hot pots and other culinary offerings. Exercise good judgment when it comes to the small food stalls along the street, however. If no one's buying or if it looks at all unclean, don't take the risk.
Generally, lunch is served 11 am-1 pm. Restaurants then close and reopen for dinner 5:30-9 or 10 pm. A few places stay open without a break 11 am-10 pm, and there are many places that stay open late. The less-expensive restaurants almost never have English speakers on staff. Reservations usually are not required unless you have more than five people in your party or it's a holiday. Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted in tourist restaurants, but be sure to ask first.
Note: Do not tip at restaurants. It's not expected and may even be construed as offensive. A few restaurants add a 15% service charge, usually for larger groups, which is sufficient to cover any gratuity.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks and tax: $ = less than 100 yuan; $$ = 100 yuan-200 yuan; $$$ = more than 200 yuan.
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