Rough Guide to Beijing Travel

Rough Guide to Beijing Travel

Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China, is the most important city in the most populous country on earth, a place with a fabled past facing a 21st century future as one of the world's great metropolises.

Beijing is far more than just a political capital. It is the economic, cultural, diplomatic, and educational heart of the nation, and it has held that status, on and off, for many centuries in its long and glorious history, having been China's capital during the Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and for most of the Republican period except the era from 1928 to 1949. Situated at the heart of the Bohai Gulf economic region, Beijing is an economic powerhouse, with a vast financial sector and enormous industrial muscle in high-tech industries and modern manufacturing, as well as a huge domestic and international tourism sector, which realized revenues of 331.4 billion RMB in 2012.

Beijing is home to some of China's most iconic monuments. The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are probably the two most-recognized symbols of ancient China, while the images of the Great Wall that most people recognize come from sites around the capital. Its modern architectural achievements are impressive too, despite the ugly concrete and glass canyons that are a legacy of the city's explosive growth in the last 10 years. The glittering National Grand Theater (NCPA) and the cutting-edge architecture of the new CCTV headquarters have become familiar trademarks of the modern capital.

Beijing is one of the four Chinese cities which are semi-autonomous municipalities in their own right - the other three being Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing. It is surrounded by beautiful highlands to its northwest and the Great Northern Plain to its south. Five rivers run through the city which connect it to the Bohai Sea to the east.

Beijing's long and illustrious history started some 400,000 years ago, when Peking Man - an ancient ancestor of Homo Sapiens - was an inhabitant of the region. Records show that Beijing has been an inhabited city for more than three thousand years and served as the capital city for numerous dynasties. Thirty-four emperors have lived in and ruled the nation from Beijing and it has been an important trading city from its earliest days.

The city is a major transportation hub and is easily reached by both air and land. It has two airports, four major railway stations and is dotted with bus stations that transport visitors in and out of the city. In terms of city transportation infrastructure, the city has one of the most comprehensive systems. Beijing boasts the world’s third largest subway and has an average of around 10 million users per day.

Although modernization has swept away a lot of the old Beijing, the city's traditional past is still there to be found in its hutongs, courtyards, teahouses and temples, and in its incomparable historic sites, among which are numerous UNESCO World Heritage locations; all are under state protection. China's imperial past and political present meet at Tian'anmen Square. The square was built during the Ming Dynasty and expanded after 1949. Tian'anmen Square pays tribute to those that lost their lives during the revolutionary struggle. Around the square are sites central to China's modern and ancient identity, including the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and, of course, the Forbidden City, one of the greatest UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Not far from the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square, in the center of Beijing, is Beihai Park. The park's origins as an imperial pleasure ground go back to the Liao dynasty, and it was expanded and redesigned in the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Many of the sites and structures in the modern park are the legacy of work done under the Qing Emperor Qianlong. The park features a host of beautiful vistas in both summer and winter, and is full of sites of historic and architectural interest.

The Temple of Heaven, located in the southern part of the city, is a stately and beautiful park which was built during the Ming Dynasty as the site for the most important spiritual obligations of the emperor. The famous triple-roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is one of the most perfectly-proportioned Ming-era buildings in China, and a famous symbol of Beijing (and, indeed, China). Near the Temple of Heaven, visitors can head to the Beijing Museum of Natural History, which displays an eclectic assortment of pre-historic artifacts and fossils. Along the same theme (and area of town), Liulichang Street offers visitors a glimpse into the past. The 750 meter-long streets was once a place where artists and writers would congregate. Today, it can be considered a living museum.

In terms of major temples, Beijing offers a wide variety, but the most visited include Yonghegong Lama Temple and White Cloud Temple. Both temples remain relatively active, the former being Buddhist and the latter Taoist. Underneath it all, is the ''Underground Great Wall,'' an underground city which was constructed as a bomb shelter and built using the materials that were part of the city's walls. The underground city makes a great summer venue due to its cool temperature.

Outside of the city limits lie three of the most wonderful sites: the Ming Tombs, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall at Badaling. The first is an ancient imperial burial site that houses tombs for 13 emperors, of which three are open to the public. On the northwestern side of the city lies the Summer Palace. The palace is mostly known for Longevity Hill and the beautiful expanse that is the Kunming Lake. The palace was used as a summer resort for the imperial court and is dotted with many attractions. The Great Wall at Badaling is the most popular site for viewing the Great Wall. Located to the north of the city, it provides a panoramic view of the area. Today, the wall has modern facilities that allow one to get a grand view of the northern plains.

Other museums that attract visitors to the city include the Ming Huang Wax Museum, which displays wax figures of Chinese emperors, the National Art Museum that displays modern and traditional art, and the Military Museum of Chinese People's Revolution, which displays infantry and other war memorabilia. One of China's most important new cultural institutions is the Capital Museum, which opened in 2006, and houses an extensive and well-curated display of historical artifacts, most with a connection to the Beijing region.

Beijing is known as one of the greatest cultural cities in China. Beijing Opera performances and acrobatic troupes keep those traditional entertainment forms alive, while contemporary clubs and discos thrive in the Sanlitun area and just about every corner of the city.

Beijing is an excellent place to pick up curios, browse through markets and shop in elegant malls. Beijing's ''Four Famous Representative Arts'' are cloisonné (Jingtailan), ivory carvings (Yadiao), jade objects (Yuqi) and carved lacquer wares (Qidiao). There are various types of folk arts and crafts available in Beijing, including flour or clay figurines (Mianren or Nianren), colorful kites, exquisite paper-cuts, Chinese knots and many other traditional handicrafts, which are for sale on the streets. Many visitors cannot go back home without sporting a new Qipao or a Tang suit, which can be tailored to your size. Jade jewelry and amber can be found at any of the jade centers and markets. Visitors should make sure to avoid knock-off products by purchasing them at a reputable store.

Beijing is a great city to go shopping; there are many shopping complexes including Sanlitun, Solana, Wangfujing Street, Qianmen, Dashanlan, Xidan Commercial Street, Guomao Shopping Centre, Oriental Plaza, and Zhongguancun Square. Liulichang Culture Street is an established market selling jewelry, antiques, ancient calligraphy, and paintings. Panjiayuan Folk Culture Market sells antiques, collectibles and decorations, including old books, furniture in ancient styles, jade articles, porcelains, Chinese and foreign coins and folk costumes among many other Chinese artifacts. Additionally, there are at least nine wholesale markets that sell trendy fashions and traditional Chinese curios.

As the capital of China, Beijing serves up cuisines from all over China and the world. Traditional Beijing cuisine such as roast duck, imperial cuisine, and hot pot are still the main items on the menu for most locals looking for a special night out. However, as more and more people arrived from other provinces to settle in the capital, other genres of cuisine such as Canton, Sichuan, Yunnan and international cuisine have quickly helped diversify and re-invent the local dining scene. Now, it is possible to find the widest possible range of cuisines from simple noodle dishes to high-end European fair.

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