Beijing with Tianjin Hebei

by Josh Chin and Peter Neville-Hadley

Beijing strikes most first-time visitors as ugly. Its rivers of concrete and rows of tenements, its pollution, its homely populace, and its oppressive grayness are not what anyone would expect at the heart of such an otherwise vivid nation. And yet, no other city in the nation attracts more travelers.

Visitors accept Beijing's pallor because it is China's political and cultural capital, and because it offers the country's most staggering array of attractions. Best known among these are the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tian' an Men Square, and the Great Wall—bedazzling and symbolic structures without which no trip to the country would be complete.

But grandiose emblems are not the only reason to visit Beijing. Scattered through the city's sprawl are a number of temples, museums, gardens, and other attractions that only grow in charm as they decrease in size. This principle culminates in the hutong, narrow lanes that twist through older sections and form an open-air museum where you can happily wander for hours without aim.

Beijing lies 120km (70 miles) west of the Bo Hai (sea), on a sandblasted plain that once separated Han Chinese-dominated territory in the south from the non-Chinese "barbarian" lands to the north. Human settlement in the area dates back to the Zhou period (1066 b.c.-221 b.c.), but the first of the four capitals to occupy space here did not appear until a.d. 936, when the Mongolian-speaking

Khitan built Yanjing (Capital of Swallows), southern base of power for the Liao Empire (907-1125).

The city's grid pattern and original walls were first laid down in the 13th century, when it was called Khanbalik ("Dadu" in Mandarin) and served as eastern capital of the Mongolian Empire, referred to in China as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The city was razed, rebuilt, and renamed Beijing by Han Chinese rulers of the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644), who added the Forbidden City and several other of the city's most impressive structures. Manchurian horsemen of the final Qing dynasty (1636-1912) skirted the Great Wall and established themselves in the Forbidden City in 1644. Despite their nomadic origins, Qing leaders found the Chinese system of bureaucratic rule useful in managing their new empire, a strategy mirrored in the relatively few changes they made to the city.

Some of the greatest damage to Beijing has occurred in the last 150 years. Invasions by foreign armies, rebellions, war with Japan, and the struggle between Communists and Nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s have altered the face of the city more than any events since the 14th century. Particularly severe was the ruin that took place in the decade after the Communist victory in 1949, when Mao, in a desire to put the stamp of his own dynasty on Beijing, leveled the city walls and the old Imperial Way and paved over both.

Present-day Beijing is a vast municipality with a population of roughly 11 million. Economic reform and preparations for the 2008 Olympics have accelerated the pace and scale of change and outfitted the city with a semblance of modernity (or at least the Chinese perception of it). Roads that once swarmed with bicycles have been taken over by automobiles. Swaths of hutong have been leveled to make way for office towers. And children whose parents hid tapes of Beethoven during the Cultural Revolution now have easy access to DVDs, double tall lattes, plastic surgery, and other previously unthinkable bourgeois luxuries.

It is easy, however, to overemphasize the transformations of the past few decades in a city with so many centuries under its belt. To many observers, Beijing has hardly changed at all. The gaze of government looms as large now as it did during the Ming.

Outsiders are still Philistines. People smoke in elevators, spit in the streets (despite the SARS scare), fly kites, and practice tai chi (tdijiqudn) in the mornings, just as they always have. And perhaps most importantly, the Great Wall continues to snake along the city's northern border while the Forbidden City gleams at its center.

Beijing shares the same latitude as New York (roughly 40°N) and suffers the same weather: hot, humid summers and bitter winters. Fall, typically mid-September to mid-November, is the nicest season, with mild temperatures and relatively clear skies—by far the best time to visit. Spring brings thoroughly unpleasant sandstorms that blow down from the Mongolian steppe and coat literally everything in a layer of fine dust. There is little precipitation, and even less of late.

Note: Unless noted otherwise, hours listed in this chapter are the same every day.

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