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Beijing's 13 million official residents—plus another 2 million migrant workers—are a fascinating mix of old and new. Early morning taiqi (tai chi) enthusiasts, bearded old men with caged songbirds, and amateur Peking opera crooners still frequent the city's many charming parks. Cyclists no longer clog the roadways; although you will still find bike lanes, the city's broad thoroughfares are now ruled by China's steadily increasing number of car owners. As the seat of China's immense national bureaucracy, Beijing still carries a political charge. Mao-style propaganda persists. Slogans that preach unity among China's national minorities, patriotism, and love for the People's Liberation Army (the military arm of the Communist Party) still festoon the city on occasion. Yet as Beijing's already robust economy is boosted even farther by the massive influx of investment prompted by the 2008 Olympics, such campaigns appear increasingly out of touch with the cell-phone-primed generation. The result in the streets is an incongruous mixture of new prosperity and throwback politics, a land of opposites where the ancient and the sparkling new collide.
Be curious. Beijing rewards the explorer. Most temples and palaces have gardens and lesser courtyards that are seldom visited. Even at the height of the summer tourist rush, the Forbidden City's peripheral courtyards offer ample breathing room, even seclusion. The Temple of Heaven's vast grounds are a pleasure year-round. When planning your day, keep in mind that Beijing is sprawling. City blocks are very large. To avoid arriving exhausted at sites that appeared deceptively close on the map, ride the subway or hire a taxi to get between sites, saving your legs to walk around once you get there. Ration your foot time for Beijing's intriguing back alleys.
Beihai Park (North Lake Park). This park is easily recognized by the white Tibetan pagoda perched on a nearby hill. Near the south gate is the Round City (Tuan Cheng). It contains a white-jade Buddha, said to have been sent from Burma to Qing emperor Qian Long, and an enormous jade bowl given to Kublai Khan. Nearby, the well-restored Temple of Eternal Peace (Yongan Si) contains a variety of Buddhas and other sacred images. Climb to the pagoda from Yongan Temple. Once there, you can ascend the Buddha-bedecked Shangyin Hall for a view into forbidden Zhongnanhai. The lake is Beijing's largest and most beautiful public waterway. The Five Dragon Pavilion (Wu Long Ting), on Beihai's northwest shore, was built in 1602. Among the restaurants in the park is Fangshan, an elegant establishment open since the Qing dynasty. South Gate, Weijin Lu, Xicheng District. Admission charged.
Drum Tower (Gulou). Kublai Khan built the first drum tower on this site in 1272; you can climb to the top of the present tower, which dates from the Ming dynasty. Until the late 1920s, the 24 drums once housed in this tower were Beijing's timepiece. Sadly, all but one of these huge drums have been destroyed, and the survivor is in serious need of renovation. North end of Dianmen Dajie, Dongcheng District. Admission charged.
Lama Temple (Yonghegong). This Tibetan Buddhist temple is Beijing's most visited religious site. Its five main halls and numerous galleries are hung with finely detailed thangkhas (painted cloth scrolls) and decorated with carved or cast Buddha images—all guarded by young lamas (monks). Resident monks practice in the Hall of the Wheel of Law on low benches and cushions. The temple's tallest building, the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Fortunes (Wanfuge), houses a breathtaking 85- foot Maitreya Buddha carved from a single sandalwood block. English-speaking guides are available at the temple entrance. 12 Yonghegong Dajie, Beixingqiao, Dongcheng District. Admission charged.
Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan). Once a grand collection of palaces, this complex was the emperor's summer retreat from the 15th century to 1860, when it was looted and systematically blown up by British and French soldiers. Beijing has chosen to preserve the vast ruin as a "monument to China's national humiliation." Students take frequent field trips to the site and scrawl patriotic slogans on the rubble. Qinghuan Xi Lu, Haidian District. Admission charged.
Qianhai and Houhai Lakes. These lakes, along with Xihai Lake in the northwest, were together known as Shichahai, the Scattered Temples Lake. Most people come here to stroll casually around the lakes and enjoy the bars and restaurants that perch on their shores. North side of Dianmen Xi Lu, north of Beihai Lake, Xicheng District.
Temple of Confucius (Kong Miao). This tranquil temple to China's great sage has endured close to eight centuries of additions and restorations. The Great Accomplishment Hall houses Confucius's funeral tablet and shrine, flanked by copper-colored statues depicting China's wisest Confucian scholars. A forest of stone stelae, carved in the mid-1700s to record the Thirteen Classics, philosophical works attributed to Confucius, lines the west side of the grounds. Guozijian Lu at Yunghegong Lu near Lama Temple, Dongcheng District. Admission charged.
Temple of Heaven (Tiantan). Ming emperor Yongle built the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing's grand attractions. The temple grounds, double the size of the Forbidden City, were designed in strict accordance with numerology and feng shui. Audio guides can be rented just inside the south gate. Yongdingmen Dajie (South Gate), Chongwen District. Admission charged.
Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen Guangchang). The world's largest public square, this is the heart of modern China. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, hundreds of thousands of Red Guards crowded the square. In June 1989 the square was the scene of tragedy when hundreds of student demonstrators and bystanders were killed by troops breaking up the pro-democracy protest. But aside from the grand and tragic events here over the last 50 years, Tiananmen is truly a people's square, alive with local kite fliers and wide-eyed tourists from out of town.Bounded by Changan Jie on north and Xuanwumen Jie on south, Chongmen District.
Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). This expansive, parklike imperial retreat dates from 1153, midway through the Jin Dynasty. Shortly thereafter, under the Yuan Dynasty, engineers channeled in spring water to create a series of man-made lakes. In 1750 Emperor Qianlong commissioned the retreat for his mother's 60th birthday. Construction of palaces, pavilions, bridges, and numerous covered pathways on the shores of Kunming Lake continued for 15 years. Yiheyuan Lu and Kunminghu Lu, Haidian District, 12 km (71.2 mi) northwest of downtown Beijing. Admission charged.
The Forbidden City
Forbidden City. It was from these nearly 200 acres at the heart of the Northern Capital that 24 emperors and two dynasties ruled the Middle Kingdom for more than 500 years. Miraculously, the palace survived fire, war, and imperial China's final collapse.
The Forbidden City embodies architectural principles first devised three millennia ago in the Shang dynasty. Each main hall faces south, and looks upon a courtyard flanked by lesser buildings. This symmetry of taoyuan, a series of courtyards leading to the main and final courtyard, repeats itself along a north-south axis that bisects the imperial palace. This line is visible in the form of a broad walkway paved in marble and reserved for the emperor's sedan chair. The walk through main halls, best done by audio tour, takes about two hours. Allow two more hours to explore side halls and gardens.
Enter the Forbidden City through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), easily identified by its massive Chairman Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square. Northward beyond the Meridian Gate, where military victories were celebrated, stands the outer palace, consisting of three halls used for high public functions. You'll first reach the Hall of Supreme Harmony, once the tallest building in China, then the Hall of Complete Harmony, and after this the Hall of Preserving Harmony. For a change from the Forbidden City's grand central halls, turn right beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony to visit smaller peripheral palaces—once home to imperial relatives, attendants, and eunuchs, and the scene of much palace intrigue. Next comes the Hall of Treasures. Continue northward to Qianlong's Garden and the Pearl Concubine Well. Return via a narrow north-south passage that runs to the west of these courtyards. On the way is the Hall of Clocks and Watches. Walk northward from the nine-dragon carving and through the Gate of Heavenly Purity to enter the Inner Palace, where you'll find the private rooms of some imperial families. West of the palace you'll find the entrance to the Hall of Mental Cultivation, where later Qing emperors lived. Heading north, you'll find the rocks, pebbles, and greenery of the Imperial Gardens just beyond the Inner Palace. Past the gardens is the Forbidden City's northern gate and exit. Admission charged.
Shopping in the city's lively, colorful markets is one of the distinctive pleasures of a trip to Beijing. Bargaining is acceptable at all markets. Dazhalan, a centuries-old shopping street in the southern part of the city, is packed with old-world charm. You'll be faced with a myriad of goods, from Chinese medicine to quality shoes, to bootleg brand-name goods. The China World Trade Center is filled with high-end clothing shops above an ice skating rink. Silk Alley hustles and bustles down on the street.Liulichang is a shopping street in Xuanwu District, just south of the Peace (Hepingmen) Gate, and it exudes a more authentic old-school feel than Dazhalan. It's good for antiques, calligraphy, and art. Sanlitun, known among foreigners as bar street, has developed into a shopping hot spot, offering a wide range of shopping experiences, from the busy Yaxiu Market to glamorous boutiques. Wangfujing Dajie is Beijing's premier shopping street, glistening these days with new malls. This pedestrian-only lane overflows with spending opportunities, from Adidas to Tiffany to snack shops and souvenir stalls.
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