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Learn about Beijing, China, by reading Beijing - The Center of China by Gary W. Bloom, WTA Member and Leisure Traveler/Writer. It features a mini, but thorough tour of the destination, plus all you'll need to know to plan your trip including how to get there, objective information on places to stay and eat, and things to do. At the end of the article, we've provided a summary of the contact information for your easy reference. Enjoy

Beijing - The Center of China

by Gary Bloom, WTA Member and Leisure Traveler/Writer

Beijing was the first stop on a tour of China that my wife and I had been looking forward to for many years. She was born in Taiwan, but is, she will quickly point out, Chinese. Her parents escaped Communist China in 1949. It wasn't until recent years that Taiwan citizens were allowed to travel to China. While the saber rattling continues, tourists pour into China from Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Even though my wife speaks the language, we chose a package tour instead of going it alone. This may be one country best left to the experts. Traveling in China can be a logistical nightmare. There are long lines for tickets, whether for a boat, plane, train, or bus.  Local transportation is very crowded, the signs are written in Chinese characters, and English is not widely spoken. That said, for someone staying in Beijing, it's not difficult to find your way around. The city has expanded over a large area, but most of the tourist sites are near the center of the city, and taxis, while not as plentiful as in European cities, are available. For the daring, bicycles can be rented at many hotels and rickshaws can be hired for a tour of Beijing's back roads.

One thing that makes finding your way around Beijing easier is the way the old city was planned. Beijing was laid out as a square on north-south and east-west axes, with buildings and monuments almost mirror images of each other in the eastern and western halves of the city. Back in the days when the earth was believed to be flat, the Europeans thought it was a round disc, but the Chinese believed the earth was a flat square. This influenced the layout of Beijing, with its borders aligned according to the points of the compass.

The ancient Chinese were not known for their modesty. In their written language, the ideogram for the word "China" is a rectangle with a slash through the middle, symbolizing the center of the world. The emperor's residence, officially called the Imperial Palace but better known as the Forbidden City, was considered to be the very center of this cosmic universe and is situated in the center of Beijing. One other symbol of the city's political importance is that everyone uses the same time as that in Beijing, despite China being geographically larger than the US. 

Inside the Forbidden City are many palaces housing some of the most important works of Chinese cultural and architectural history.  It is the largest complex of its kind in the world, covering nearly 250 acres and with enough rooms to accommodate 10,000 residents. The Forbidden City was, literally, forbidden. Surrounded by 30-foot walls and a moat 164 feet wide, it was the residence of 24 emperors, including the "Last Emperor," Puyi. They lived in glorious decadence, with every need satisfied by concubines and servants.

When visiting the Forbidden City, arrive early and plan on spending the entire day. The main entrance is through the Meridian Gate off Tiananmen Square and there are self-guided tapes in many languages available. Besides its sheer size and grandeur, one of the most interesting aspects of the Forbidden City is the elaborate detail of Chinese palace architecture. The roofs of the palaces are yellow, which was the emperor's color. Only the emperor's residences could have yellow roofs and private citizens were not allowed to wear yellow clothing. Beautifully sculptured dragon-like figures are common on the palace eaves. In Chinese mythology, it was believed that dragons were able to make rain, thereby protecting the timber palaces from fire. Other carved mythological beasts are there to protect the buildings from evil spirits. "Ghost" walls were put up behind the entrances to keep evil spirits out, since ghosts, according to superstition, could not go around corners. As an added benefit, the walls provided privacy for those inside.

The Forbidden City has many palaces, but The Hall of Supreme Harmony is one of the most impressive. The intricately carved ramp of white marble leading to the entrance is carved with dragons and pearls. The emperor was carried over this "carriageway" in the imperial sedan chair. Inside the Hall is the Dragon Throne, from which the emperor ruled, overseeing his officials in the expansive courtyard below.

Further into the Forbidden City is the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Banquets and other official functions were held here. The imperial carriageway leading into the Hall is the largest in the Forbidden City. It was carved from a single slab of marble and weighs over 200 tons. It took 20,000 men 28 days to drag it from the quarry to the Palace.
Tiananmen Square, just outside the Forbidden City, is modern Beijing's center. It is a huge plaza of 98 acres, the largest city square in the world. The Tiananmen Gate, which means "Gate of Heavenly Peace," is the nation's symbol and is pictured on airline tickets, stamps, and official documents. Near the middle of the square is the tomb of Mao Tse-tung. We waited in a long line in the blustery, cold winter weather to enter the Memorial Hall. Just inside the door we were greeted with an enormous white marble sculpture of Mao. The line of people than silently moved to another room where the preserved, eerie, translucent face of Mao looks up from a crystal coffin.

The Forbidden City is one of the few preserved areas of ancient Chinese architecture. Although Beijing has been in existence for more than 3,000 years, wars and revolutions have taken their toll. Outside the Forbidden City, there are only a few buildings that date from before the 14th century. The Chinese preferred to build their houses and palaces from wood and ceramic tiles, a much more fragile material than the brick and stone used for European palaces and landmarks.

One temple that did survive, perhaps the most famous in China, is the Temple of Heaven. Inside this walled compound is The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This structure was built in the fifteenth century entirely of wood, but amazingly, without nails. The marble altar in the temple represents the center of the world, where the Emperor communicated with heaven. When the emperor was carried in his imperial sedan chair to the Temple of Heaven, all the windows and doors of buildings along the way were closed and absolute silence was required. Foreigners were not allowed to watch the procession. Today, the parks surrounding the temple are a good place for people watching, in particular the morning Tai Chi exercises.

There is no more enjoyable way to experience a country's culture than by its food. Beijing offers outstanding cuisine, with both Mongolian and Moslem influences. With its northern climate, the food tends to be spicier and more flavorful than southern China. A favorite is the "Mongolian Hotpot." Water is boiled in a communal cooking vessel placed in the center of the table. Each diner uses chopsticks to dip thin slices of raw mutton or beef, seafood, noodles, and cabbage into the boiling water for a few seconds until done and is then eaten with a hot, spicy sauce. The famous Peking Duck is a local specialty. Slices of roasted duck are served wrapped in small pancakes with scallions and a sweet sauce.

Until recently it was difficult to find restaurants in Beijing serving food from other provinces of China, let alone other countries. But overseas Chinese returning to the country are opening restaurants with Western and Japanese food, as well as Cantonese and Hunan specialties. Unless you're with someone who speaks Chinese, it's best to eat at restaurants in and near the major hotels, where English menus should be available and the quality, along with the cost, tends to be higher.

There are two sites near Beijing that should not be missed. One, of course, is the Great Wall of China, which dates to the Zhou Dynasty (475 - 221 B.C.). The wall winds more than 3,900 miles across the mountains of North China. Much of the wall stands 30 feet high and 16 feet wide. It is the only human built structure that is visible to the naked eye from the moon. The Great Wall was built wide enough to allow horses to gallop along its top, which made it useful not only for protection, but as an expedient way of moving food, weapons, soldiers, and information to the far reaches of China.

The other site is the Emperor's Summer Palace which is located about 10 miles northwest of Beijing. The Summer Palace serves the same function for the modern day tourist as it did for ancient Chinese emperors - a respite from the hustle and bustle of Beijing. During the summer it can be a much needed escape from the heat with its cool gardens situated by a lake. It has the largest imperial garden in China. Many of China's palaces owe their beautiful settings to the belief in "Fen Shui."  Literally meaning "wind and water," palaces were built in a setting of rolling hills, lakes, and rivers.

Beijing
One of the Summer Palace's courtyards

One of the Summer Palace's most unusual landmarks is The Boat of Purity and Ease, known as the Marble Boat. The notorious Empress Dowager, with her unusual tastes, ordered the boat built to look like a Mississippi paddle wheeler. There is an old Chinese saying, "Water can carry a boat, but it can also sink a boat." The Marble Boat was meant to symbolize the unsinkable Quin Dynasty, but instead became a symbol of Empress Dowager's wasteful extravagance. The Empress had the boat built with money intended for the modernization of their Navy, which in turn led to China losing its sea battles to the Japanese.

palace
Empress Dowager's marble boat, The Boat of Purity and Ease.

If you're not on a tour, there is train and bus service to the Great Wall and bus service to the Summer Palace.  Hiring a car, while expensive, is the most comfortable way to get  there. If you're traveling on your own, you'll probably want to make arrangements with the China International Travel Service (see contact info below), a government organization that makes travel arrangements for foreign tourists. They have branch offices in most tourist destinations in China and provide help to freelance travelers.

Beijing's history, like China's, has been a pattern of great accomplishments followed by gradual decline. Each of China's "golden ages" began with a strong ruler who overthrew the previous dynasty, with succeeding emperors chosen by birthright rather than competence. Many of Beijing's great monuments and art treasures were destroyed during Mao's cultural revolution. But since Mao, the country's actual "last emperor," Beijing's historical buildings are being restored and tourism encouraged. Not long ago it was only possible for foreigners to travel to China on government-controlled tours, and many of China's cities were closed to outsiders. There are a few areas that are still restricted, but more are opening each day. The awarding of the 2008 Olympic games to Beijing will undoubtedly bring even more progress. China may once again take its place as one of the great countries of the world, and Beijing, as always, will be at its center.

Details

Getting there:

Airlines offering direct service from the US to Beijing include Northwest, United, and Air China.

Beijing Capital International Airport is located about 20 miles northeast of Beijing. A taxi to the center of the city is around $13. There is also bus service to the city, costing about $4.

Where to stay:

Recommended hotels in Beijing range from $80 - $150 per night, double occupancy. A central location in Beijing would be to get a hotel near Tiananmen Square.

Beijing Hotel
No. 33 East Chang An Ave.
Beijing, China
Phone: (86-10) 6513-7766
Email: business@chinabeijinghotel.com.cn
A historic 5-star hotel built in 1900, the Beijing Hotel has been host to Chinese and world leaders, including President Nixon and Chairman Mao. It's in an ideal location near Tiananmen Square. Doubles are about $150.

Holiday Inn Downtown
98, Beilishilu, Xichengqu
Beijing, Chian 100037
Phone: 86-10-6833-8822
Fax: 86-10-6834-0696
Located in the financial and commercial district, this hotel caters to the business traveler, but is also well situated for the tourist. It's about 15 minutes by car from the Forbidden City. Doubles are around $130, with special weekend rates under $100.

Friendship Hotel
3 Bai Shi Qiao Road
Beijing, China 100873
Phone: 86-10-6849-8888
Fax: 86-10-6849-8866
The Friendship Hotel was built in the early '50s with a traditional Chinese look. It's about a half-hour by car from Tiananmen Square, not far from Beijing University and the Summer Palace. Doubles are around $80.

Where and What to eat:

Hongbinlou Restaurant
82 West Chang'an Ave.
Phone: (86-10) 6603-8460
Moderately priced Muslim cuisine, this restaurant serves exotic dishes such as stewed lamb's head and braised oxtail, as well as Beijing roast duck.

Fangshan Restaurant
Beihai Park, Beijing
Phone: (86-10) 6401-1879
This famous restaurant, specializing in imperial-style banquets, has served Chinese and world leaders. Hundreds of dishes are offered, with everything from sharks fin stew to golden WTAlone. This is the place to go to eat like an emperor, with prices to match. Reservations are essential.

Restaurant Fengzeyuan
83 Zhushikou Xidajie
Phone: (86-10) 6318-6688
Inexpensive Beijing style cuisine, well known for their seafood dishes.

When to go:

Beijing can be bitterly cold in the winter, and hot and wet in the summer. Autumn is a good time to travel, when the temperature is moderate and there's little rain.

Getting around Beijing:

Taxi is the preferred way to get around Beijing. The rates vary, depending somewhat on the size and vintage of the vehicle. Tipping the driver, while not necessary, is becoming common. Make sure the meter is reset and running before leaving. The subway has limited routes, but is an inexpensive alternative, at only 3 Yuan. For a leisurely tour of the old sections of Beijing, look for rickshaws around the major hotels and tourist sites, but be prepared to bargain.

Dollar value:

The Chinese currency is the Yuan, divided into 100 Fen. As of August 2001, 1 US Dollar was worth about 8.2 Yuan.

Attractions:

Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
Chang'an Avenue, Tiananmen Square
Phone: (86-10) 6513-2255
Open daily 8:30am to 5pm (Ticket window closes about 3:30pm).
Entrance fee is Y30 (about $3.75)

Summer Palace
Yiheyuan Street, Haidian District
Phone: (86-10) 6288-1144
Open daily 7am to 6:30pm (or until sunset)
Entrance fee is30 yuan (about $3.75)

Temple of Heaven
Chongwenmenwai Street, Chongwen District
Phone: (86-10) 6702-8866
Open daily 6am to 8:30pm in summer and 8am to 5:30pm in winter.
Entrance is 30 yuan (about $3.75)

More Information:

China National Tourist Offices

  • New York
    350 Fifth Ave., Suite 6413
    Empire State Building
    New York, NY 10118
    Tel: 212 760-8218
    Fax: 212 760-8809
  • California
    600 West Broadway, Suite 320
    Glendale, CA 91204
    Tel: 818 545-7507
    Fax: 818 545-7506

China International Travel Service
71-01 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
Tel:   (718) 261-7329
Web: http://www.citsusa.com/

Notice: This information is current as of August 2001. It is recommended that you contact the numbers and/or visit the above to determine any changes to the information.