Learn about Beijing, China, by
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
the Summer Palace's courtyards
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.
Empress Dowager's marble boat,
The Boat of Purity and Ease.
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
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.
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.
No. 33 East Chang An Ave.
Phone: (86-10) 6513-7766
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.
98, Beilishilu, Xichengqu
Beijing, Chian 100037
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.
3 Bai Shi Qiao Road
Beijing, China 100873
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
Where and What
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.
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.
83 Zhushikou Xidajie
Inexpensive Beijing style cuisine, well known for their seafood
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.
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
The Chinese currency is the Yuan, divided into 100 Fen. As of August
2001, 1 US Dollar was worth about 8.2 Yuan.
Chang'an Avenue, Tiananmen Square
Open daily 8:30am to
5pm (Ticket window closes about 3:30pm).
Entrance fee is Y30 (about $3.75)
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)
Chongwenmenwai Street, Chongwen District
Open daily 6am to 8:30pm in summer and 8am to 5:30pm in winter.
Entrance is 30 yuan (about $3.75)
350 Fifth Ave., Suite 6413
Empire State Building
New York, NY 10118
600 West Broadway, Suite 320
Glendale, CA 91204
China International Travel Service
71-01 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
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.