Beijing, a multi-faceted metropolis and the capital of the People’s Republic of China presents a striking kaleidoscope of contrasts. As the seat of power for the communist political command, Beijing still retains the imperial glory of its bygone era and at the same time flaunts its power as a modern global city. The museums, temples and palaces paint a vivid portrait of yesteryears while the sprawling and luxurious shopping malls, amusement parks, chic and stylish pubs, bars and clubs promise a life of contemporary indulgence.
Visitors to this intriguing city can trace Beijing’s cultural and historical legacy through its famous Lama Temple, Tiananmen Square or Forbidden City, seek solace in the nearby Fragrant Hills, stare at a blank Soviet-style monument at one step and admire the awe-inspiring Birds Nest stadium at the next. You can see the city’s mood swings as you meander through the felled hútòng (narrow alleys) and past the huge underground bomb shelters scooped out during the paranoid 1970s.
History may have been trampled in Beijing over the past half century but the city has moved on to gain its rightful place as the capital of one of the world’s greatest emerging economic super powers, a fact that the world witnessed when Beijing hosted history’s most expensive Olympic Games in 2008. Amidst all the action visitors can also try to understand how the locals manage to defy the fast pace of growth and find time to play chess and watch the world go by.
Things To See
The historic and culturally rich city of Beijing has much to offer tourists. The effects of war and revolution have left behind their imprints but the city has managed to move on. Beijing played host to the 2008 Olympics and wowed the world with its world-class services, signature stadiums, shimmering skyscrapers and colossal flyovers. Yet, amidst all this modernity, the awe-inspiring imperial grandeur too makes its presence felt.
Forbidden City: Rightly considered as Beijing’s signature landmark, the Forbidden City has played a pivotal role in shaping the character and identity of the city. The area gets its name from the fact that for about 500 years it was off-limits to most of the world. A mosaic of ancient buildings, courtyards, halls, pavilions and gardens, this walled city has played home to 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most of the buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage site date back to the post-18th century and now house a vast collection of priceless relics including paintings, ancient pottery and bronzes.
Lama Temple: Situated in the north east of the city, this magnificent edifice of archways and halls are adorned with multi-colored glaze tiles, Chinese lions, tantric statuettes and revolving prayer wheels. The architecture and the interiors are a fusion of Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese influences. Gracing the Wanfu Pavilion is the stupendous 18m high statue of the Maitreya Buddha in his Tibetan form is sculpted from a single block of sandalwood. Though taking photographs is not allowed within the temple buildings, you will get a free mini Lama Temple VCD with your ticket.
Tiananmen Square: The grand Tiananmen and Qianmen gates located at either end of Tiananmen Square stand as reminders to the fact that Beijing was once a walled city. The vast imposing square is home to the Great Hall of the People, China’s parliament, the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where the body of Chairman Mao rests, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and an obelisk depicting the major events of the revolution. Tiananmen Square is also the world’s largest public square and you can enjoy breathtaking views on any clear day. The Forbidden City is located just across the street. However the square is most known as being the site of a student protest in 1989 that was brutally crushed by the People’s Army. While this incident is known throughout the entire world, its existence has been erased in China, where the majority of people don’t know about the incident.
Beijing Botanical Gardens: Nestled in the Western Hills, the beautiful botanical gardens are a welcome respite from the city’s bustling atmosphere. The Beijing Gardens Conservatory is home to around 3000 different types of flora and a rainforest house.
Summer Palace: Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the Summer Palace situated in the northwestern suburbs, was once used by the royal court as a summer retreat to escape from the heat of the city. This imperial structure with its expansive palace grounds, temples, gardens, pavilions and the majestic 17-arch bridge spanning over the lake, make for a great tourist attraction.
Fragrant Hills Park: The Fragrant Hills Park is situated against the backdrop of the Western Hills. A short hike will lead you to Incense-Burner Peak, however if you do not feel like walking you can opt for the chairlift to go up and enjoy the expansive view of the countryside. In autumn the hillside is covered in splashes of red maple leaves and the view is simply spectacular.
Temple of Heaven Park: Built in the 15th century, this signature landmark, which is China’s largest temple complex, is symbolic of Beijing’s rich cultural legacy. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its unique and distinctive architectural features. Observe the fact that the temples are round and the bases square, which signifies the ancient Chinese belief that heaven is round and earth is square. Therefore you will find the northern end of the park is semicircular and the southern end is square in shape.
798 Art District: 798 Art District, a group of radical art studios in the workshops of a largely abandoned military electronics complex, attracts artists, visitors and collectors from across the world. The contemporary art galleries, studios and cafes stand in complete contrast to the Communist propaganda; fading slogans exhorting the toiling masses can still be seen on some of the factories’ walls, reminding artists and visitors of the fervour that fuelled the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Bell Tower: At one time a bell tower could be found in all the Chinese cities and was used to make general announcements or inform the citizens of curfews. Originally constructed in 1272, the Bell Tower in Beijing was destroyed a number of times by fire and war. The present structure dates back to 1745. It is worthwhile to climb up the steep steps to enjoy sweeping views of the city and marvel at the 63-tonne bell close up.
Beijing Aquarium: The Beijing Aquarium, the ‘world’s largest indoor aquarium’ is home to Amazon rainforest coral reef and a shark aquarium where, if you are adventurous enough, you can dive with the flesh eaters. There is also a marine mammal pavilion where you can enjoy aquatic animal displays.
Beijing Zoo: The Beijing Zoo is home to the world famous giant pandas and also a good collection of polar bears. Besides marveling at these beautiful creatures, you can enjoy a pleasant stroll amid the vast parklands, trees and along willow-fringed lakes.
The Bird’s Nest: The national stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008Olympics has become a showpiece of China’s growing power and wealth. The success of the Olympics has turned the structure into a source of national pride. The iconic stadium can seat 80,000 people is giving the other major attractions of Beijing a run for their money.
Tour the Hutong district: Step back in time with a tour of Hutong, this part of town was an ancient area of housing where courtyards were surrounded by single-storey houses. You can hop onto a rickshaw or traverse on foot to explore this ancient section of Beijing, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.