The capital of the People’s Republic of China Beijing called ‘Jing’ for short is the epicenter of the nation’s political, cultural educational spheres as well as the center of international trade and communications. The city of Beijing which has been awarded the 2008 Olympic Games is located in northern China close to Tianjin Municipality and is surrounded by Hebei Province. The capital today is a modern city, teeming with a population of approximately fourteen million people but evidence of the old Beijing is still visible in its tea houses and temple fairs which co–exist with its towering skyscrapers, bustling shopping malls with their international retail outlets and its endless stream of traffic.
The history of the evolution of Beijing can be traced back over 500,000 years. Beijing was inhabited by the Peking man, an ancestor of humans as we know them who lived in caves. This history of evolution has been marked by invasions by warlords and foreign powers, fires and the rise and fall of dynasties. Imperial dynasties established their rule with Beijing at the helm. These were the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A total of thirty four emperors presided over the country and ruled the nation from Beijing. In 1911 the Qing dynasty was overthrown by a revolution and power was seized by the Nationalist party. This was followed by a series of power struggles between warlords and the Nationalist party until China was invaded by the Japanese in 1937. During the Japanese occupation the Nationalist party banished to Chongging which was the temporary capital of China until the end of the Second World War and the defeat of the Japanese.
The Nationalist party tried to retake Beijing after the War but they did not succeed in their attempts for by then a full scale Civil war was raging in China. The Communists led by Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 and declared China as a ‘People’s Republic’ with a proclamation in Tiananmen Square. Mao’s rule saw Beijing stripped off its finery as temples and monuments were destroyed and the city’s walls were pulled down and in there place commemorative arches were erected. The rich Chinese culture and heritage was further destroyed in 1966 when Mao launched his Cultural Revolution. This chaos continued until 1979 when Deng Xiaoping came to power and launched a drive to modernize China by opening it somewhat to the world. Deng Xiaoping’s image was severely tarnished when in 1989 he brutally crushed a pro democracy protest of students who had gathered in Tiananmen Square. Censorship and the control of any opposition to the government continue until this day. China in its current avatar is a paradox. The country which is the world’s fastest growing economy has all the trappings of a Capitalist state operating under a Communist regime.
The best time to visit Beijing is in the spring and late autumn. Spring is usually dry though sand clouds from Inner Mongolia can blanket the city during this time.
The temperatures in Beijing rise significantly during the summer months. Summer usually arrives in Beijing in late May when temperatures hover around 30°C (86°F). As summer progresses the effects of global warming are felt the Chinese capital as well as temperatures here surge over 40°C (104°F). Summer lasts until August. In the winter months the extreme temperatures of Beijing can fall below freezing point to -20°C(-4°F).
Tourists desert Beijing in the winter and one can usually secure a good deal at the various hotels belonging to international chains during this time of the year.
The local currency is the Renminbi which is made up of the Chinese Yuan. The Chinese Yuan is made up of ten Jiao.
The people of Beijing speak Mandarin in its original form. In fact Mandarin spoken here is called the Beijing dialect.
Getting to Beijing
The city of Beijing is served by the Beijing Capital International Airport which lies to the northeast of Beijing in the district of Shunyi located at a distance of twenty five kilometers from the center of the city. The airport is served by both international and domestic carriers. Fifty airlines serve Beijing’s international airport. There is an airport shuttle bus operated by the civil aviation authority which operates at a frequency of thirty minutes to downtown Beijing. The bus costs approximately 16 Yuan per person. There are also taxis available outside the arrivals hall. These taxis are metered but one can bargain with the driver, a trip by taxi to the city costs approximately 120 Yuan. Nan Yuan is another smaller airport located in the southern suburb of Beijing which is used primarily by China United Airlines for its domestic services.
Beijing has excellent inter city as well as international train links. The city is well served by four railway stations. The Beijing Railway station is station for long haul and international train journeys. Trains from here go to Batou and Shanghai as well as international cities such as Moscow and Ulan Bator. The Beijing West Railway station is the largest station in Asia and serves regional routes including capitals and important cities in every province. The other stations of Beijing serve short haul routes to neighboring provinces. Tickets can be booked in advance. Passports and other travel documents are required to be shown when booking tickets.
By Bus and Road
The city of Beijing is well connected by a spectacular network of roads and motorways to the rest of China. There are nineteen bus stations in Beijing which operate a multitude of bus services to various cities in the country such as Chengde, Datong and Tianjin. Tickets can be bought in advance, at the station or even on the bus itself.
Getting Around Beijing
Public transport in Beijing though not as good as Shnaghai or Gaungzhou is efficient none the less. A tourist has a variety of options to get around the city. Taxis have an initial flag fall of 10 to 12 Yuan and this usually depends on the type of Taxi, the Xiali which is a mini cab service has a flag down rate of 10 Yuan while the more spacious Santana or Fukang services have an initial flag fall of 10 to 12 Yuan. The taxis in Beijing are metered but they also charge for the time spent idling in traffic and also a night surcharge. To facilitate a Tourist’s journey further there are special tourism trains which run from the four railway stations to tourist sites in the suburbs. The tickets for these journeys usually include the admission charges to these sites as well. Four subway lines provide an added convenience for traversing the city. These Subways run from 5am until 23pm. Tickets are usually between 2 and 6 Yuan. Public buses provide yet another mode of transport to get around Beijing. Tickets usually cost 1 Yuan for travel in a non air conditioned vehicle while they cost 2 Yuan for travel in the comfort of an air conditioned service. Most of the buses are self service hence it is advisable to carry exact change for the bus. The Rickshaw service of Beijing costs more than the taxi service but it is wonderful way for a tourist to experience the old world charm of the city by exploring its nooks and crannies. Many hotels in Beijing also provide the tourists with the option of a bicycle rental to explore the hutongs( alleys) of Beijing.
Constructed by Chairman Mao to project the might of the Communist Party, this square which is the world’s largest public square is made up of paved stones and surrounded by many monuments such as the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Museum of Chinese history and the Great hall of the people. The square was the site of many a military parade during the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Millions thronged the square to pay respects to Mao on his demise in 1976. Today, the square is infamous for the brutal subjugation of the pro democracy protests by students in 1989.
The Forbidden City
The magnificent Forbidden City called ‘Gu Gong’ in Chinese was the imperial abode during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Construction on the Forbidden City began in 1407.
Fourteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty presided over their subjects from here. Today the Forbidden City which is made up 9,999 buildings is known as the Palace Museum. This large cluster of buildings surrounded by a moat and a ten meter high wall covers 74 hectares. It lies to the north of Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City was off limits to the rest of the world for over 500 years.
It is composed of lush halls, gardens and courtyards. The Forbidden City is divided into two sections the southern or Outer court was from where the emperor ruled the nation and the northern or Inner court was where he lived with his family. The palace has numerous Chinese artifacts and treasures and in 1987 it was listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. There is a continuous restoration process in place to combat the ravages of nature and time on the Forbidden City.
The Beijing Aquarium is the world’s largest inland aquarium. It has many unique attractions such as the shark aquarium where one can dive with the predators, an Amazonian rain forest area, coral reefs, whales and dolphins.
The Summer Palace with its water bodies and gardens served as the royal retreat during the scorching summer months. The Summer Palace which has in its environs the Kunming Lake is a favored tourist attraction. The main building is called the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. There is also a Long Corridor on the northern section which is covered with mythical paintings.
The Lama Temple is Beijing’s largest temple. It is adorned with magnificent statues such as a 60 ft statue of Maitreya Buddha which has been carved out of a single tree in the Wanfu pavilion. The temple has gorgeous landscaped gardens, tapestries and frescos. It is a functional lamasery and is closed for prayers in the morning.
This City consists of a network of bombproof tunnels which were constructed by the Chinese as Mao believed that a nuclear war with Russia would annihilate them all. There are 90 secret entrances to these tunnels located in shops which line Qianmen’s main street.
The Drum tower was built in 1273. One can climb up the steep steps of the often destroyed and restored tower to take in the views of Beijing city. Mao and his cultural revolution almost destroyed the Drum Tower as it was viewed as a relic of China’s feudal past.
This is the largest and most well preserved imperial gardens in the center of Beijing. It has imposing pavilions such as the Five Dragon Pavillion, walk ways, the 27 meter long Nine Dragon Screen originally built to ward off Evil spirits and a large lake with an island in the center.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is a temple built during the Ming Dynasty rule in 1420. The son of the Emperor used to come here to pray for good harvests and other forms of divine intervention. The most spectacular edifice in the park which encompasses the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which is on a marble three tiered terrace.
National Grand Theatre
The egg shaped Grand Theatre is Beijing’s newest attraction. Set to open on October 1st 2007 which is China’s National Day. The design of the egg shaped National Grand theatre is said be too modern and not in sync with the rest of the district. It was designed by French Architect Paul Andreu in 2001 and constructed at the cost of 2.7 billion Yuan. The Theatre has three grand halls including a 2,416 seat opera house 2,017 seat concert hall and 1,040 seat theatre which is surrounded by a man made lake.
Major international hotel chains have a representation in Beijing. The China World Hotel now managed by the Shangri- La group of hotels is a leading hotel in Beijing. It has been renovated and today has its own metro stop in the adjoining shopping center. The shopping center called China World complex has stores selling hi-end wares, a large super market, a store selling fine wines and an ice rink. This hotel can be accessed online for rates and availability on www.shangri-la.com.
The Peninsula Palace Hotel in Beijing is yet another leading hotel in the city. The Hotel has been recently refurbished by renovation program which was completed only in 2005.
It has all the amenities expected in a modern hotel including free wireless internet and is renowned for its impeccable service. One can access www.peninsula.com to find out about room rates and availability .The St Regis is another opulent hotel in Beijing which has the best Italian restaurant in Beijing called Danieli’s. The Press Club which is a bar at the hotel counts as one of the trendy watering holes of the city.
Shopping in Beijing is a delight. Beijing like other cities in China is a center for handicrafts and folk art. The four representative arts of Beijing are cloisonné, Ivory carving, jade carvings and lacquer wares. The city has four main commercial shopping districts called Wanfujing Street, Qianmem Street, Xidan Commercial Street and Dongsi Street. Wanfujing Street today houses many international brands and is likened to Champs Elysees in Paris. The Foreign Language Bookstore is located here as is Old Beijing Street. Old Beijing street is peppered with stores selling Chinese ink sticks and brushes used for Calligraphy, silk cloth, shoes, caps and local Chinese delicacies such as roasted pork, tea and deserts amongst other wares. Liulichung Street is a haunt for lovers of vintage as it is a locale to find antiques, jewelry, ancient calligraphies and paintings. Rong Bao Zhai is a 300 year old shop in the area and sells authentic Chinese art. Silk Alley near the US Embassy is yet another treasure trove for tourists who enjoy buying bags, shoes, handicrafts and sweaters here.