Beijing is the ultimate must-see for the first-time visitor to China. Beijing (meaning “Northern Capital”) is the political, cultural, and geographical heart of China. In fact, for hundreds of years, the Chinese have literally believed that Beijing sits at the center of the Universe– with the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City as the absolute center. The country’s name is literally translated as “Middle Kingdom” (very Lord of the Ring-ish if you ask me). Even today, the entire country — which spans five international time zones — uses only one time zone: Beijing Time.
If nothing else, you’ll travel to Beijing to hit two of the country’s premier tourist attractions: the Forbidden City and the nearby Great Wall of China. Of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in this pulsating metropolis of 15 million.
Some good news: the 2008 Olympics left Beijing with a major facelift — you’ll benefit from the all of the upgraded tourist infrastructure and increased supply of hotels.
And although Beijing — along with Shanghai and Hong Kong— are relatively expensive, even budget travelers will be happy to find cheap hostels, plentiful street food, and an efficient underground metro system. Not surprisingly, the capital city also caters to the luxury traveler…and everyone in between. Beijing has a huge range of offerings: From world-class restaurants to fascinating street snacks. From ancient temples and old Beijing backstreet charm to hipster bars. From glitzy shopping to street markets selling Chairman “ObaMao” t-shirts (banned briefly during Obama’s 2009 visit).
And some bad news: Beijing’s air quality can be dismal at times (hit or miss almost any time of year). If you’re really unlucky, you’ll experience one of Beijing’s famous Gobi Desert sand storms (usually in early spring). You’ll also want to stay alert to the scam artists who camp out near to the tourist hot spots.
A modern, vibrant city, Beijing is a good place for first time visitors to ease into culture shock. So go ahead, have a Starbucks Frappuccino and a steak dinner! Or chill out in a nice air-conditioned shopping mall and catch a movie at the Megaplex. On the other hand, Beijing is also a good place to finish your trip — after roughing it in rural China, it’s nice pamper yourself with some First-world comforts before the long flight home.
MORE INFO & HISTORY:
An Imperial soap opera….than ran for over 1,000 seasons
While present-day Beijing was first established as a capital during the Warring States Period (473-221BC), the city’s pre-eminence really started around the 13th century, when the Mongols swarmed in from the north to kick some ass and take names. And kick ass they did. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, took over and made the city his capital in 1272.
During that time the city grew to become crazy rich, due mostly to its pole position as the starting point of the Silk Road. When Marco Polo stopped by for a visit, he described, “over a thousand carts loaded with silk” rolling in on a daily basis.
Eventually, the Mongols were kicked out in 1368, paving the way for the Ming emperor Yongle (Zhu Di) to make his mark on Beijing. He not only built version 1.0 of two of Beijing’s most impressive monuments—the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven—he also established the city’s symmetrical square-rectangle grid layout (laid out according to feng shui principles) that survives today.
During his impressive (but cruel) reign, the legendary Ming emperor also commissioned a number of epic naval expeditions. With a huge fleet of an estimated 200-300 ships carrying some 30,000 men (mostly soldiers), admiral Zheng He sailed thousands of miles away to explore Asia and Africa. The largest treasure ships were approximately the size of a football field—almost six times longer than Columbus’ largest ship, the Santa Maria.
The city reached its peak under the Qing Dynasty during the first half of the 18th century, when they built the legendary Summer Palace — the world’s largest and most impressive royal garden, with 200 pavilions, temples and palaces. The dynasty (China’s last ruling dynasty) collapsed in 1911, eventually making way to establish a republic in China.
After winning the civil war against the Nationalist Party in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communists established Beijing as the country’s capital. At the time, the city was in a pathetically neglectful state. In their zest to break free of the old, they destroyed much of old Beijing.
Heavily influenced by the Soviets, they transformed Beijing into a concrete jungle of high-rise housing blocks, in addition to the massive Tiananmen Square and monumental administrative buildings nearby. Because of course, nothing says inspiring, timeless beauty like Soviet-style architecture.
2008 Olympics in Beijing
Beijing’s modernization has continued since then and got a massive shot in the arm by the 2008 Olympics. In addition to new avant-garde architectural wonders — like the “Bird’s Nest” (National Stadium) and “Water Cube” (National Aquatics Center) — the government invested a massive amount on infrastructure and beautification programs. Tourists will be happy to hear that the public toilets west of Tiananmen Square are the most expensive in the country (but do they have toilet paper I wonder?).
Out with the old, in with the new
One result of this obsession with putting on a modern face — combined with out-of-control real estate development — is that Beijing’s old charm is being replaced by high-rises and shopping malls. Critics (and especially those who live there) have rallied to save the culturally historic hutongs (traditional neighborhoods–many several centuries old) from extinction. The city government finally realized their tourist appeal and today some are designated as protected areas.
So take a break from the traffic, crowds, and fast food joints. Rent a bike or stroll around the winding, narrow alleys to get an intimate feel of daily life in old Beijing. Look at those kids playing! Are those chickens I hear in that courtyard? What kind of game are those old dudes playing? Hey, where the hell am I?
A modern, vibrant city
The bottom line is that Beijing is a fascinating city that offers something for everyone, from the history buff and the shopaholic to the foodie and the all-night partier.
China Mike’s Beijing pages: