The Chinese capital is in full bloom during springtime while the progression of citywide preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games is in full swing. It was with a sense of pride that I gazed out the window during my taxi ride from Beijing International Airport through the brief stretch of rural terrain. Onward into the urban sprawl to see these majestic monolithic creations with the grand entrances and dazzling decor. Why? It’s difficult to know for sure, but I’ve always held a fascination for the Far East and its architectural beauty and brilliant light displays. But after all, this was in broad daylight and only my fourth visit to the big city and still with so much to see and do; I certainly couldn’t boast of it being my adopted second home…yet anyway.
Beijing is moving forward in a big way; really, a quick moving microcosm of the country as a whole. Irrespective of the Olympics catalyst, the “People” get things done in the Republic and in some small way I’m pleased to be a part of it, whether it’s plunking down small change for a token gift or photographing the city skyline to share with my readers. It’s an imperfect city that’s given plenty the right to complain–pollution, heavy traffic–but it’s also taking great strides to improve the living conditions and still offers plenty in the way of cultural heritage and daily attractions.
Some airlines are now offering non-stop service to Beijing from the States. My route’s been New York/New Jersey to Beijing the last several times and yes, it’s every bit as long as it’s feared to be by the many who’ve yet to venture there, but at the end of the “day,” the 13 hours doesn’t seem quite so bad as the four hour layover in Tokyo plus the additional two to arrive from there.
If you’re going it alone find out in advance what the going rate is for a taxi from the airport to your hotel. The hotels will usually have this information and oftentimes it’s posted on their website in terms of length and cost. Of course this does not always mean much if you’re trying to negotiate a ride, much less a reasonable rate, with a taxi driver who doesn’t understand your language, but at least you’re armed with a rough idea and something to refer to. Many drivers are also made accountable to the businesses they pick up and deliver to, which is to say, make a note of the cab number or save the receipt for future reference if they try to rip you off.
Also steer clear of the circling vultures that run rampant through the aisles looking for the next foreign affair to arrive from the gate, since they run their rates up twice as high as the normal taxis and you have no recourse. Another option is to go to the information booth and simply ask them to get you a car service to your hotel. It’s a little more expensive, but may be more convenient as they do accept credit card payments and it’s easier to present them your destination rather than hailing a taxi on your own. For further reference, a 40-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Holiday Inn Downtown should run from 120 to 150 RMB, or about $15 to $20.
Cutting corners can be very helpful when navigating through a city like Beijing because you’ll likely be riding in cabs everyplace you go unless you’re somewhat savvy and can learn the bus or subway route. Of course it also helps to have friends that can drive, but short of that, the cabs are the best way to go and very economical by western standards. It is easy to get drawn in, however, by such attractive prices for transport, lodging and dining, and even small change adds up quickly to the point you’re wondering how the 800 RMB (Yuan) you’ve been carrying in your wallet suddenly diminished into 340. Tipping is also not required or expected.
Lodging in Beijing, as with any major city, can be as modest or exorbitant as you like. I recommend a good three- or four-star hotel slightly removed from the downtown financial district as you can expect to pay approximately $60 – $70 a night. Also be prepared for a 15% surcharge tacked on to the bill, and as with any hotel, make less use of the on-site consumables and visit a local shop for what you’ll need–you’ll save plenty of money and may even garner a smile from the merchant.
Beijing is a big city, yet much of what it offers in terms of area attractions, The Great Wall not withstanding, is relatively close to the city center. An overhead view of the city reveals the center, where Tiananmen Square and the governing district lies, as well as the popular Palace Museum. From there the city is outlined by six “ring” roads, dare I say for their circular layout, but they make for valuable reference points for anyone venturing off on their own. The latter two are far flung from the city to really be of use on most tourist maps, but they do exist, and a seventh was supposedly under consideration.
While much of the touristy scene is located within the center and inside the 2nd Ring where you’ll find a variety of temples and traditional buildings alongside modern day marvels amid the financial street, beyond the 2nd Ring lies a broader circle with additional attractions as the density thins and farther stretches of park space and openness present themselves. So between the 2nd and 3rd Rings we find such highlights as the Beijing Zoo, Temple of Heaven and a vast array of theaters, museums, mosques, and cultural centers.
Beijing’s less cosmopolitan than Shanghai and more cultural, so visitors will find less to do with international fashion strips and fancy clubs and more to do with traditional temples and sacred park grounds. It likely wasn’t always this way, but owed to the astounding modernization taking place in Shanghai more or less uprooting much of its traditional foundation it’ll be difficult to place any major city up against it before too long. That said, Beijing is not without a large degree of modernity and advancement, it’s just not as profound as Shanghai and one might look harder to find the glitz and glamour.
While few might consider it glamorous–romantic maybe–the Hou Hai Lake area is certainly a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike, and among the busier nightspots in the city. Located in the Dongcheng District to the north of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the “shore” of this man-made lake is filled with terraces and a numerous selection of restaurants and bars. Also known locally as the Hou Hai “Bar” Street, the title is as good an indicator as any that the spirit of free competition is alive and kicking. Upon entering through Lotus Lane, a busy street with an active square where people peddle merchandise, massages and maps, Hou Hai comes across like an oasis in the middle of the city. Bicycles, pedicabs and boats of all types are available for hire, but it’s probably best to leisurely stroll as you take in the trendy little boutiques and eateries and circle around the lake where you’ll view a few paddleboats petering along the lake.
Early evening is the best time to go for a pre-dinner drink by the lake as things start heating up shortly after 6 p.m. and all the prime seating becomes occupied. The places fill up surprisingly quickly. One moment you’re having a light conversation gazing toward the sunset and admiring the peaceful scenery, then the next you’re up and about, the dinner bell rings and your best bet is to patronize the nearest pushcart.
There were many different bars and restaurants that lined the circumference of so there’s plenty of selection with or without prime seating. The bars are tiny, probably some 50 square meters, and most offer outdoor seating and colorful signage to get your attention as you walk by. And if that doesn’t work, the staffers aren’t shy about inviting you in and pushing the global premiums on you as an added enticement. With or without Budweiser, the bars are a dime a dozen, literally on top of each other, separated only by certain thematic characteristics where you’ll see anything reminiscent of India or a European style pub… it’s a pub crawl to rival the likes of London! Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, is that the occupancy rate is not very high. There’s really no better time to visit than early May and I was hard-pressed to go past a handful at a time that weren’t completely empty. Perhaps a 2-for-1 drink special?
Moving beyond the “beer” street toward the circular stretch opposite the front entrance across the lake, there are several side streets and driveways that house specialty shops that produce everything from pottery to popular fashions. The local sidewalk vendors offer impressive displays of knick-knacks at better prices than the nearby shops, sporting everything from traditional Chinese garb, keychains, wall-hangings, and the like, to impressive nice crystal vases and jade jewelry. There’s also plenty of junk to sift through, but take some time and you’ll spot a worthwhile handmade treasure to bring the loved ones. After dark is really when Hou Hai shines with dazzling bright lights illuminating the lake where at the right moment the image can be absolutely storybook.
It’s all happening at the zoo? It would seem so. The Beijing Zoo is of course among the area highlights to see and always a winner with the kids. Located between the 2nd and 3rd Rings, the big draw here are the panda bears, a featured attraction both inside the park and on every conceivable piece of promotional literature. I wish I’d saved my tickets. But the real trick is to get the little devils to come out long enough to oblige the throngs of would-be fashion photogs ogling for a view. The zoo offers a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere and enough attractions to fill the afternoon.
After paying a 20 Yuan entrance fee, you traverse through a pretty setting where stands plenty of navigational posts to direct your way–and there are several to choose from. To see the panda park, just follow the masses… and have your camera at the ready. No time for fooling with all the on-screen gadgetry, just be ready with your trigger finger. The two pandas on display were a bit shy and backed out of their “cave” just long enough for a glimpse before turning their backs momentarily and disappearing. It’s interesting to notice how they’re as much of a draw to the locals as to the foreigners…not that there are probably many pandas or foreigners residing in the immediate area, but there’s no arguing the bears themselves are cute and if you happen to miss one on view, there are plenty of cuddly replicas inhabiting the many area gift shops.
Without any real comparison to draw from but knowing its reputation, I’d say the Beijing Zoo is not on a level with something like the San Diego Zoo, and more than one local suggested it’s not even the best one in the region. But visitors will find the usual standard fare as they stroll through an indoor amphibian section, a tiger park and otter pool. One of the highlights was visiting the elephants where for an extra five Yuan, you gain special admission for an up close and personal view and for five more, you get a handful of stalks to feed the friendly beasts as they curl up their trunk and stuff their gullet. The giraffes operated in a similar manner where they bent down to eye level and consumed whatever you placed in front of them. I was tempted to feed the elephants my leftover lunch, but the zookeeper sternly shook his head suggesting the mighty mastodon might not have the stomach for Chinese dumplings.
Of similarly beautiful surroundings and tranquil setting, the Temple of Heaven at Tiantan Park, located just inside the 3rd Ring, is another worthy attraction. In proximity to the Beijing Amusement Park and Museum of Natural History–one of my first choices until I learned the museums don’t operate on Mondays–they could not have carved out a more scenic space on a Hollywood movie lot. The location is simply majestic. Upon entry to the park, you’re greeted by this giant Pagoda Temple, which forms a three-tiered triangular shape topped with a golden crown.
Within Tiantan Park you’ll come across such age-old marvels as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, built in 1420 and adorned in gold and flowing crimson, The Circular Mound Altar, a symbolic place known as the worshipping terrace for Heaven, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a sturdy wooden structure with a blue tile roof crowned with a gilded sphere, the Fasting Palace, a vast structure surrounded by a double wall and moat, and the Echo Wall, a circular mound altar that was symbolic as a worshipping terrace.
The layout of the park is quite large and it helps to have a map to follow the route as on more than one occasion I found myself wandering then wondering if I’d been there before. The layout of Tiantan Park features a semi-circular shape that forms the northern part of the outer surrounding wall while the southern is square, symbolic of the ancient belief that Heaven was round and the earth was square. In the middle sits a tourist information center, which I naturally came across after getting lost… not that getting lost is such a bad thing amidst all that natural beauty. It’s an invaluable experience to be able to just stand in the center of it all and gaze in wonderment at this land that first came to being in the early 15th century during the rule of the Ming Dynasty. There’s nothing else quite like it.
The Temple of Heaven reflects the refined architecture of the era and is a perfectly preserved example of ancient tradition that’s not far off from the reality of the busy city. It’s probably not the most exciting day at the park for the kids, but from what I saw, there are always a good number of locals nearby tossing a modified Frisbee or packs of tour groups making foolish noises, so they could stay amused even part of the time.
Beijing may not offer quite the level of fast-paced entertainment and international acclaim as Shanghai, but it’s certainly an excellent starting place to get a true taste of Chinese tradition. It’s also interesting to note the transition with each half-year interval that I return as more building gets underway, more renovation, transportation hubs, and who knows what else…these are only the things easily discernible with the naked eye. There’s no telling how far this city can and will go as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the ultimate jewel in the crown for recognizing the country’s unparalleled progress in recent years and for Beijing specifically, legitimizing the Chinese capital as a true world-class destination.
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