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Readers may recall our worry concerning the Athens Olympic Games, now only 28 days away (see ABTN 21June). One should have no worries concerning the 2008 event set for Beijing. In some ways the Chinese capital is more advanced in its preparation than the Greek one. In spite of the short lived Sars epidemic, and let”s face it any unnecessary death is cause for concern, Beijing is a clean, safe, fast moving, sprawling modern city, with an excellent metro system. The roads are wide and straight, perhaps the biggest worry the hordes of cyclists who charge around without a care in the world, operating with some kind of 360 degree vision which seems to keep most of them alive. The taxis are something else, very cheap, mostly driven by local would-be Schumachers, and fortunately not very fast. If you want an hour”s entertainment put yourself in the front (right hand seat), ask for some place that might confuse the driver, and sit back and enjoy the ride. For two or three pounds sterling you will have great fun, a sort of real life dodgems.
Where to start your tour of Beijing? Like any great city there is an amazing number of things to be seen but a MUST is The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and of course the Great Wall. And here we need to destroy the myth about the wall being seen from space. It may be 4,000 miles long but it is often no more than 15 feet wide and at the most 45 feet tall. More chance of seeing the M1 from space or a 27m wide runway.
Tiananmen Square (The Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace) is said to be the largest square of the world, a half mile down each side and framed by the Great Hall of the People on its west side and the Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution on the east. On the south part is Chairman Mao's Mausoleum. It was the site of the student uprising in 1989 and can comfortably hold half a million people. It is awe inspiring, a place to stand and contemplate and watch the (Chinese) world go by.
Tiananmen Square borders the Tatar City inside of which is the Forbidden City (formerly the Emperor's residence - top photo), the Imperial City (where his retinue was housed), and the Legation Quarter. The Imperial City is now the seat of the government. The name 'Forbidden City' is derived from the fact that nobody was allowed inside the city, except the Emperor himself, his wives and concubines and the eunuchs. The official name is now 'Gu gong bo wu yuan' (Palace Museum) or short just 'Gu gong'. In practical terms one walks from Tiananmen Square through the impressive Meridian Gate and into a series of buildings, walls and courtyards until you are in the very centre of the complex known as the Palace of Heavenly Purity. You will find it busy with tourists and quite hard work although for the most part flat. Construction of the palace started in 1406 when Emperor Yang Le dispatched officials to the provinces to organise building materials. The first palace was completed in 1420, only to have the three main halls destroyed by fire the next year. In fact fire has been a common hazard, the precautions taken over the years very much on display.
Less than an hour by car from the Forbidden City is the Summer Palace built during the early years of the 20th century by the mother of the last Emperor, Xi Qi, and by 1908 redundant. It has some extremely pleasant gardens with numerous imperial buildings on the shore of the man made Kumming Lake which in various forms dates back to much earlier times. The Long Corridor is a covered walkway nearly half a mile in length along one shore of the lake. The Imperial family needed somewhere to stroll when it was wet. Sitting as if ready to go to sea at one end is a marble ship built by the Empress Dowager to remind her of the oceans and the Chinese navy. At one time a canal connected the Summer Palace to the Forbidden City and plans are well under way to have this renovated in time for the 2008 Olympics. There will be no finer way to arrive at the Summer Palace.
A little further outside Beijing is the Great Wall (see above), a tourist trap but none the worse for that. The road from the city gradually winds it way up through the hills, a very pleasant and picturesque ride eventually arriving at the section open to the public. Here the authorities offer two walks, even the so-called easy one a struggle for those not so fit. The wall is steep and obviously stretches as far as the eye can see, a series of watchtowers linked by walkways. Your guide, who has been many times before, will excuse himself and disappear off to the local tourist hotel. There is also a cable car access.
As befits a great modern city Beijing is host to most of the world”s major hotel groups. The city has some magnificent properties but there is one corner, along the Jingguomen Avenue (and close to an amazing stallholder market area), which the expatriates call the Shangri La Quarter. Here sits the China World Hotel, five star plus (see lobby picture left), the Traders, nearer five than four star, and the de-luxe Kerry Centre Hotel, which has amongst some outstanding facilities a 35m indoor swimming pool (and indoor tennis and squash courts). In fact the Hong Kong based group opened its first hotel in mainland China in 1984 and currently has 16 hotels and resorts with eight more due to open by the end of 2007. Strategically located in the heart of Beijing”s diplomatic and central business area the 716 room China World Hotel is a major component of the China World Trade Centre complex, which also includes two 38-storey office blocks, two international residential buildings, an exhibition hall, an array of restaurants plus a prestigious underground shopping mall. The hotel has recently been refurbished at a cost of $30m, the centre piece a magnificent lobby where on a Sunday an orchestra plays, with the compliments of Shangri La. Plan to arrive on that day. It”s worth it. There can be no better reception at a top quality property.
When touring China engage the services of a tour company. Whilst you can of course go off on your own, and there are no restrictions for the most part, the combination of Chinese characters and a distinct lack of English amongst the majority, makes an organised visit to one”s advantage. A personal guide, driver and car will cost little more than a package tour. Money well spent. Visit Beijing during May, September and October. The summer months can be very hot and wet, and whilst it probably will not snow, the winter can be cold.