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Beijing future past, present and


Nowhere mixes the old and the new quite like Beijing. The cultural heart of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, it is also the nerve centre of new China, a country rapidly muscling its way towards a dominant position in Asia and the world
n this expanding metropolis of 15 million souls, tradition and modernity jostle for space. Charming but ramshackle old neighbourhoods, whose historical value to conservationists is trumped by their cash value to developers and local officials, are being razed and replaced by gaudy office blocks, shopping malls and housing. In some cases the architectural creations springing up are breathtakingly daring, others are simply ridiculous. At the same time new subway lines making it easier to avoid the hardcore traffic are opening one after the other and the city boasts more and more of the kind of foreigner-friendly amenities such as boutique hotels, luxurious spas, gyms, fine international dining and potent nightlife that are
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to be found in established 'world cities' such as Tokyo, Dubai and New York, but at much better prices. The backdrop to this metamorphosis is China's headlong rush first to catch up with and now perhaps surpass the world's most advanced nations. Within the space of a couple of generations, the country has left behind the chaos of events such as the Cultural Revolution (in which, among other things, schoolchildren were encouraged to turn against their teachers) and forged ahead to become the world's second biggest economy. Hosting the 2008 Olympic Games

was Beijing's 'coming-out party' and development has continued unabated since then. All of this makes visiting the city an incredibly rewarding experience. There's energy in the air and on the streets that bustle with ambitious people, mobiles clamped to their ears and ready to do whatever it takes to succeed. The tumultuous change afoot in China is confusing for everyone, not least for the Chinese themselves. But the country's rapid growth also represents unprecedented opportunity and Chinese cities are spearheading the change. Restaurants and

nightspots are packed and buzzing. Stately European cities feel like public libraries by comparison.

Ancient monuments

Nevertheless, Beijing's biggest tourist draws remain its big ancient landmarks, the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and the remarkable space that is Tiananmen Square, the city's heart. Both the square and the Forbidden City immediately north of it are best visited early, although you're unlikely to be there earlier than the hordes of hardworking domestic tourists, some of whom are in position by 5am to cheer the Chinese flag being hoisted and form a massive but orderly queue to see the embalmed body of Mao Zedong in its mausoleum (open 7am to 11am Tuesday to Thursday, admission free).

At several thousand kilometres in length (depending on how it is measured), the Great Wall of China is perhaps the biggest manmade monument attracting visitors anywhere in the world. A Chinese astronaut famously claimed it to be visible from space. Built by Chinese rulers to keep out marauding nomads from the Mongolian steppe, the Wall is actually made up of a series of barriers made of stone, brick, tamped earth and other materials. Construction took place between 600 BC and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the wall more or less follows the southern border of Inner Mongolia, which is part of China. Some sections of the Great Wall near Beijing have been restored to their original glory, in particular the Great Wall at Badaling, where many coachloads of tourists both domestic Chinese and foreigners end up and which heaves with visitors almost all year round. Tramp up the steep steps to one of the watchtowers atop the peaks: the views are magnificent. The Wall marches off over the rugged scenery and is visible rising up distant peaks as far as the eye can see. It's hard to imagine just how much manpower must have gone into building such a gigantic construction in such inhospitable terrain and how many men must have perished in its making, yet at the same time it's striking how small the wall appears compared to the natural barrier formed by the mountains themselves. The Wall is about a hour-anda-half 's drive north of Beijing. It's theoretically possible to get there by public transport, but it's probably far easier to jump on a tour organised by your hotel, which will include lunch but may not give you much time on the Wall itself. A more imaginative way to visit the Great Wall is by taking part in a hike organised by the Beijing Hikers group ( For about RMB 300 (AED 175) each (prices vary depending on the hike), you get taken along with the other participants to an unrenovated section of the Wall and then hike along the top, enjoying the views and the company as you go. These hikes involve steep climbs and can be quite the workout, so proper hiking shoes and a good physical condition are essential. The best fun to be had in the vast square is people-watching, with the aforementioned domestic tourists a particular delight to observe. Many have travelled from distant parts of the realm for the first time and for them, the square is a place of legend. With his body lying in the south and his gigantic portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the north, the 'great helmsman' Mao Zedong, architect of the Communist takeover of China, dominates the square and a photo with his picture in the background is a must. The Forbidden City, a 720,000 square metre complex of courtyards, ceremonial halls and gardens that was home to China's emperors and their retinue of concubines, children, servants and eunuchs, is nothing less than a world within a world. It was off-limits to the citizenry, while many members of the ruling dynastic families never ventured outside its walls. Don't miss a remarkable exhibition displaying the most ornate and bizarre clocks ever made and given to the Qing emperor by representatives of European countries seeking to curry favour. Entrance costs RMB 60 (AED 35) between 1st April and 31st October and RMB 40 (AED 23) at other times. Children below 1.2 metres go free. After exiting through the north gate, enter the park opposite and walk up Coal Hill for the best views over the palace complex. If the weather is good, take subway Line Four to Xiyuan station and visit the Summer Palace. First built in 1750, this landscaped garden is a masterpiece of Chinese design with hills and open water combined with pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble. This is perhaps Beijing's most romantic location if you can escape the crowds, that is. Entrance costs RMB 20 or 30 (AED 12 or AED 17) depending on the season.

Mixing the old and the new

With the old stuff out of the way, it's time to see what else the city has to offer. It's fun to explore the hutongs, narrow alleyways that crisscross entire city blocks between the major boulevards. A lot of hutong areas have been demolished but many remain and some are being gentrified. Many hutong residents are keen to escape the cramped singlestorey courtyard homes, most of which don't have toilets. But once relocated to new high-rises, many mourn the lack of hutong-style street life. The best way to cruise through the narrow lanes is by bike. Residents sit on the street smoking, chatting and playing Chinese chess. Cycle up to Yonghegong Lama Temple, a Buddhist temple (near Yonghegong subway station) and then head into Guozijian street opposite. This pleasant tree-lined avenue is home to various historical monuments. Have a coffee at the Caf Confucius and then turn north up to Wudaoying Hutong, which is full of hipster boutiques and coffee shops.
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Eating is one of the great pleasures in Beijing. Apart from its famed roast duck, the city offers innumerable brilliant Chinese restaurants, an increasing range of high grade international restaurants catering to its well-heeled and growing expatriate population and lots of cheap and cheerful eateries on every street serving up what is for the most part tasty and nourishing fare. Most restaurants have menus in English or at least menus with photographs of dishes so you can simply point at the picture to order. The Courtyard is housed in a historic building that belonged to the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty located on the moat to the east of the Forbidden City. Reservations recommended. www. Dali Courtyard is located near the Drum Tower and specialises in Vietnamese and Burmese-influenced dishes from Yunnan Province, an ethnically diverse region in China's southwest. Can be a little tricky to find. Restaurant/Dali_Courtyard.html Quanjude is Beijing's most famous duck restaurant and has a branch in the lively old (but now undergoing redevelopment) Dashilar district south west of Tiananmen Square. www.quanjude. Beijing is also host to numerous Uighur restaurants (there are about 20 million Muslims in China, about half of whom are Uighurs, a Turkic people who live in Xinjiang in the far northwest of China). One of the most accessible is the Red Rose, located down an alley opposite Workers Stadium north gate.

Modern delights

Most foreigners in Beijing at some point end up in Sanlitun, the focus of the city's expatriate life. Located near many of the foreign embassies, it boasts shopping, quality international dining and a couple of designer hotels. On weekends this area throbs well into the early hours, jam-packed with a mixture of Chinese and foreign revellers (see eating box above for more details). The nearby Workers Stadium is home to Beijing Guoan, one of China's top football teams. Guoan play in a distinctive green kit and have former Spurs and Seville striker Frederic Kanoute in their ranks, while their bitter rivals, Shanghai Shenhua, are now home to former Chelsea stars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka (for more information on how to attend a Guan game see www. Sanlitun is also a good place to do a bit of shopping. Yashow Market attracts busloads of tourists to its multiple floors of counterfeit designer clothing and amusing tat. Haggling here is not about having fun and then agreeing on half the original price the salesgirls want to gouge your

guts out and will throw all kinds of tantrums to have their way. Aim for about a tenth of the first price they offer. Yashow doesn't necessarily offer great value but it's fun to look around and cheap massages, manicures and pedicures can be had on the upper floors, relaxing after a long day pounding the streets. Round off your Beijing trip with a visit to the 798 modern art zone in Dashanzi in the city's northeast (you'll need to take a taxi). In this pleasant pedestrianised zone, former arms factories have been turned into modern art galleries showcasing a wide range of compelling and wacky creations. Finally, take a quick look at Beijing's and maybe the world's weirdest building. Pop out of subway Line ten at Jintaixizhao station (not far from Sanlitun) and behold the frankly bizarre China Central Television building. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the structure, nicknamed 'big pants' by Chinese internet users, looks like it could fall over at any minute. And if you've done all that, congratulations you've had a whirlwind tour of Beijing's past and its present. With China's breakneck development shaking things up around the globe, perhaps you've had a little taste of all of our future too.


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Emirates and Etihad both fly direct to Beijing from the UAE. Visitors to China must arrange their visas in advance at the Chinese embassy in Abu Dhabi (www. or the Consulate-General in Dubai ( People in North America, Europe, south and east Asia or Australia can find dedicated China visa centres at the Visa for China website ( It is advisable to avoid travelling to China during national holidays, when many millions of Chinese are travelling either to visit their families or on holidays around China. These periods include Spring Festival, which takes place over several weeks in January or February depending on the lunar calendar and sees abut 200 million Chinese return to their hometowns and villages, and the National Day holiday, which lasts for a week around 1 October. The Beijing subway is extremely cheap at RMB 2 (AED 1) per journey anywhere in the city. It's worth buying an electronic prepaid card for RMB 20 (AED 12) and charging it up. The subway can get very full at rush hour but it's still a better bet than a taxi because the roads are also packed. Taxis are reasonably priced. It costs RMB 10 (AED 6) for the first 3 km and then RMB 2 (AED 1) for every subsequent kilometre plus an RMB 2 (AED 1)

surcharge. Most Beijing taxi drivers are scrupulously honest and will use the meter, however make sure you have the address of your destination written in Chinese otherwise they may refuse to take you. Avoid the roads at rush hour. Cycling is a great way to get around Beijing. The city is flat and most big roads have separate side lanes for bicycles and the myriad other two and three-wheeled vehicles that Beijingers use. Autumn between September and October is traditionally seen as offering the most pleasant weather in Beijing. Otherwise the city suffers a long cold winter with temperatures getting down to a low of minus 20 degrees centigrade, a short windy spring and then a hot summer with rain in June and temperatures that can hit 40 degrees centigrade in July and August. Tom Spender


Chinese State Circus

If you cant drop everything and head off to China to explore the country for yourself, then you can get a taste of the culture here in the capital from 4-6 October with the visit of the Chinese State Circus. The circus is based on Chinese acrobatic acts and the art form can trace its history back more than 2,000 years. The show uses more than 30 performers and incorporates martial arts, gymnastics and contortionists. The Chinese State Circus will be performing their new show Yin Yan from 4-6 October at ICC, Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre with tickets available from BOXOFFICEME.COM or call 800 90

The Opposite House this big and trendy designer boutique hotel is located in the heart of Sanlitun and boasts amenities including a wildly popular lounge and restaurant. Swiss Road Hotel this great value little boutique hotel is ideally located to take advantage of some of Beijing's more interesting hutong streets.

G Hotel luxury boutique hotel inspired by 1960s retro chic and with a popular restaurant. Well-located for the subway and Sanlitun. The Emperor Hotel boutique hotel right next to Tiananmen Square with unparalleled views over the Forbidden City.
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