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Booming Beijing
Published in the July 2002 issue of Alaska Airlines magazine

Yongdingmenwai. Yongdingmenwai. Yongdingmenwai. Great. I've just arrived in Beijing, I don't know where I am, and no matter how I pronounce my hotel's street name, it comes out all wrong. Not that the passers-by aren't trying to understand me. Everyone listens intently to my plea for directions, but can't manage to decipher it. 

At last I ask a young woman shielding her face from the hazy sun with an umbrella. Yongdingmenwai! she exclaims, singing the hill of syllables as it was intended. She leads me to a pedicab driver who is just waking from a snooze, and crosses her index fingers to indicate a price of ten Yuan ($1.20). (Certain hand gestures double for numbers -- useful bargaining tools, I quickly learn.) In moments, he pedals me to my hotel.

The girl is the first of many angels and ambassadors I will encounter in Beijing, boomtown extraordinaire. At first sight, the metropolis overwhelms. By day, buses, bicycles and new cars flood Beijing's mammoth boulevards; by night, neon streaks the cityscape, blinking brand names. The city limits stretch 50 miles to accommodate its 12 million residents, with the help of glitzy high-rises that are fast replacing traditional homes in the ancient hutongs (alleys). Beijing is a crystal ball for the massive country it governs, foretelling a new era of economic openness, political change and technological adaption. 

But throughout my week here, the capitol shrinks to small slivers of life -- a ponytailed young girl who taxis me on the back of her bike, a musician playing a snakeskin erhu (fiddle) in a pedestrian tunnel, a long-bearded man in checked pyjamas who strikes a Buddha pose when I ask for his photo. Despite the city's rapidly changing facade, Beijingers continue to carry on with tradition, be it classical music or genteel manners.

From its distant imperial past to the current capitalist explosion, the 700-year-old capital has layers of history and culture to explore. I begin with Tiananmen Square, the city's physical and ideological ground zero. In 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed China the "People's Republic" in the square; 40 years later, tanks crushed a pro-democracy protest here, killing thousands. I traverse its 100-acre sprawl of pavestones with curiosity, dodging the exploding flashes of tourists' cameras and watching dragon kites fight overhead. In 2008, when the city will host the Olympics, the square might even stage "beach" volleyball games and part of a triathlon. It will be sure to host a different crowd from Mao's Red Guard rallies, when the Chairman would fire up millions of comrades for the Cultural Revolution. 

The massive square is bordered by imperial gates, museums, monuments and the mausoleum, where patriots and tourists come to pay respects in the Chairman's red-carpeted tomb. Ironically, the communist leader has been turned into a commodity for Beijing's consumer craze. Used copies of Mao's little red book now fetch tourist dollars outside shopping centers, and Mao key chains, cigarettes, and thermometers are sold near his memorial. 

Nearby, the red gate to the Forbidden City frames an immense portrait of Mao, his tentative Mona Lisa smile following you everywhere. I join Chinese sightseers in identical yellow caps following their leader's flag as they cross the square to Forbidden City, the former pleasure dome of 24 emperors. 

Spanning 183 acres, this city-within-a-city was barred to commoners for 500 years. Now anyone with 60 yuan to burn can explore its maze of gardens, museums, pavilions and halls totaling over 9,000 chambers. Being 5'2", I feel even smaller than usual standing in the Forbidden City's gigantic courtyards: the Sea of Flagstones alone was designed to accommodate 90,000 people. 

The complex is the source of countless legends, customs and superlatives. Every detail of the palace expresses the court's power, from yellow-tiled roofs decorated with dragons (emperors claimed to be reincarnated from them) to red doors dotted with nine times nine nails (the imperial lucky number). Leaning over the railing into the emperor's chambers, I swear I could smell ghostly traces of incense. 

For a respite from the palace sights, I duck behind the rear palaces to the Imperial Gardens, landscaped with century-old cypress and pine trees. It's a nice reminder that though Beijing can be vast and hectic, intimate, secluded spots are never far off. 

After an afternoon exploring the old Forbidden City, I discover one of the city's modern marvels: the Metro. Beijing's speedy underground dragon is great for circumventing traffic, and stops are posted in Pinyin, the official romanization system of Chinese. The Metro whisks me to the Qian Men Hotel's Li Yuan Theater with time to spare for a cup of oolong tea. 

The Li Yuan is home to one of the capitol's renowned arts, the Peking Opera. Many of the opera's defining traits grew out of its 18th century beginnings, when it was performed in outdoor markets, streets, teahouses and temple courtyards. The dim stages, lit by oil lamps, necessitated the neon costumes and brightly-painted faces still worn by modern performers. Likewise, to be heard over the crowds, performers developed a shrill style of singing that many Western ears can only take in low doses. The accompanying music is just as eye-opening and ear-deafening, between the crash of cymbals and gongs and the soaring pitch of strings like the jinghu. 

Many theaters trim down these lengthy sagas of Chinese lore to make them palatable for Westerners; Li Yuan's spectacular show only lasted two hours, instead of all night. A translation of the show's lyrics (with such poetic lines as "the earthly levels are like wisps of smoke between my fingers") scrolled across an electronic screen, although the acrobatic battles and the ribbon dances would be captivating even without the words. And a true opera connoisseur doesn't need them: by tradition, each actor's props, color scheme, hairstyle and vocal range symbolize his or her character, status and disposition. 

I wake from a strange night dreaming of the mischevious, gold-suited monkey kings I saw on stage to catch a bus for the Great Wall. Begun by the Qing dynasty two millennia ago to keep out marauders, the Great Wall is now one of the planet's unifying landmarks. Travelers from around the globe come to walk along the wall, which is the only human-made structure visible from the moon. Tourists can sample select parts of the 4,000-mile wall, the Badaling and Mutianyu sections being the most well conserved -- and touristed. 

To avoid souvenir stands and stray heads marring my photos, I visit the wall at Simitai, a 68-mile ride from Beijing. A cable car goes part of the way to the crest, but I choose the brisk 45-minute climb up Yanshan Mountain. At Simitai, the snaking stone barricade rises at 70-degree inclines and makes 1,500-foot drops off the side, for a literally breathtaking view. Other than an amateur guide who shadowed me up the mountain, hoping for a customer, I had this green stretch of calm and beauty all to myself. 

Having mastered -- well, tested -- Beijing's other modes of transportation, I decide to navigate the city on my own two wheels. I rent a local Forever-brand bike and pedal to Tiantan Park (Temple of Heaven) for some sunrise tai chi. 

I'm not sure what is more remarkable: dragging myself out of bed at 5 am or the magical place that rewarded that effort. Through the gates of the vast park, larger even than the Forbidden City, acts of love and play are everywhere. Old women slow dance on the grass to the lilt of ballroom music emanating from a tape player.  Two men in wheelchairs flick cards, birdcages at their slippers (songbirds are the favored pet of China); nearby, the high notes of a would-be Chinese opera diva shatter the quiet. 

Throughout the park, elders are doing their part to keep doctors at bay.  Dozens practice qigong, swinging their arms and swiveling their hips, as they walk down a long stone path toward the rising sun. Others carry out an intriguing array of exercises thought to promote good health: marching backwards, walking barefoot, slapping trees, and screaming loudly. And, of course, hundreds are gathered on the grass to recreate the ancient art of tai chi, whose movements mimic everything from eagles and snakes to waves and thunder.

I walk on, exploring Tiantan's many halls and altars. Each building is like an architectural prayer, with Feng Shui, numerology, cosmology and religious symbolism woven into its design. The round, triple-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, for example, represents the imagined shape of heaven. I ring a bronze bell outside it to bring my family luck, and wish the city well, too.  In a few hours, the city will revert to its fast-paced life. But having experienced Beijing at daybreak, I'm sure there will always be dreamy spaces no high rise can ever erase. 
 

For a comprehensive collection of websites on Beijing, go to
http://www.flashpaper.com/beijing/


WHERE TO EAT

Fangshan Restaurant
Beihai Park
Inside tranquil Beihai Park, Fangshan Restaurant (6410-1889/18  79) serves imperial cuisine based on nearly 1,000-year-old recipes. Many of the old court favorites -- bears' paw, hedgehog hydnum, and tiger kidney among them-- are no longer available because of wildlife protection laws. You can still enjoy everything from turtle soup to Buddha's fingers under Fangshan's golden-domed ceiling and lantern-shaped chandeliers. Prix fixe meals start at 100 yuan per person for 14 courses.

Ye Sheng Jun Feng Wei Tang Guo (Wild Fresh Mushroom Hotpot)
105 Dongzhimen Nei St.
A favorite during Beijing's icy winters, hot pot is a do-it-yourself meal of raw vegetables, noodles and mutton cooked over a bubbling caldron and slathered in assorted spicy sauces. At Ye Sheng Jun (6404-5582), you can hold the meat and choose from more than 35 kinds of gourmet mushrooms, including a type of rare high-altitude fungi. Carnivores also served. Dinner average 60 yuan per person.

BIAN YI FANG 
A2 Chongwenmenwai Dajie
This restaurant (6712 0505) has served crispy Peking duck since 1855. The ducks are braised with a malt sugar blend, roasted in a special oven fueled by crop stalks, and served in thin slices with pancakes and chopped scallions. One duck will fill three stomachs. 

WHERE TO STAY

GRAND HOTEL BEIJING 
35 East Chan'an Avenue
With classical Chinese-styled rooms peering over the Forbidden City, the Grand Hotel (6513-7788) has the air of the bygone capitol -- plus modern amenities like fax machines and Internet connections. The 500-room hotel, neighboring Tiananmen Square, is a perfect locale for sightseeing; an on-site travel office can arrange comprehensive city tours. Rooms start at $150 and go up to $2,000 for suites. See www.chinatour.com/ghb/index.htm for details.

KERRY CENTRE HOTEL (Shangri-la Group)  
1 Guang Hua Road 
Situated in the commercial Chaoyang district, the Kerry Centre Hotel  (6561-8833) means business. This elegant 487-room luxury hotel has one of Beijing's largest conference facilities and business centers. The Kerry Sports Center draws out-of-towners and locals alike, particularly for its 75-foot-long swimming pool. On Sunday mornings you can enjoy a "bubbly brunch" of caviar and champagne at the Coffee Garden restaurant. Email the hotel at hbkc@shangri-la.com. 
 


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