in the July 2002 issue of Alaska Airlines magazine
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
a comprehensive collection of websites on Beijing, go to
WHERE TO EAT
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.
Sheng Jun Feng Wei Tang Guo (Wild Fresh Mushroom Hotpot)
Dongzhimen Nei St.
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.
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.
East Chan'an Avenue
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.
CENTRE HOTEL (Shangri-la Group)
Guang Hua Road
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.