The New & Old Beijing

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

Asia BeijingThink China and you might envision pagodas and farmers wearing coolie hats. Forget that! Today the country abounds with McDonalds, KFCs, Starbucks, Hooters and capitalism. Tiffany’s is walking distance from Tiananmen Square. Next to the Regent Hotel is a Rolls Royce, Lamborghini and Maserati dealership.
Beijing is honking horns, trucks, cars, bikes, motorcycle and huge chunks of humanity. It’s not the place to have enochlophobia -- a fear of crowds. Just when you think you’ve found tranquility in a garden, fluttering, colored flags appear, bull horns sound, and a maddening crowd of tourists appear.

You cannot help but be amazed by the look of the cities. New construction rules here. China’s national bird must be the metal crane. So much towering, modern architecture, you’d think you were in the West.

OLD BEIJING TODAY
But it is traditional China that attracts Beijing visitors. Tiananmen Square is bordered by the National Museum of China, the People’s Hall, and Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum -- expect at least an hour’s wait to see his remains -- and the famous Forbidden City.
Once, only the emperor or select people could rattle around the 800 buildings, moat, sumptuous halls, courtyards, winding paths and gardens of this 600-year-old complex. Today, about 100,000 people per day pass through the Forbidden City’s great doors. Courtyards are lined with concession stands. Hawkers are hard to escape. “Want to buy a book? What about post cards?”
Fires and looting claimed much of the palace’s original riches. It’s hard to avoid the stampede to the renovated Hall of Supreme Harmony, once the site of coronations, and the 200-ton marble dragon relief behind the hall. A windowed room in the Inner Court reveals a bright red and yellow silk-covered bed, the colors of royalty. And to ensure longevity, climb the stone stairway in the Royal Gardens.
Royals frequented the Summer Palace in the Haidian District. About the size of Central Park, the 15th century complex is replete with classic Chinese architecture, temples and a 2,300-foot Long Corridor. Maybe it’s the hilly landscape, gardens, stone bridges or a rowboat ride on Kunming Lake, but it certainly has a romantic aura about it.
South of the city at the Temple of Heaven, emperors prayed to heaven for good harvests. The Long Corridor to the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests now is filled with singing, dancing and card-playing senior citizens. Framed, gold Chinese characters meaning, “Ask for good” hang beneath the circular hall’s curved cobalt roof. Tourists scamper around the Supreme Ultimate Stone for photo ops or wish making.
But let’s face it, the Great Wall is figuratively and literally the attraction. Measuring 4,000 miles long, it is very great. The Badaling section looks like a giant dragon snaking through the Taihang Mountains.
Mao Zedong said, “A man who can climb to the top is a real hero.” The first 600 steps reach only to the first tower. I ascend only 1,000 steps. Below me, people look like ants. At the top, a beautiful pagoda beckons me. But, I tell my gasping self, I must get back for the opera. Good excuse.
Don’t miss the Beijing Opera. There are so many colorfully dressed singers, dancers, jugglers, baton twirlers and acrobats, they will make your head spin. And if you are sitting just below the stage, you will be served munchies during the performance.
Old-fashioned Beijing is the focus of a hutong (means alley) tour. Because of all the construction, these neighborhood areas are quickly vanishing. The excursion begins with a rickshaw ride and includes a visit to a Chinese home. The grunt part of the tour is a steep, 69-step climb to the nearby Drum Tower. Built in 1272, it reveals an awesome cityscape and inside, twenty-four large drums nestled against the wall like wine kegs. Beaten every half hour, they once served as the city’s timepiece.
The Gaobeidian Folklore Village, with its Chinese furniture, arts and crafts, rounds out a glimpse of traditional Beijing. It is also the opportunity to try out musical instruments, make toys or learn paper cutting and calligraphy. My highlight is dining with a local family and joining the mom in making potstickers. Far from adept at keeping the insides from bursting out, I persevere. My clumsiness cuts through the language barrier and the delicious dinner is filled with lots of laughs.
The village and hutong are old Beijing. An onslaught of construction make Beijing what it is today. For more information, visit the China National Tourist Office at www.cnto.org

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