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Beijing Travel Guide

beijing mapLying on the north tip of the North China Plain, Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. 43.5 meters above sea level, Beijing covers an area of 16,808 square kilometers and has a population of 12 million. Under the city’s jurisdiction there are 10 districts and 8 counties, among which Dongcheng District, Xicheng District, Chongwen District and Xuanwu District within the Second Ring Road are the inner city in the traditional sense.

The brash modernity of BEIJING (the name means "northern capital") comes as a surprise to many visitors.  For the last thousand years, the drama of China's imperial history was played out here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe, and though today the city is a very different one, it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country.

First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of identical apartment buildings in which most of the city's population of twelve million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up.  It's an impression that's reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its stunning wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian'an men Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of new office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Between the swathes of concrete and glass, you'll find some of the plushest temples, and certainly the grandest remnants of the Imperial Age. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong, Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city's oppressive orderliness and rampant reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two Summer Palaces and the Western Hills have been favored retreats since imperial times.  Unexpectedly, some of the country's most pleasant scenic spots lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, is one of China's most famous sights, the old boundary line between civilizations, the Great Wall.

Beijing is a city that almost everyone enjoys. For new arrivals it provides a gentle introduction to the country and for travelers who've been roughing it round outback China, the creature comforts on offer are a delight. It's home to a huge expat population, and it's quite possible to spend years here eating Western food, dancing to Western music, and socializing with like-minded foreigners. Beijing is essentially a private city, and one whose surface is difficult to penetrate; sometimes it seems to have the superficiality of a theme park. Certainly there is something mundane about the way tourist groups are efficiently shunted around, plugged from hotel to sight, with little contact with everyday reality. To get deeper into the city, wander what's left of the labyrinthine hutongs, "fine and numerous as the hairs of a cow" (as one Chinese guidebook puts it), and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks, some of the best in China, where you'll see Beijingers performing tai ji and hear birdsong – just – over the hum of traffic. Take advantage, too, of the city's burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.

If the Party had any control over it, no doubt Beijing would have the best climate of any Chinese city; as it is, it has one of the worst. The best time to visit is in autumn, between September and October, when it's dry and clement. In winter it gets very cold, down to minus 20°C, and the mean winds that whip off the Mongolian plains feel like they're freezing your ears off. Summer (June–August) is muggy and hot, up to 30°C, and the short spring (April & May) is dry but windy.

Getting to Beijing is no problem. As the centre of China's transport network you'll probably wind up here sooner or later, whether you want to or not, and to avoid the capital seems wilfully perverse. On a purely practical level, it's a good place to stock up on visas for the rest of Asia, and to arrange transport out of the country – most romantically, on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian trains. To take in its superb sights requires a week, by which time you may well be ready to move on to China proper. Beijing is a fun place but, make no mistake, it in no way typifies the rest of the nation.
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