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4 hours in Beijing

Published: 01/05/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » May 2015 » Destinations » Home » City Guides » Asia Pacific »

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Beijing is a sprawling urban aggregation of more than 22 million people, making it difficult for the visitor who’s squeezed for time to find the right starting point. But Tiananmen Square is the city’s historical and political center and a good place to begin.

The largest public square in the world covers more than 108 acres and the scale of it is simply enormous. Standing in the middle of it is enough to give a sense of how small you are as an individual – undoubtedly the intention of former Communist chairman Mao Zedong, who oversaw its expansion in the 1950s. Tiananmen Gate at the north, with armed guards in front, has a huge portrait of him and marks the entrance to the Forbidden City, a massive complex of 980 buildings that takes hours to tour – worth it if you have the time.

In the center is Mao Memorial Hall, where the leader’s embalmed body lies, while to the east is the National Museum of China, and to the west the Great Hall of the People. However, it is the student-led pro-democracy protests of June 3 and 4 in 1989 for which the site is remembered by most of the world – an event brutally and sadly ended by government troops, not on the square itself, but on its perimeters and surrounding streets.


At the southern end of the square sits the ornate, 144-foot-tall Zhengyangmen gatehouse, originally constructed in the 15th-century Ming Dynasty as an entry point to the imperial city. Between 1949 and 1980 it was occupied by the People’s Liberation Army, but it is now a tourist attraction.

Continue to the long, pedestrianized Qianmen Street, marked by a colorful gateway. There has been a thoroughfare here for almost 600 years but as the city prepared for the 2008 Olympics, most buildings were torn down and rebuilt in the old style – a project that also saw many surrounding hutongs (alleyways) from the 1800s destroyed. Today, Qianmen is almost clinical in appearance, with signs of globalization in the form of Western brands such as H&M, Nike, McDonald’s and KFC sitting alongside provincial  Chinese outlets selling chopsticks and sweets. 


Don’t spend too long on Qianmen as the cluster of hutongs that remain are far more interesting. Meandering through the maze of alleys will take you past strange stalls selling pungent meat, chefs sweating over handmade dumplings, jangling rickshaws and neon signs advertising foot massages. Some turnings will take you on to quieter, more residential streets where children play and derelict doorways lead to humble living quarters.

One of the more lively hutongs is Dazhalan Street, and at number 385 is an authentic teashop. Pop in and peruse the shelves and jars stocked with everything from ginseng and jasmine to oolong and puer. The tea is tightly packed either as large 350g-400g discs wrapped in printed paper, loose or in small balls. It’s cheap and makes a nice souvenir to take home. 


Jump in a taxi and ask the driver to take you the three miles to the entrance of the Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park (ask your hotel in advance for a card with the destinations you want to go to marked in Chinese). From here, follow the tree-lined path straight to the circular tri-tiered temple, with glazed blue tiled roofing and remarkable hand-painted exterior.

This Taoist place of worship – representing harmony between nature, humanity and the universe – is part of a complex built in the 15th century. It was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and is similar in style to that of the Forbidden City. It’s common to see local people practicing tai chior dancing among the trees in the park, and the lush grass offers a pleasant place to rest before moving on.


Exit via the East Gate and cross Tiantan East Road to the “Pearl Market,” which is more of a department store than a market and sells more than pearls. The ground floor is crammed full of electronic goods and watches, though if it seems the prices on those Rolex, Tag Heuer or Breitling timepieces are too

good to be true, it’s because the merchandise is probably not authentic.

The second floor has aisles of “designer” handbags, shirts, tailor-made suits, wallets and suitcases, though bear in mind that most, if not all, branded items will be imitations – from Ralph Lauren polo shirts to Ray Ban sunglasses. You should also haggle – the asking price could be ten times more than it should be so knock them down wildly before putting in your bid. 

Da Dong roast duck

If this is your first (or maybe even your second or third) time in Beijing, a must-try for any out-of-towner is Beijing Duck. Avoid the tourist traps and head instead to Nanxincang, the old imperial granary to the northeast of the Forbidden City now home to art galleries, shops, bars and restaurants. Here you’ll find Da Dong Roast Duck a restaurant with a reputation for the best duck in town. When you enter the chaotic waiting area, look up and you’ll see rows of awards, one of which proclaims Da Dong as “Best for Impressing Visitors.”

The duck here has a sweet, crispy shell and is not at all the fatty bird one might have expected. A little tour through the bustling kitchen will give you some notion of what it takes to prepare one of these magnificent golden birds. Da Dong has plenty of other tasty dishes on the menu, but the duck is the star.

Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, 1-2/F, Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District 86-(0)10-5169-0329.

By Jenny Southan

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