Colossal monuments of the recent past and relics of even more ancient history frame China’s vibrant capital city
by Mark Graham
Tiananmen Square It would be unthinkable to visit the Chinese capital without setting foot in this gargantuan square – the world’s largest, which is flanked by major historical landmarks including Chairman Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. First-timers should take a gander at the entranceway to the Forbidden City, heading underneath the giant portrait of Mao and into the cobbled ante-courtyards. For time-pressed visitors it gives a feel for the size and scale of the world’s largest palace, which has almost a thousand different rooms.
The square itself is generally thronged with overawed provincial tourists; the keener ones arrive in time to see the dawn flag-raising ceremony, or linger to witness the five-star Chinese flag make its way down the pole at dusk. The buildings on the fringes are magnificent examples of stern Stalinist architecture: the National Museum of China, to the east, traces the 5,000 years of recorded Chinese history (clearly not practical to cover during a whistle-stop tour), and the Great Hall of the People, to the west, is where all the major Party meetings are held.
Repeat visitors might want to visit the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, just off the southern end, which has a scale model of the city spanning an entire floor. It traces Beijing’s history in some detail, acknowledging that it was designated as the capital by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, and the grid pattern designed by Mongolian planners – facts that are not generally trumpeted in local history books.
Ritan Park A short subway ride away from Tiananmen Square is Ritan Park, the perfect spot to get a feel for imperial-era Beijing and witness its contemporary citizens enjoying their down time. The pocket-sized public space dates back to 1530, when Ming emperors oversaw animal sacrifices on the Altar of the Sun, seeking to appease the gods and bring good weather and bountiful harvests. Ritan has undergone a series of upgrades during the past half century including the planting of cherry trees, ordered by former premier Zhou Enlai as a symbol of Sino-Japanese friendship, a rather hideous sun-god mural and an artificial lake surrounded by a sculpted rockery.
A visitor making a daytime circuit of the park’s three-quarter-mile perimeter walkway would typically encounter the strangled shrieks of a Peking opera singer letting rip, a gaggle of heftily-built Russian traders taking a fresh-air break from buying goods in the parkside emporiums, a calligrapher using a brush and water to draw characters on the paths, and a group of embassy moms pushing their strollers along. As dusk arrives, the demographic of the park population begins to change once more. On warm summer evenings, the western side of the park becomes a giant open-air dance hall with jive, rumba, foxtrot, fan-dance, rock-and-roll, disco and more. Trees are used for hanging jackets; trash bins serve as impromptu resting places for ghetto blasters.Ritan Park is open from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM in summer, 9:00 PM in winter. Admission is free. The nearest subway station is Yonganli.
Lama Temple Grab a cab, ensuring you have directions written in Chinese, and head north towards the home of one of China’s emperors-to-be. The Lama Temple was originally the home of Prince Yong, before he became Emperor Yongzheng in 1723. It is little changed from those days, a fabulously atmospheric temple where the smell of incense is intoxicating and the sight of the 60-foot Buddha statue, carved from a single piece of sandalwood, breathtaking.
The main Hall of Harmony and Peace has three bronze Buddha statues; another key artifact is a copper cooking vessel, inset with lions and dragons, that dates back to 1747. Although the vermilion temple walls are high and imposing, the interior of the complex is a manageable size, just right for a quick-look visit. The Lama Temple is open from 9:00 AM, admission is RMB25/$4.
Wudaoying hutong Just across from the Lama Temple is Wudaoying hutong, a showcase example of how these iconic Beijing alleyways can be gentrified for modern-day usage. While the most famous hutong in the city, Nanluoguxiang, is overrun these days by tourists browsing the generally tacky stores, Wudaoying is much more genteel – a short stretch lined with traditional courtyard homes (known as siheyuan) that have been turned into galleries, boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and antique stores.
There are still plenty of people living in the old manner. Venture down one of the scruffy brick-paved alleys and it will open up into a courtyard-style home. The style of living is much romanticized but, in reality, many have been subdivided into individual homes that are bone-chillingly cold in winter, swelteringly hot in summer and lack modern plumbing.
Sanlitun All nightlife roads lead to Sanlitun – the favored destination for pub crawls, gourmet meals, people-watching expeditions or clubbing until dawn. The area is dominated by the Taikoo Li mall and flanked by smaller independent bars and restaurants. The eastern side is lined with bars where skimpily clad pole dancers perform unenthusiastically and bands mangle rock classics, but don’t go in without establishing a firm price for drinks. Watching the paparazzi in action on the forecourt of the main mall is an entertaining diversion – middle-aged men, armed with giant zoom lenses, swarm around sassily dressed young women.