Beijing’s long and illustrious history started some 500,000 years ago. It is here that the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens, Peking men, lived in caves. Records show that Beijing has been an inhabited city for more than three thousand years and has endured invasions by warlords and foreign powers, devastating fires, the rise and fall of powerful imperial dynasties and has emerged each time as a strong and vibrant city. Beijing City was established over 3,000 years ago and was called Jin City in the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 771 BC). Ever since Emperor Qin united China in 221 BC, Beijing has played an important role in north China. It was the capital city in the Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. During these 800 years, 34 emperors lived and ruled here. The world renowned Forbidden City was built during this period. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, World War I broke out. Beijing became the focus of invaders. The war disrupted the society. Many residences of royal families were robbed and burned down. After that, the whole country was reduced to the status of semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. It wasn’t until October 1st, 1949 that the People’s Republic of China was founded and Beijing became its pride.
The name of China’s capital has changed over the centuries. At one time or another it has been known as Yanjing, Dadu, Beiping and Peiping. Peking or Beijing means “Northern Capital.” Beijing is the officially sanctioned pinyin spelling based on the Mandarin dialect. Beijing is the second largest city after Shanghai.
The city is marked by its flatness and arid climate. There are only three hills to be found in the city limits (in Jingshan Park to the north of Forbidden City) and mountains surround the capital on three sides. Like the configuration of the Forbidden City, Beijing has concentric “ring roads”, which are actually rectangular, that go around the metropolis and serve as good reference points as one attempts to move about the city. Beyond the ring roads are the most-visited portions of the Great Wall of China.
Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, and will also host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the only city to host both.
Beijing Municipality is a large region, equal to a province or state, the city is designed around a series of concentric Ring Roads, using the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City as it’s centre point, aligned on a perfect north/south axis, and is broken out into a series of primary districts:
- Dongcheng District (东城区) covers the eastern half of the city area approximately up to Third Ring Road to the north and Second Ring Road to the east and south. This is the most important tourist district of Beijing, including Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Chongwen (崇文区; Chóngwénqū) is a former district covering the southern third of Dongcheng, including the Temple of Heaven. Other important areas are Wangfujing (Walking Street), Gulou (the Drum Tower and Nanlougouxiang), Yonghegong (Yonghe Lama Temple) and Dongzhimen.
- Xicheng District (西城区) covers the western half of the central city area to just beyond Second Ring Road in the west and up to Third Ring Road to the north and south. It includes Beihai Park, Shichahai/Houhai area, Xidan, Beijing Zoo and the National Centre for Performing Arts. Xuanwu (宣武区; Xuānwǔqū) is a former district covering the southern third of Xicheng.
- Chaoyang District (朝阳区) covers a large area east of the central city area stretching from Second Ring Road until slightly beyond Fifth Ring Road to the east. Includes the CBD, Sanlitun (the Village and Workers’ Stadium), Olympic Green (Birds Nest, Water Cube and other Olympic venues), 798 Art Zone, Chaoyang Park, Ritan Park and various embassy areas
- Haidian District (海淀区) covers the northwest of the main urban area. It includes the New and Old Summer Palaces, Wudoukou, the Zhongguancun high technology industry and business cluster and Beijing’s major concentration of universities.
- Fengtai District (丰台区) covers the area south and west of Beijing. It includes Beijing West Railway Station
- The magnificent Forbidden City is the largest and the best-preserved Imperial Palace complex in the world.
- The solemn Tiananmen Square is the largest central city square in the world, which serves not only Beijing’s symbol but also all of China.
- The Great Wall is one of the ‘Eight Wonders of the World’
- HouHai lake is a beautiful restaurant and bar area, well worth an evening.
- HuTongs are the foundation of residential living in Beijing, and disappearing quickly, or being converted to funky shops or food & beverage spots.
- The Summer Palace (頤和園) is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces. It serves as a popular recreational park. Mainly dominated by Longevity Hill (万寿山) and Kunming Lake (昆明湖), it covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three-quarters of which is water. Longevity Hill is about 60 metres high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is packed with halls and pavilions, while the back hill, is quiet and natural. The central Kunming Lake was entirely man-made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill. In 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value“.
- The Old Summer Palace (圆明园), known as the Ruins of Yuanmingyuan is to the east of the Summer Palace. Originally called the Imperial Gardens (御园), was a complex of palaces and gardens in present-day Haidian District. Constructed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Old Summer Palace where the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty and his successors resided and handled state affairs; the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies. The Old Summer Palace was known for its extensive collection of garden and building architecture and other works of art. It was also called the “Garden of Gardens” (万园之园) in its heyday. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, as the Anglo-French forces approached Beijing, two British envoys, a journalist for The Times and a small escort of British and Indian troopers were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. Meanwhile, the French and British troops reached the palace and conducted extensive looting and destruction. Later on, as news emerged that the negotiation delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths, the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace, which was then carried out by British troops.
- The Temple of Heaven (天坛) is the largest group of structures in the country dedicated to rituals that pay homage to the glory of heaven. This temple was built specifically for worship of heaven and prayers for good harvests during the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are two amazing acoustical spots in the temple. The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City. There is a spot on top of the tri-leveled round altar where your words reverberate around you. The other one is at the Echo Wall (or whispering wall) that partially encloses a circular courtyard. Words whispered at one end travel along the wall and can be heard clearly by someone listening at the other end. The Temple comprises 3 main groups:
- The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) is a triple-gabled circular building, built on three levels of marble stone base, where the Emperor prayed for good harvests. The building is completely wooden, with no nails. The original building was burned down by a fire caused by lightning in 1889. The current building was re-built several years after the incident.
- The Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇) is a single-gabled circular building, built on a single level of marble stone base. It is located south of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and resembles it, but is smaller. It is surrounded by the Echo Wall. The Imperial Vault is connected to the Hall of Prayer by the Vermilion Steps Bridge, a 360-metre-long raised walkway that ascends from the Vault to the Hall of Prayer.
- The Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛) is the altar proper, located south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones, each decorated by lavishly carved dragons. The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven (天心石) or the Supreme Yang (太阳石), where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. The Altar was built in 1530 by the Jiajing Emperor and rebuilt in 1740.
- The Ming tombs (明十三陵) are a collection of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming dynasty. The first Ming emperor’s tomb is located near his capital Nanjing. However, the majority of the Ming tombs are located in a cluster near Beijing and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. They are within the Changping District, 42 kmnorth-northwest of Beijing center. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain), was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the 3rd Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley.
- The Olympic Green (北京奥林匹克公园) is an Olympic Park in Chaoyang District constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics. It will again serve as an Olympic Park when Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics. The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were the most expensive games in history.While the 2004 Athens Games were estimated to cost around $15 billion, the Beijing Games were estimated to cost a whopping $40 billion. The Olympic Green comprises multiple Olympic Venues, the most interesting of which are:
- The Beijing National Stadium (国家体育场) or “Bird’s Nest” (鸟巢) is the centerpiece. It hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, athletics, and football finals of the Games. The stadium has room for 91,000 spectators, but the capacity was reduced to 80,000 after the Olympics. It will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Admission: ~ RMB 50
- The Beijing National Aquatics Center (国家游泳中心) or “Water Cube” (水立方) hosted the swimming, diving and synchronized swimming events. It has a capacity of 6,000 (17,000 during the 2008 Olympics) and is located next to the National Stadium. After the Olympics, it was converted into a recreational water park, containing numerous water rides and slides, a wave pool, and spa areas. It will be the site of the curling competitions during the 2022 Winter Olympics.
- The CCTV Headquarters is a 44-story skyscraper on South East 3rd Ring Rd. The tower serves as headquarters for China Central Television (CCTV). The construction of the building was considered to be a structural challenge, especially because it is in a seismic zone. Groundbreaking took place in 2004. During early construction, the underground structural work caused a massive sinkhole, collapsing a section of the busy 3rd Ring Road more several months. Construction was delayed again as result of a fire in February 2009 engulfing the adjacent Television Cultural Center. The building was finally completed in May 2012. Because of its radical shape, a taxi driver first came up with its nickname dà kùchǎ (大裤衩), roughly translated as, “big pants”. The building was built in three buildings that were joined together.
- Sanlitun is a center for shopping, food, arts and world-famous Bar Street. It is divided into northern and southern areas by the ‘3.3 Mansion’. More than 60% of Beijing’s bars are located here. Situated adjacent to 79 embassies it attracts thousands of foreigners every day. Shops are distributed along inter-connected paths in the southern area with brand flagship stores, such as Adidas, Uniqlo, Puma, Nike, Columbia, North Face, Apple, Fossil, etc. Many luxury stores ranging from Rolex to Emporio Armani have opened in the northern area.
- Qianmen Street, located at the central axis of Beijing, Qianmen Street is a famous pedestrian street, running from Jianlou (the Archery Tower) of Zhengyangmen in the north to the turning of Tiantan Park in the south. It is composed with buildings whose styles resemble the late Qing Dynasty (1644 — 1911). It has history of more than 570 years. It was called Zhengyangmen Street during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and finally got the present name in 1965. During the Qing Dynasty, there were many specialized outlets on either side of it, such as a meat market, cloth market and jewelry market. And there were also many craftsman workshops, warehouses and theatres in the Hutongs nearby. After renovation, it reopened in 2008. It is a symbol of genuine local culture.
- Beijing Zoo in the Xicheng District, is home to around 450 different species and has a population of some 5,000 animals. Some of the most popular attractions among visitors are the wild rare animals of China itself, such as the giant pandas, golden monkeys, milu deer and northeast tigers. The zoo is comprised of 16 different exhibition areas and halls. The most popular is the Panda Hall. Built in 1989 and covering an area of around 10,000 sqM, it delivers the practical considerations of housing such large and physical animals. The inside of the hall replicates the style of traditional Chinese gardens and is shaped in the pattern of a Tai Chi diagram.
- Marco Polo Bridge aka Lugou Bridge (卢沟桥) this historic structure crosses the Yongding River is situated 15km southwest of Tiananmen. It is the oldest existing multi-arched stone bridge in Beijing. Construction of the original bridge on this site commenced in 1189 and ended in 1192 and was later reconstructed in 1698. The Bridge is 266.5 meters in length and 9.3 meters in width, supported on 11 piers. On each of the 281 white marble pillars stands a stone lion. The most intriguing feature of these beasts is the fact that there are more lions hiding on the head, back or under the belly or on paws of each of the big lions (originally 627 lions). The posture of lion varies, as do their ages. Most date from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, some are from the earlier Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); while the few lions dating from as long ago as the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) are now quite rare. China’s entry into World War II began with shots on the Marco Polo Bridge on July 7, 1937 when the Japanese attacked Chinese troops, resulting in the occupation of Beijing. Admission: ~ RMB 30
- Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre (梅兰芳大剧院) is a 7 story state-of-the-art opera house was built in honor of Mei Lanfang, China’s most famous traditional opera star. Stages regular opera performances and conducts opera education and appreciation workshops. The Peking Opera is considered the most famous of all the traditional opera performed around China. This kind of opera is nothing like western opera with costumes, singing style, music and spectator reactions being distinctly Chinese. The plot is usually quite simple, so you might be able to understand some of what happens even if you do not understand the language. The theatre seats more than 1,000 people. Ticket prices range from RMB 50 to 2,080.
- Liulichang Cultural Street also known as Liulichang Antique Street is asked with curios, calligraphy, painting or other artwork in China. The old street is located south of the Peace Gate of Xuanwu District. During the time of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a colored glaze factory was in production there, which made glazed tiles for the palaces, temples and residences of the officials, hence the name. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many businessmen and venders began to sell curios and old books there. Over years the factory was gradually replaced by the bazaar of calligraphy, painting, copybook, artifacts and the four treasures of the study. i.e. writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper. Now shops and houses of gray tiles and bricks together with sculptures and colored images are lined orderly by the street, making it taste more classical.
- National Centre for the Performing Arts (国家大剧院) (aka, “the Egg” 巨蛋) in Xicheng District is the capital’s modern theatre complex covering opera, music and theater. The building itself is worth laying eyes on, even if you do not go to a performance. The NCPA (originally named National Grand Theater) includes 3 performing venues: the Opera House, the Concert Hall, the Theater), the underwater corridors, the underground garage, the artificial lake and the green space. After 5 years’ construction, it opened in 2007. The location, immediately to the west of Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, and near the Forbidden City, combined with the theatre’s eye-catching futuristic design, created considerable controversy while it presents a sharp contrast to its surroundings with its oval exterior.
Every Minute is Rush Hour
Traffic can be crazy in Beijing, and reckless driving is fairly normal. Loud, persistent honking is commonplace. It is simply another way to indicate that the driver is there. Be prepared for drivers to violate traffic laws even to the extent of going in reverse on highways to back up to a missed exit or driving on a sidewalk. Also expect occasional road debris (a piece of wood or torn out tire) to be laying in the roadway. At night, be careful of missing manhole covers or road work taking place without warning or without proper illumination at night. Pedestrians should be very careful crossing the street people will generally stop for you, but they will honk. Keep an eye on the locals and cross with them — there is strength in numbers. Also note some construction trucks will abuse the speed limit and also are known to at times ignore traffic signals. Proceed when clear, not necessarily when the traffic light is green.
WHAT TO BUY? Jade and Lacquer are known as the four best traditional handiworks of Beijing. In addition, Curios, Silk, Pearls, Snuff Bottles with hand painted pictures Inside, candied Fruits and confectionaries.
Wangfujing (王府井大街) starts with East Chang’an Avenue in the south and ends with China Art Gallery in the north. This shopping mecca houses a wide variety of shops and boutiques where you find commodities, some of which are of world-famous brands.
The Old Beijing Street which is located on Wangfujing Dajie is an underground street built in Ming and Qing styles. The outstanding characteristic of it is the centralized well-known longstanding stores selling shoes, caps, silk cloth, scissors, Chinese brushes and ink-stick, jade, teas, desserts, pickled vegetables and roast duck.
The Panjiayuan Market is a super shopping market for all Chinese arts and crafts. It is made up of over three thousand individual stalls covering 48,500 square metres. There really is something for everyone here. Even Hilary Clinton has shopped at Panjiayuan. There is a little overlap between stalls so you can compare and bargain but the range of goods is excellent. Stall owners come from twenty-four provinces around China to sell their wares. Panjiayuan Market is at its best on weekends. Shopping for jade. Stone cups and bowls, Teapots in all shapes and sizes, swords and axes, Stone statues and Buddha’s, Chinese chests and baskets, Chinese paintings and scroll paintings, calligraphy brushes, posters, Chinese books, Porcelain vases hand painted, Rows and rows of Wood boxes and masks… etc.. etc..
Silk Market, is a shopping market at 8 East Xiushui Street, Chaoyang. Because of its location, it is also called Xiushui Street or Xiushui Market by locals. Used to be an outdoor market, its now a shopping mall, which accommodates over 1,000 retailers. Even a silk museum was built on the third floor. 18 retailers who have been offering high quality silk over many years are located in the building. Predominantly making caps, Shengxifu, a ninety-year-old shop, is famous for its selection of material and handmade craftsmanship. And Neiliansheng, established in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), is famous for its Chinese cloth shoes. On the 3rd floor, you can buy authentic Chinese silk clothes like Tangzhuang suits and cheongsams. Directory of floors includes:
B1: Suitcases & Bags, Shoes, Hats, Leatherwear, CDs/DVDs, Electronics, Gift Packing, KFC & Money Exchange
1F: Clothes, Cafes, Information Desk & ATM
2F: Clothes, Boutique Corridor, Bedding, Nail Salon, Foot Massage, Money Exchange & ATM
3F: Tailor’s Shop, Scarves, Ties, Chinese Clothing, Pajamas, Silk Bedding, Children’s Wear, Toys, Silk Carpets, Nail Salon, Foot Massage, Silk Museum & ATM
4F: Jewelry, Jade, ‘Antiques’, Calligraphy, Paintings, Tea, Porcelain, Folk Handicrafts, Rugs, Cosmetics, Watches, Glasses, Stationery, Outdoor Supplies, Electrical Appliances, Digital Products, CDs/DVDs, Nail Salon & Foot Massage
5F: Boutiques, Bank, Supermarket & Teahouse
6F: Pharmacy & Food Court
Hongqiao Pearl Market (红桥珍珠市场) at Tiantan Donglu, Chongwen District, is just opposite Tiantan Park. More than 1,000,000 visitors come to Hongqiao Market to buy pearls yearly. The market also offers seafood, digital products and silk. Directory of floors includes:
1F: Digital Products & Watches
2F: Silk & Clothes
Beijing food has it’s own local style of cooking.
Peking Roast Duck (北京烤鸭) is a famous Beijing specialty served at many restaurants, but there are quite a few restaurants dedicated to the art of roasting the perfect duck. Expect to pay around RMB 160-200 at restaurants. Beijing duck is served with thin pancakes, plum sauce (甜面酱)，and slivers of scallions and cucumbers. You spread the sauce on the pancake, put a few pieces of duck, cucumber, and scallions. The end result is a combination of the cool crunchiness of the cucumber, the sharpness of the scallions, and the rich flavors of the duck. Quanjude Roast Duck (全聚德) is the most famous roast duck restaurant in China. Once people reach Beijing, they would like to taste the original roast ducks. This is the best place to experience traditional Peking Duck, with every duck being given a serial number to track it’s authenticity.
Savory pancakes (煎饼果子) are one of the most popular street snacks, eaten from morning till night with most carts operating during the morning commute and then opening again at night for the after-club crowds. This is a North China specialty. This pancake (bing) is cooked with an egg on a griddle, a fried dough crisp is added, and the whole thing is drizzled in scallions and a savory sauce. Hot sauce is optional. Not all street vendors are licensed and more than a fair share use recycled oil.
Lamb kebabs (羊肉串儿) and other kebabs are grilled on makeshift stands all around Beijing, from the late afternoon to late at night. Wangfujing has a “snack street” selling such mundane fare like lamb, chicken, and beef as well as multiple styles of noodle dishes, such as Sichuan style rice noodles, but the brave can also sample silkworm, scorpion, and various organs all skewered on a stick and grilled to order.
A winter specialty, candied haw berries (冰糖葫芦 bīngtáng húlu) are dipped in molten sugar which is left to harden in the cold and sold on a stick. You can also find variations with oranges, grapes, strawberries, and bananas, or dipped in crumbled peanuts as well as sugar. This sweet snack can also sometimes be found in the spring and the summer, but the haw berries are often from last season’s crop.
For the more adventurous, Wangfujing Snack Street (王府井小吃街) there is a street with hundreds of snack stands and shops, which mainly sells local insects and reptiles on skewers including scorpions, beetles, starfish, seahorse, centipedes, snakes, turtles, and tarantulas.
Teahouses are common in Beijing.
Beijing Capital Airport – PEK (北京首都国际机场) is approximately 26 km to the northeast of central Beijing. It is the world’s 2nd busiest airport and has 3 terminals. Travel between Terminals 1 and 2 is via a long corridor with travelators. A free shuttle bus runs between Terminal 2 and 3. A taxi from the airport should cost RMB 70-120. Get the Chinese name in characters of your hotel. Do join the regular taxi queue and certainly avoid the various touts.
Beijing South Railway Station (北京南站) offers high-speed train services every day to Tianjin, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Fuzhou and other destinations. The station is Beijing’s largest and has plenty of restaurants, cafes, and a bit of shopping to help pass the time.
All official taxis in Beijing have license plates beginning with the letter “B” which is reserved for public transportation vehicles, as in “京B“. Fake or “Black cabs” may look like taxis but their license plates will start with letters other than B. They generally hang out around tourist sights like the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. Black cabs will charge you a much higher fee.
Air pollution is a big problem in Beijing as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area has a lot of industrial production. Coal burning (used to generate majority of energy and heat), automobile exhaust, and dust storms from the Gobi desert combine to make some of the worst city air problems. In winter the cold air creates an inversion layer and traps the pollution in the city. A white surgical face mask may help with the dust storms. A much higher-grade filter is needed to prevent 2.5 micrometer particulates (known as PM 2.5) from entering the body. Tourist are strongly recommended to install iPhone apps that monitor air quality to check hourly and daily reports of air quality index to know what preventative measures are necessary.
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