An Insider’s Beijing

Tips for a fresh take on the city’s well-trod sights

By: Judy Koutsky

BEIJING With the Olympics gearing up to hit Beijing in 2008, this city is already the focus of international attention. And while most of your clients probably know about the region’s highlights the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, etc. the trip will be more memorable for them if you can provide a few insider tips to managing crowds and seeking out off-the-beaten path gems.

Forbidden City
While the Great Wall is probably the most iconic site in China, the Forbidden City is not far behind and is one of the top tourist attractions in this region. In fact, over 7 million people visit this site each year.

The largest and most intricate imperial palace in China, the Forbidden City is a maze of red-walled buildings, palaces and courtyards. Each section of the complex has its own unique history. Due to the age of the Forbidden City and the wear and tear from tourists, the Beijing government launched a massive renovation project, targeting structures most in need. Recent renovations include the Hall of Valiance and Heroism and the Garden of Love and Tranquility. Other restored sections of this amazing site will be finished in 2006, while the goal is for most of the renovations to be completed before the Olympics in 2008.

With some tendencies toward Westernization creating controversy the newly opened Starbucks in close proximity to the Forbidden City is looked upon askance it’s no surprise that there is also a strong urge to reinforce the past and China’s traditional teahouses.

The new Teahouse of Family Fu, located in the unique octagonal building in a quiet corner of the Back Lakes not far from the Forbidden City was built in the traditional style and is furnished with reproductions of Ming Dynasty tables and chairs. Here, visitors can relax over bottomless cups of oolong tea, observe the time-honored tea ceremony or learn the difference between brews. Visitors are never rushed here; it’s a great place to relax, read guidebooks or catch up on journal writing.

The Purple Vine Teahouse, located just outside the Forbidden City, is arguably one of the most peaceful teahouses in all of Beijing. Wood lattice screens separate the private rooms, and the sound of a gurgling fountain permeates the air.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, is the length of 90 football fields with standing room for 300,000 people.

It is also central to a number of top attractions: the Forbidden City is located to the north, the Great Hall of the People is to the west, the museums of Chinese History and Chinese Revolution are to the east and in the center of the square stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes. In short, visitors can spend a day in the Square, hitting all the key sites in proximity.

And while all the above attractions are probably already on your clients’ itineraries, what they most likely do not know is how different Tiananmen Square is at night.

During the day, busloads of tourists and their guides cram the square and the air especially in summer can be sticky and humid. In the evening, however, hundreds of local Chinese families descend upon the Square to fly kites in the cool night air.

I think the place is even more magical than Venice’s Piazza San Marco at night. Here, with the Forbidden City and the Great Hall of People silhouetted in lights and hundreds of kites overhead in every conceivable color and design, the scene is breathtaking. As we walked along in the crisp evening, we realized we were the only people who were not Chinese. Merchants were eager to sell us kites so we could join in the festivities, and families held out their kite helms to us so we could partake in the fun.

Students enthusiastically approached and in the equivalent of high-school English asked if they could take my picture. (Even now, China is mainly a destination for older tourists and my guide explained that I fit their idea of a typical young American.) We were so enchanted by the the atmosphere there that my boyfriend and I returned to Tiananmen Square each of the three nights we were in Beijing. After hours of sightseeing, interacting with the local people was a wonderful way to end each day.

The Great Wall
Over 200 states and dynasties were involved in creating the Great Wall over a period of 2,000 years. Stretching along 3,700 miles (that’s from New York to Los Angeles and halfway back again), the wall has over 1,000 fortified passes and 10,000 beacon towers. Badaling, the first section of the wall ever opened to tourists, remains the most popular. Located 45 miles northwest of Beijing, this is where the tour buses stop visitors should be prepared for large crowds, even early in the morning and on weekdays. A cable car eases congestion, but only somewhat. The crowd tends to head to the right, so suggest that your clients head left, though the climb is a bit steeper.

Even better, suggest that FIT clients (prepackaged tours all hit Badaling) visit one of the more remote, less touristy sections of the wall. Simatai (60 miles northeast), Huanghua (40 miles north) and Jinshanling (56 miles northeast) are open to tourists and are much less crowded.

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