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A Brief Journey Through Beijing

By Diego Zerpa Chang
Published August 25, 2008

In the past, Beijing, like Cairo or Rome, was synonymous with a rich historic past. It invoked images of ancient narrow alleys, dynasties and emperors, and even colorful dragon legends. But just like Hong Kong and Shanghai, and their respective flourishing economies, Beijing is as modern city of today with real people and real scenarios that are as interesting as any tradition.

Beijing may be recognized as the political center of the People’s Republic of China or the host of this year’s Summer Olympics, but to the Chinese it’s much more than that. This metropolis, which is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (Nanjing, Luoyang and Chang’an are the others), is an undeniable architectural, educational and gastronomical hub. Using its many expressways and railroads, visitors and locals flock to such sites as the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square. They can also enjoy picturesque siheyuans, prestigious institutions like Tsinghua University and the Zhihua Music Temple, the smoldering Peking roast duck restaurants, and, of course, the common teahouses filled with the local dialect of Mandarin. It is a mesmerizing place to visit with an estimated 17.4 million people living within Beijing’s 16,800 square kilometers, so it’s a good idea to do some research to get the most out of your visit.

This year’s Summer Olympic Games are now upon us, and Chinese government has executed a plan to put its best foot forward. It has taken several measures to curb the city’s air pollution and water woes, a much-publicized byproduct of the city’s incredible size and growth. There are also 70,000 English-speaking Chinese volunteers on site who will information and aid to the 16,000 athletes and their many supporters. There have been a couple of new lines added to the evolving Beijing subway — since October, tickets cost only 2 Yuan (about .25 cents) no matter where you get on or where you get off).

The top of the sightseeing list for any visitor is the Great Wall Of China. Stretching across the northern part of the city, this segment made of granite is one of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall — at 24 feet high and 15 feet wide, it’s an truly impressive site as it snakes off to the horizon. From there head to Tiananmen Square, which ranks up there with Red Square or Times Square in fame. A visit to the square before the games would bring you to the Olympic Countdown Clock, which ticked off the seconds remaining until 8:00 p.m. of August 8th, when the famous sporting event began. Of course for many in the Western world, the square is also symbolic as the site of 1989 uprising where hundreds of Chinese demonstrators were killed.

After some sightseeing, you might want to take a quick break and recharge. Head to the Xicheng District and try out a stuffed glutinous rice flour ball, a pea flour cake, a gut soup, or any other of the 80 local popular snacks you can find in the Huguo Temple Snack Restaurant. Also visit the new location of the legendary Quanjude Restaurant, located in Beijing’s Silk Street, where you will be able to enjoy the All-Duck-Banquet and over 400 well-known dishes.

When it comes to teahouses, places like the Laoshe Teahouse in Tiananmen Square or the Tiangiaole Teahouse in the Xuanwu District will show you that these are not only ancient places to savor fine tea, but also great spots to learn about local customs by way of tea ceremony performances, folk music presentations and storytelling acts. You will see that, just as the picturesque hutongs and siheyuans tended to reflect the traditional sense of community and old Beijing inhabitants’ wish for a happy life, Chinese food and tea is offered with a sense of joy and rich variety, showcasing outstanding features and deep culture intermingled in every ingredient.

Another cultural landmark is the Temple Of Heaven, which is a complex of Taoist buildings located in the southeast part of Beijing. In ancient China, the Emperor and his entourage would march from the Forbidden City through Beijing to the complex, where the Emperor would personally pray for good harvests. The temple is a stunning sight these days thanks to a 47 m