beijing city guide:
Enjoying Beijing As It Gets Set to Party
Illustration for TIME by Lee On Nei
By RON GLUCKMAN
Those who visited Beijing a decade ago are sure to recall the first phrase they learned: mei you. It was heard more than "hello." Ask a waitress for a Coke: mei you. Stand in line for hours at the train station, fight your way up front and ask for a ticket, any ticket. Invariably the answer was mei you--there is none. Back then, Beijing's attitude toward tourists too often seemed mired in the isolation the Middle Kingdom had perfected over centuries. Foreigners were, well, just too foreign. Beijing wasn't so much unfriendly as impossible.
Things have vastly changed. Return visitors can be excused for bringing once-precious packets of instant coffee, but today cappuccino can be found in just about any shopping mall. Beijing has begun to look like a world-class capital city. Glass towers and stylish clothes are everywhere. Dumplings still steam, fry and boil in every alley, but dining is increasingly cosmopolitan, with myriad new restaurants rivaling the old mainstays in the luxury hotels. Nightlife has blossomed from hotel discos to progressive clubs showcasing local talent and offering rock, jazz, classical, even punk.
In fact, Beijing has never been more inviting. Much of the city has been repainted, relandscaped and generally spiffed up in anticipation of next week's 50th anniversary of the People's Republic. Any visit should begin at the world's largest square, Tiananmen, itself newly renovated for the anniversary. The 40-hectare plaza rests among some of China's most recognizable and intriguing landmarks. To the south are the remnants of the old city walls and Qianmen Gate. Along the length of Tiananmen are massive Soviet-style edifices housing the Great Hall of the People, the staid old National Museum and the Revolutionary Museum. Every morning Mao Zedong's preserved body is on display in the mausoleum in the middle of the square.
At the top of the square sits the Forbidden City (admission $3.50-$6). Step through the gates under Mao's portrait and return to a resplendent time when rulers lived sumptuously in palatial compounds. Built in the early 1400s, the Forbidden City has a staggering 800 buildings, their 9,000 rooms stuffed with relics--jadeware, clocks, paintings, gold and silver by the ton. The audio tours, in which world-famous voices guide you by headphone, bring to life the rich history of a site that served two dozen emperors.
Beijing is blessed with eye-popping antiquities. One must-see is the tranquil Summer Palace, 18 km north of Tiananmen. Others include several of Beijing's scores of temples: the sprawling Temple of Heaven, the Lama Temple with its beautiful gardens and the Temple of Confucius. And no visit would be complete without a trek to the Great Wall, slightly more than an hour outside town. Astronauts have refuted reports that it can be spotted from space, but it's still mighty impressive. While a few spots are awash in tourists, a little work earns you some solitude (see Detour).
Beijing's shopping opportunities are second only to those of Shanghai. When it comes to street markets, the best is Silk Alley close to the embassy district. Another good one is the Russian Market right next to Ritan Park. And for antiques and curios, try the jumble of shops along Dazhalan in the city's southeast.
Hungry yet? Head to the massive food market that sprawls across Donganmen Street, near the Palace Hotel. Offerings include zesty bowls of noodles, kebabs and dumplings for less than 50¢ a serving. Western outlets abound, but go instead to a homegrown version of fun eateries. One Bowl House is a lantern-lit, old-style noodle kitchen with delicious food and a boisterous presentation. Starters (cabbage with mustard, Beijing shredded pork and bamboo) and bowls of homemade noodles cost about $8 for two.
After dinner, the entertainment options are vast: punkers at the Scream, go-go dancers (male and female) at the Hot Spot Disco Pub (Dongsanhuan Lu in Chaoyang), transvestites at the Half Dream (No. 5 Xingfu Yicun Xilu). If that sounds a bit much, head to the Sanlitun district, where the cool flock to the city's hippest bars. But don't despair if you have to line up for your drink: the long days of waiting only to hear the words mei you are, thankfully, no more.
For pre-trip information on Beijing and a list of contacts, check out http://www.chinasite.com/Travel.html or http://www.bjta.gov.cn/
Virtual Forbidden City: www.intel.com/apac/virtualcity/index.htm
You can't see it from space, but radar does show the Great Wall: www.jpl.nasa.gov/radar/sircxsar/gwall.html
For an off-the-beaten hutong approach to the Great Wall, set your browser to www.cbw.com/icic/www/
Want to know about Beijing's music scene? Head to www.chinabuzz.com
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