Beijing Feature

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Beijing Today

The air is dirty, the traffic is horrendous, and almost nobody speaks more than a word or two of English—so what makes Beijing one of the world's top destinations?

Today's Beijing …

… is old and new. The flat skyline of Beijing, punctuated only by imposing ceremonial towers and the massive gates of the city wall, is lost forever. But still, standing on Coal Hill and looking south across the Forbidden City—or listening to the strange echo of your voice atop an ancient altar at the Temple of Heaven—you can't help but feel the weight of thousands of years of history. It was here that Marco Polo dined with Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes; that Ming and Qing emperors ruled over China from the largest and richest city in the world; and that Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Much of Beijing's charm comes from a juxtaposition of old and new. When you're riding a taxi along the Third Ring Road it may seem that the high-rise apartments and postmodern office complexes stretch on forever. They do, but tucked in among the glass and steel are elaborate temples exuding wafts of incense, and tiny alleyways where old folks still gather in their pajamas every evening to play cards and drink warm beer. Savoring these small moments is the key to appreciating Beijing.

… lets you eat your heart out. If you really love General Tso's chicken back at your local Chinese take-out place, you may want to skip Beijing altogether. Many a returned visitor has complained of being unable to enjoy the bland stuff back home after experiencing the myriad flavors and textures of China's varied regional cuisines. From the mouth-numbing spices of Sichuan, to the delicate presentation of an imperial banquet, or the cumin-sprinkled kebabs of China's Muslim west, Beijing has it all. If you're looking for the ultimate in authenticity, dine at a restaurant attached to one of the city's provincial representative offices, where the chefs and ingredients are imported to satisfy the taste buds of bureaucrats working far from home. The crispy skin and tender flesh of the capital's signature dish, Peking duck, is on everyone's must-eat list. Don't worry if you tire of eating Chinese food three times a day. As Beijing has grown rich in recent years, Western and fusion cuisine offerings have improved greatly, with everything from French to Middle Eastern to Texas-style barbecue now available. If you're looking for one special (and relatively expensive) night out, reserve a window table at the Courtyard, where east meets west, with views of the moat and walls of the Forbidden City.

… is part of a new world order. Beijing's transformation hasn't only been limited to Olympic venues. Prestige projects like the National Theater ("the Egg"), the new CCTV building, and a massive subway expansion are meant to show that China is ready to play with the big boys. The Chinese are fiercely patriotic, and antiforeign demonstrations occasionally break out when the country's collective pride is insulted. The official version of Chinese history taught in schools emphasizes the nation's suffering at the hands of foreign colonial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the subsequent Communist liberation. Still, you'll find Beijingers infinitely polite and curious about your life back home. People here aren't quite sure what to make of their new surroundings, and they're as interested in finding out about you as you are about them. So strike up a conversation (with your hands if necessary), but go easy on the politics.

. is the place to make it or break it. Newcomers could be forgiven for seeing bustling Shanghai as China's go-to place. But anyone who has spent a little time in the capital city swears that it's the soul of the country. People from all over China are drawn here by the many opportunities the city offers, the cultural ferment, and the chance to reinvent themselves; there is an unusual freedom here that has made Beijing the creative center of the country, and this attracts the creative elite from all around the world. Art galleries have sprung up in hotels, courtyard houses, shut-down factories and even an ancient watchtower. This is where serious musicians must come to make it or break it. Even no-nonsense businessmen see Beijing as a mecca because they believe the challenges—and rewards—are greater here. Finally, Beijing is home to several million migrant workers who are often referred to disparagingly as outsiders. This hardworking group is often blamed for the problems that face the city. However, economists say that Beijing would not be what it is today without this army of tireless laborers, construction workers, waiters and maids, who have kept the city buzzing along, taking on the kinds of jobs most others would prefer to avoid.

Cool Facts on the Capital City

With close to 20 million residents, Beijing is vying with Shanghai to become the largest city in China.

The city has existed in various forms for 2,500 years, but Homo erectus fossils prove that humans have lived here for 250,000 years.

Beijing was once surrounded by a massive city wall constructed 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. Of the 16 original gates, only three remain standing. The wall was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Second Ring Road.

At 100 acres, Tiananmen Square is the largest urban square in the world. During the Cultural Revolution as many as 1 million people were able to stand on numbered spaces for huge rallies with Chairman Mao.

Despite major efforts to improve Beijing's air quality, pollution levels in the city remain several times higher than World Health Organization limits. Adding to the problem, a single sandstorm can drop tens of thousands of tons of dust onto the city in mere hours.

Beijingers love to brew, and more than 1,000 tea shops can be found along Maliandao Tea Street in the city's southwest. Top-quality leaves can run as high as $5,000 per pound. That's U.S. dollars, not Chinese yuan!

The 798 Art District is the home of China's red-hot modern art scene. An example: a Yue Minjun painting inspired by the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square sold for $5,000 in 1994 and resold for $6.9 million in 2008.

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