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Text and photos Neil McGowan

You would need to have been living as a nomad for the last four years not to know that Beijing will be hosting the Olympic Games this year. Yet the “northern” capital wasn’t always China’s capital — Nanjing, Luoyang, Xi’an, Kaifeng, Hangzhou, and Anyang have all had claims on the title in China’s often turbulent history. Nor has there always been unanimity on Beijing’s name, even apart from the “Peking” mistransliteration that was in official use for years. Marco Polo called the city Cumbuluc, his own rendering of its Mongolian name, Khan-baliq [“Khan-Residence”] — it was, after all, a city re-established by Mongolian conquerors who eventually used it as a base to retake their own country. In Chinese it was called Dadu [“the great city”] until the Ming Dynasty fell in 1644 and was superceded by the Manchu invaders who established the Qing Dynasty, ruling a newly-unified China from their capital, Beijing. The Qing emperors were so security-conscious that they built a city-within-a-city as the nerve center of their empire, to which access was forbidden to all but the powerwielding elite.

The Lama Temple, where, in imperial times, emperors would consult with the Lama

Of course, there are many people (pretty much the entire non-Beijing population of China) who will tell you that Beijing, tucked in a remote northern corner of the country, away from food supplies or even adequate fresh water, is in the worst possible location for a capital. It’s one of the few world cities not built on or near a major river. Much of China has temperate winters, but visitors from Moscow will have all the right winter clothes to deal with the near-Siberian temperatures.

Water Gardens of the Summer Palace

However, things have moved on quite a bit since 1644, and if you head for Beijing hoping to see pagodas and paddy fields, you’ll be disappointed. (If you are seeking “old China,” try Xi’an — a marvelous medieval city in its own right, quite apart from those famous terra cotta warriors. Or better still, head for Guilin). In fact visitors from Moscow will find a capital city reinventing itself, with a large ceremonial square (complete with mausoleum — Mao’s, in this case) and huge walled citadel adjacent — enough déjà vu to make you feel comfortably at home. The square, of course, is Tienanmen, and the citadel is the Forbidden City, but surrounding them these days is a landscape of high-rise mirror-glass corporate headquarters and hotels that reflect the assertive confi dence of the new colossus of world trade.

The Great Wall. Chairman Mao said it was every citizen’s duty to climb it at least once

But you can still find pockets of Cumbuluc that Marco Polo would recognize. Protection orders (frequently disobeyed, unfortunately) have preserved at least some of the old Hutongs, the narrow streets of low-rise, glazedroof former homes of those who worked in the Imperial Service. Some sightseeing tours offer to take you inside these now-gentrified homes, built on the Middle Eastern model with their inviting inner courtyards. Others have even been converted into hotels, although be prepared to trade authentic atmosphere and super location for a room that elsewhere would count as a closet. Some conversions are better than others. A more pricey but successful format offers two adjacent hutong rooms as a minisuite. The word “hutong” dates back to Polo’s time visiting the Mongolian Khan, and is a Chinese corruption of hottog, the Mongolian word for “well,” but in most of these modern hotel-conversions, there’s a modern en suite bathroom, even if it’s very cramped.

Other elements of “old Beijing” you shouldn’t miss are the Lama Temple (despite some twisted truths about Buddhism in today’s PRC in the exhibition there), the Confucian Temple, and the Temple Of Heaven — where the emperors gave thanks for successful harvests. Slightly less swarming with tourists is the Summer Palace — especially if you take the chance to stride off into the ornamental gardens further from the tour-group-infested palace complex itself. Another chance to interface with the Asian ornamental garden is Behai Park, which comes alive with courting couples and families out for a stroll once evening falls. Brace yourself for the Forbidden City — being unmissable means every visitor to Beijing converges on it, so it’s worth going early — there’s a huge amount within its walls to cover, not least the ceremonial temples and palace buildings that were the corridors of both power and private life for the Qing emperors.

The Summer Palace, Temple of Fortune

However, all around you is the modern metropolis that’s more than a capital — it’s the physical embodiment of China’s aspiration to rejoin the club of respected nations, and this plea to be taken seriously as a modern nation shouldn’t be ignored. Dining out is the favorite evening pastime for visitors, and all of China’s many cuisines… plus some rather dodgy versions of world eating… are on offer. Afunti (166 Chaonei Dajie, tel. 010/6525-1071) is an unashamedly modern take on Uighur cuisine and entertainment, but it’s great fun — you eat at huge tables (expect to share with others), on which there’ll certainly be traditional Uighur dancing later. It’s in a traditional hutong area too. Fangshang Imperial Restaurant (on the lake at Behai Park, tel. 010/6401- 1889, booking essential) offers traditional Beijing cuisine in a restaurant that’s been serving it since 1925. If you’d prefer a more cosmopolitan take on nightlife, the city authorities have been busy “improving” (i.e., demolishing) the old “bar street” favored by visitors in time for the Olympics, but most of the main establishments have moved to a new area where you can find them all together. Bei Sanlitun Nan is home to the Poacher’s Bar, Fish Nation, Kai Club, but most of all to The Tree (formerly known as The Hidden Tree, but as Belgian expat owner Patrick wryly mentions, “it’s not hidden anymore at the new address”). Featuring a pizza oven imported from Italy (an entire anecdote in itself), the Tree also offers imported Belgian beers, all correctly served in the right glasses.

Incense burning, Lama Temple

However, it’s in the range of slick and metro-chic hotels that Beijing’s reborn image can be most clearly seen and experienced. China has long been known for reliable but dull, modern box-hotels that have substituted service for a baffling array of free disposable combs, shampoos, and slippers that would send eco-warriors howling in frustration. The news is that China has woken up to the boutique hotel. Hotel Kapok (16 Donghuamen Street, Dongcheng District) is a great example of modern designer interiors conveniently located within a short walk of the Forbidden City.

And yes…The Games. Unless you have a ticket already, it’s really all over and best watched on TV, especially as hotels are more overbooked than Galilee in the time of King Herod. However, the cheerful knock-on is that the facelift for public transport and infrastructure will remain as a benefit to visitors long after the Games themselves have come and gone.


All visitors to China require a visa. A visa support is needed until the Games are over, but any hotel confirmation would be accepted. Aeroflot and Air China fly daily longhaul to Beijing from Moscow. Beijing is also the final stop on both the Trans-Manchurian Railway (8 days/7 nights ex-Moscow) and the Trans-Mongolian Railway (7 days/6 nights ex-Moscow).

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