It’s no surprise that such major events as the Olympics can be a big boost for any destination, what with the increased international awareness they bring, the thousands of new visitors they attract and the array of improvements that invariably are attached to such a large gathering. This is certainly the case with Beijing, the capital of China, which is also enjoying an increasingly important profile on the world stage for economic and political reasons.
Beijing played host to the 2008 Summer Olympics, welcoming more than 11,000 athletes as well as spectators from around the world. Travelers today, of course, have missed out on the chance to witness those exciting competitions, but they can still enjoy the benefits of the new hotels and attractions that have sprung up, partly as a result of the Olympiad.
Beijing New and Old
From most angles, Beijing looks like a city of the future - a metropolis of grand proportions. Most of the architecture there is new, daring and forward-thinking in its design. Drive along any number of the city’s wide avenues and you pass sleek shopping malls, soaring skyscrapers and bright neon signs. Traffic can be frustrating, but the fact that many residents use bicycles certainly alleviates the congestion a bit, as do the riders of the still-expanding Metro system.
You may think you’ve mistakenly landed on Las Vegas’ Fremont Street when you visit The Place, a shopping center set along a street near the silk market. A large, Vegas-style digital screen soars over the street, providing light and entertainment to shoppers throughout the day and night. Retailers there are of the international variety, with brands including Zara, Guess, Crocs, Adidas and Miss Sixty, just to name a few. Art lovers may want to check out 798 Art Zone, also known as the Dashanzi Art District, which is home to an artists’ community set among a group of former military factory buildings.
But for all of the city’s modernity, most foreign visitors are drawn to the historic center. Indeed, with thousands of years of history behind it, Beijing is a fascinating place to connect with the past.
Tiananmen and Beyond
Historic Beijing begins at Tiananmen Square, the massive plaza near the center of the city. By some measures the largest square in the world, it dates back to 1417, when the Tiananmen Gate was built by the Ming Dynasty. It also made headlines in 1989, as the site of the historic pro-democracy protests.
Visitors walk through the gate from Tiananmen to the Forbidden City, through a series of tunnels and smaller squares. You can hear a cacophony of voices and languages as you pass aggressive vendors hawking stuffed panda-head hats, military hats, spinning light-up tops and gloves. Before you know it, you are in the thick of the Forbidden City.
This complex, built between 1406 and 1420, served as the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty through the end of the Qing Dynasty. Like Beijing itself, it is expansive and sprawling. One of the most interesting parts is the Hall of Mental Cultivation, which is less “restored” than other areas and feels more authentic. You can peer in the throne room and almost imagine seeing the so-called “Dragon Lady” (Empress Dowager Cixi, 1835-1908) seated behind the throne of the emperor, who was her 6-year-old son. The next stop on most tour programs is the Summer Palace, which is more scenic than the Forbidden City, with a large lake, lazy walkways, decorative rock formations and magpies (which symbolize good fortune in Chinese culture) flitting among the shady trees.
During the evening many tour groups attend the Beijing Opera, a very tourist-friendly venue where the performers apply their makeup in the lobby — thoughtfully creating excellent photo opportunities. Visitors can see performances of “Stopping the Horse,” which recounts a tale of army intrigue from the Song Dynasty, and “Stealing Silver in Storage,” about the female leader of a band of thieves, which ends in an impressively acrobatic fight scene. Performances at the Beijing Opera are translated into English on large electronic boards next to the stage, making it easy for the audience to follow the plot. If you want the best possible experience, opt for a front-row table, spread with dates, oranges and peanuts, with hot tea served by a traditionally clad waiter.
The Great Wall
The trip to the Great Wall outside Beijing is often on a tour bus that winds its way past giant Mongolia-bound freight trucks. In the distance, passengers can see craggy mountains dusted with snow in the winter. Long before you reach the visitor center and access point to climb the wall, bits of the massive structure start popping up on both sides of the highway.
The Great Wall of China, one of the world’s most recognizable sites, was built between the fifth century B.C. and 16th century B.C. to protect the northern borders of the Chinese empire. The entire complex of fortifications extends for more than 5,500 miles. Visitors must climb steep stairs to get to the top of the wall, but they are rewarded with magnificent views and architecture.
After visiting the Great Wall, many tour groups stop at the Beijing Friendship Store, which in the 1980s was the only store open to foreigners. To be sure, times have changed in China in recent years, as the country has opened more to the world, but it’s still a very different experience from many countries. The Friendship Store is big and brightly lit, filled with touristy trinkets as well as some beautiful handicrafts. Upstairs is a large, brightly lit restaurant with giant round tables that are, as in most tourist restaurants, conveniently equipped with rotating trays.
To end a visit to Beijing, take a tour of the oldest residential section of Beijing along Shishahai, a lake in Hutong lined with bars and squawking ducks. The low gray buildings and narrow streets are wide enough only for bikes and rickshaws. Many tour operators can organize a lunch at the home of a local family — an interesting and more authentic activity.
Beijing has some of the newest and most modern hotels in the world, some of which were constructed for the Olympic Games. The 27-story Sofitel Wanda Beijing (http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-6215-sofitel-wanda-beijing/index.shtml), which debuted in 2007, is a sumptuous property with crisply dressed bellhops scurrying about the posh lobby, plus super-high ceilings and oversize décor, including a $2 million Swarovski flower mural. The 417 guest rooms are well appointed, with free wireless Internet access and glass-walled bathrooms complete with TVs for watching from the tub. It offers restaurants featuring French, Chinese and Japanese cuisine.
Also relatively new on the hotel scene
is the Park Hyatt Beijing (http://www.beijing.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp), which opened in 2008 in the tallest building on Changan Avenue. Located opposite the China World Trade Centre, this 237-room property features a spa and fitness center, as well as five bars and restaurants.
Also open since 2008 is the Opposite House (http://www.theoppositehouse.com/), Swire Hotels’ cutting-edge urban hotel designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The property is located in The Village in Sanlitun, a new shopping, dining and entertainment complex developed by Swire Properties. Opposite House features 99 rooms, more than half of which measure more than 750 square feet.
Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts (http://www.shangri-la.com/) is planning to open the China World Summit Wing later in 2010. Billed as having the largest guest rooms in Beijing, the hotel will be located in the 81-story China World Tower, the tallest building in the city. The 278-room hotel will have two bars and four restaurants, plus a spa and meeting rooms. Four Seasons is set to open a hotel by 2011, although the date has not yet been announced.
For more information, call the China National Tourist Office at 212-760-8218.--Mark Chesnut