Once Forbidden, the Chinese Capital is now a welcoming, bargain destination racing to prepare for the Olympics.
Four years ago when I first visited there, Beijing was still transforming itself from an austere Communist capital into an international city. Now, with the 2008 Olympic Games on the horizon, it's making the great leap forward, becoming a modern destination with all the luxuries—and English-language signs—needed to prepare for its role as host to the world.
The Chinese government has lined many of the dusty, heavily trafficked streets with trees and bushes of every size, providing needed shade and even giving the soft, calming scent of evergreen to a city renowned for its pollution.
Sweet smells are just a start. New hotels are going up, and good, clean rooms can be had for under $50. A couple of bucks buys a terrific dinner—and a few beers. Perhaps best of all, sports-minded crowds of Westerners don't yet dominate the palaces, restaurants, and back-alley shops that lend this capital its charm and mystique.
Though preparations for the Games are far from complete, my recent week's visit suggests that now is the optimum time to experience the new Beijing as it opens itself to the world, its ancient attractions intact—before Olympic inflation takes hold.
I started my visit with a walk around the Forbidden City, the majestic hub of Beijing. Starting in the early 15th century, the monumental palace was off-limits to the public for some 500 years when it was home to the emperors of the Ming and Ching dynasties. Under the light rain, it had a misty feel, like a Chinese painting. After visiting the smaller quarters of the big buildings, where the hushed charm of palace life is still palpable, I climbed the hill of Jingshan Park outside the walls. Supposedly built to protect the emperors from the evil forces that, according to feng shui, wreak havoc from the north, the hill gives a broad view of the Imperial City's orderly design.
Walking back to my hotel, I passed one of Beijing's ubiquitous exercise parks and asked a young woman stretching in her jeans if people were excited about the Olympics. "Oh, yes," she replied. "We all have to get in shape.We can't all go to the events, but we can be part of the spirit."
Daily constitutionals have long been tradition in China. But exercise has taken a more eager turn as Beijing prepares for the Games. People of every age, at all times of day, work away on StairMasters, parallel bars, or NordicTrack-like contraptions. My last sight that night was a group of ballroom dancers waltzing beside a freeway on-ramp.
The next morning, I gave in to some street fare—a thick pancake folded with coriander and onion—as I walked in the footsteps of emperors to the Temple of Heaven. One of the best examples of Ming dynasty architecture still standing, the temple and its park are a symmetrical design of nature and structure. It's my favorite place to spend an afternoon in Beijing.
I explored the Underground City, a maze of tunnels built as an air-raid shelter in case of Soviet invasion. In Tiananmen Square, I filed past the preserved, waxlike corpse of Chairman Mao lying in state in his mausoleum.
One night, after wandering the hutong (Beijing's oldest narrow lanes), I arrived at a park filled with life. Grandmothers in matching gray sweaters admired their neighbor's bird. Seniors played a heated game of mah-jongg, and a young woman, shopping for dinner, squatted in her business suit and inspected a bucket of crayfish. Farther on I came to the edge of a mist-covered lake, around which the only sound was the soft whir of bicycle tires on pavement. It was difficult to believe I was in the midst of a booming city.
In the morning, I strolled Dashilan Street outside the old city walls where merchants sold silk to the elite back when emperors held sway and shops were forbidden inside the Imperial City. Businesses here—including Liubiju, a 400-year-old pickle store, and low-priced silk shops—date back centuries. The Tongrentang pharmacy still sells remedies it once dispensed to leaders of the Ching dynasty. But, with the revered ginseng root priced at $2,000, I dared not ask what the emperor's secret cold relief formula goes for these days.
I spent the afternoon in the city's newest shopping area, Wangfujing, where glass-fronted cathedrals of consumerism hawk everything from designer fashion to souvenir trinkets. I preferred the traditional architecture and atmosphere of Liulichang, with scrolls and antique cloth among its wares. Owned mostly by the government, the shops there can be high priced and bargaining a challenge. I ended the day at the Friendship Store, an expat institution on Jianguomenwai Dajie, picking up jade and gifts for friends.
In Beijing, a good meal is just as likely to be had in a small lunchtime hangout as in a fancy hotel. I was pleased to find my favorite Chinese food, dumplings, served at Hong Ming Xuan Jiaozi Guan, a new restaurant next to Tiananmen Square. Heaping platefuls of the delicious pudgy pods, packed with pork, spinach, squash, and more, were being washed down with cold beer amid loud chatter. This pot sticker para-dise is in the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square—look for the happy yellow dumpling mascot wearing a chef's hat.
For Peking duck, locals flock to King Roast Duck restaurant (next to the Museum of Chinese Nationalities) near the future Olympic Village. And one of Beijing's newest eateries, the South Silk Road, features exotic foods from Yunnan province—thin brown strings of wild tree flower flecked with white garlic, richly flavored tree bark, stewed carp, and crisp sword beans.
On my last day I hopped on one of the minibuses that leave from Tiananmen to visit the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, where the emperors of the Ming dynasty lie in state in a wide green valley. Following one section of the wall as high as it would take me, I found a sentry tower. I got a feel for what it must have been like to be a lonely guard, straining his eyes for signs of barbarians and perhaps succumbing in the harsh winter to their offers of roast pig or hot tea, turning the other way as they slipped over the ramparts.
Like building a wall across a country, hosting the Olympic Games is a vast undertaking and I could not leave Beijing without seeing the place where dreams will be made and crushed. The Olympic Green area is still a tangle of gardens, swampland, and dilapidated shops, soon to be replaced by stadiums, swimming pools, and apartments on many acres of green space. I wanted to tell the old ladies selling peaches in the sun that they may lose their market, but at least they'll have shade.
Photography by Dan Dion
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.