Beijing, the Chinese capital is by turns brash, gaudy, elegant, charming, historic and leaves an indelible impression on each and every traveller who passes through – this city is never, ever, ever dull. It has been this way for centuries: for a full millennium, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe in the Forbidden City, now one of Asia’s most famous draws. Beijing was, according to some accounts, the first city in the world to hit a population of one million; as such, despite the setbacks which plagued the first decades of communist control, it should come as little surprise to see the remote control of urbanity stuck on permanent fast-forward here. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises and soaked in neon, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic.
First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 21 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It’s a notion that’s reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its stunning wealth of treasures, the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonge Gong, the Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive orderliness and rampant reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two summer palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times. Unexpectedly, some of the country’s most pleasant scenic spots also lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, another of the world’s most famous sights, the long and lonely Great Wall, winds between mountaintops.Beijing is an invaders’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties – the Manchu and the Mongols – and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology – the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today has an international flavour reflecting its position as the capital of a major commercial power. As the front line of China’s grapple with modernity, it is being ripped up and rebuilt at a furious pace – attested by the cranes that skewer the skyline and the character “demolish” painted on old buildings. Students in the latest fashions while away their time in internet cafés, hip-hop has overtaken the clubs, businessmen are never without their laptops and schoolkids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Rising incomes have led not just to a brash consumer-capitalist society that Westerners will feel very familiar with, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture – witness the re-emergence of the teahouse as a genteel meeting place and the interest in imperial cuisine. In the evening, you’ll see large groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao’s favourite dance once universally learned, and in the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their pet birds and pipes as they always have done.