The great call of China

School children join visitors at the Great Wall at Badaling. -- Photos by Robin Robinson

School children join visitors at the Great Wall at Badaling. -- Photos by Robin Robinson

ROBIN ROBINSON -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:47 PM ET

Rush-hour traffic is building on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. By 6 a.m., thousands of cars, trucks and bicycle commuters jockey for position on the broad thoroughfare.

Looking down from my 11th-floor hotel room, it's obvious Beijing is booming. Construction cranes are everywhere as hutongs -- narrow alleys leading to traditional lowrise houses -- make way for wider roads and skyscrapers.

Where defensive walls once surrounded and protected the Chinese capital, today an expanding network of ring roads brings people to the core and casts an ever-widening net around a city in transition.

While there on a recent tour with colleagues, I learn that Beijing hipsters are more likely to be interested in cutting-edge electronics, designer labels, karaoke and pop culture than in Chairman Mao, Chinese opera and tea ceremonies.

Our twentysomething guitar-playing guide from China International Travel Service, Bruce Jia, has never been to Europe or North America but he's a dedicated fan of U2, Avril Lavigne and Nickelback. Jia doesn't understand why tourists shop at local markets for cheap designer look-a-likes; he prefers high-quality goods.

After five days in "Jing" my ideas about the place are forever replaced by psychedelic visions of dazzling LED signs -- for designers such as Burberry and Ports -- that decorate the sides of skyscrapers.

And I am both relieved and disappointed to learn a tourist doesn't have to work very hard to find a double latte or cappuccino in this town. Starbucks has 44 shops -- including one next to the Forbidden City. The coffee house giant is only one of thousands of international brands widely available.

Still, despite the headlong rush into the future, this metropolis of almost 14 million is partially frozen in time. Considered to be China's cultural centre and home to dozens of historical attractions -- including five Unesco World Heritage sites either within city limits or nearby -- ancient history remains the draw for the growing number of tourists.

If you're planning a visit in the near future or for the 2008 Olympics, here are a few things to put on your must-see list:

- Palace Museum: Known as the Forbidden City -- it was off limits to common folk for five centuries -- this massive complex in the heart of Beijing served as the palace for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1406-1908).

Although many of the 800 buildings are post-18th century, its great halls, grand pavilions, marble terraces and courtyards are among the oldest surviving examples of ancient Chinese architecture. The 9,999-room complex also houses an enormous collection of art, jewels, and antiques.

Restoration and preservation work is ongoing and some of the complex is off limits as the museum prepares for its 600th anniversary in 2020.

- Tiananmen Square: The 44-hectare city square -- the largest in the world -- has seen a lot of history. In Imperial times it was a gathering spot. In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong stood at Tiananmen Gate and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China. Forty years later, students staged pro-democracy protests here. Today, the square is mainly for tourists.

While the 1989 student demonstrations were squelched by the government when troops moved in, killing hundreds of protesters, no one can deny that a social and economic revolution has taken place in China since.

At the centre of the square is the Monument to the Peoples' Heroes signed by Mao and a popular spot for photos. Surrounding the square are the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the Great Hall of the People, the Front Gate and the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, where visitors queue up for a glimpse of Mao's remains.

- Summer Palace: About a 40-minute drive from the centre of Beijing, the palace, temple, gardens and lakes of the Summer Palace were cottage country for Qing-dynasty royals. The 290-hectare lakeside location is a draw for picnics, games, dancing, and impromptu musical performances.

The main building is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, and the Long Corridor is perfect for a stroll. The 728-metre wooden structure was built so the royals could take in the scenery in all kinds of weather. It is adorned with 8,000 paintings.

A canal boat also takes visitors to the Summer Palace.

- Temple of Heaven: Now a park, the Temple of Heaven is where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties prayed.

Built in 1420 by the Ming Dynasty, the 2,700,000-square-metre Temple of Heaven is bigger than the Forbidden City -- according to beliefs of the time, it would not be right for the emperor's dwelling to be larger than a dwelling for heaven.

The Circular Mound Altar, Imperial Vault of Heaven and Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest are magnificent buildings .

- Ming Tombs and the Sacred Path: Leading to Chinese imperial tombs, there is usually a Sacred Way that symbolizes the road to heaven. Of all the Sacred Ways in China, the one at the Ming Tombs , 50 km northwest of Beijing, is the best preserved. Lined with weeping willows and stone statues of humans and animals, it is a lovely walk on a fine day.

The tombs are the final resting place of 13 emperors, 23 empresses and many imperial concubines, crown princes and princesses. Two of the 13 mausoleums -- Changling and Dingling -- are open to the public. Changling, the largest, is completely preserved. Dingling is deep underground and pretty spartan.

- Great Wall: Outside the gates leading to the Great Wall at Badaling, the street is lined with souvenir shops and cafes. At the Great Wall Bar, Tammy Wynette's voice floats through the air, imploring visitors to "Stand by your man." Once inside the gate and through the turnstiles, commercialism recedes. There are two paths, our guide tells us. One is long and gently sloped, the second short and steep.

I opt for the long path, which cannot be described as a road less travelled but is grand nonetheless. Even early in the day, a cross section of society walk with me -- people of every nationality, young and old, trek side by side. Dozens of languages float through the air. I cannot understand what people are saying but I sense that hiking on this ancient fortification, which traverses 6,700 km of mountains and valleys, is as big a thrill for them as it is for me.

Badaling is the first section of the Wall opened to tourists and some 130 million people have visited including 370 foreign leaders and VIPs.

- Other historical sites: Beihai Park (an oasis in the middle of a metropolis) the Confucious Temple (one of several in China) the Temple of Earth (currently being restored) and the Yonghegong Lamasery (the largest in Beijing) are worth a visit.

- Beijing opera: Regarded by some as the epitome of sophistication, others liken it to high-pitched screeching. It may not be hip but it is fascinating and the colourful costumes, pageantry and displays of acrobatic and martial arts make up for the sometimes jarring fusion of sounds.

There are many places to see traditional productions but as an introduction you might try the tourist version. Every night the Qian Men Hotel presents a live short opera with English subtitles in its 1,000-seat Liyuan Theatre.

- Massage and reflexology: Beijing is heaven for those who thrive on massage. Treatments are considered integral to wellness and don't cost a lot.

After our workout on the Wall, we met a craving for comfort food at Annie's Pizza, a popular spot for ex-pat North Americans at the west gate of Chaoyang Park. For about $20 each we inhaled generous servings of crusty garlic bread, cheesy pizza and good French wine. We then repaired to nearby Kangda Massage, where, for 68 yuan (about $12), we had our Wall-weary feet worked over for 75 minutes.

Next day we were walking on air.

BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE: Air Canada offers daily service from Toronto to Vancouver to Beijing. Current return economy fares are about $1,350 plus taxes and fees. Air Canada is also launching nonstop service between Toronto and Beijing four times a week. See aircanada.com.

ACCOMMODATIONS: We stayed at the Beijing International Hotel, which is about five minutes from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and within walking distance of shopping, subway -- and Starbucks. The 994-room property has a fitness centre, a pool and two restaurants. Rates start at $220 per night. See bih.com.cn/index_e/ for details.

MORE INFORMATION: Call the China National Tourist Office in Toronto at 416-599-6382 or see tourismchina-ca.com.


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