Among a people famously superstitious about numbers, the number eight is the undisputed king in China.
In the spirit of lucky numbers, Brian johnston visits eight of Beijing’s best Sights that highlight the magnificent dichotomy of the city, as it looks back towards an illustrious past and forward to a fastchanging and exciting future.
Tiananmen Square lies at the geographic centre of Beijing, and its sheer size is staggering. The 35-metre granite obelisk to the People’s Heroes seems small as a needle and, when soldiers run up a gigantic Chinese flag early in the morning, it flutters small as a dishcloth on its massive pole. Don’t expect any cafés or park benches in this square,just thousands of milling Chinese from the provinces in a vast open space that makes an impressive statement. Tiananmen is surrounded on all sides by rather plain buildings, from the Museum of Chinese History to the Great Hall of the People. The new National Theatre, a giant spherical structure of steel and titanium, stands nearby. At the centre of it all, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong is a tourist attraction, where you can see the embalmed body of China’s communist leader, lying in state in a crystal sarcophagus. The atmosphere is reverent, but at the exit, hawkers sell amusing Mao memorabilia, from cigarette lighters to badges emblazoned with the face of the Great Helmsman.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
On the north side of Tiananmen Square, a huge portrait of Mao gazes from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The Gate itself glows like a red beacon in a sea of surrounding grey and is approached by hve marble bridges whose elegant humpbacks recall waves breaking on the shore. Built in the 15th century, the Gate of Heavenly Peace was used for imperial proclamations, and in 1949 Mao also declared the founding of the People’s Republic from its balcony (Long Live the People’s Republic of China! trumpets the slogan along its fagade), Today it’s a much-loved symbol of China, appearing on everything From banknotes and government seals to the insignia on the caps of the policemen who loiter in front of it, directing the flow of sightseers towards the Forbidden City. Perched on the edge of the impersonal vastness of Tiananmen Square, there is something rather charming about this blushing building, and even Mao Zedong in his portrait seems to be relaxed and smiling. This is the ultimate Beijing photo opportunity for locals and foreigners alike.
Prince Gong’s Mansion
It might take you a while to Find this mansion, hidden in the alleyways of the Back Lakes district behind the Forbidden City but getting lost in one of Beijing’s last remaining old quarters is quite a pleasure. The mansion was built by He Shen, favourite eunuch of the Emperor Qianlong, in 1777. The compound, screened behind high walls, is a collection of pavilions made from fragrant cedar wood and surrounded by traditional gardens and rockeries. The clever arrangement makes the grounds seem much larger than they really are. Covered walkways lead from one courtyard to another, with latticed windows giving glimpses off carp-hlled ponds or sprigs of peach blossom. Linger a while and appreciate the sound of the wind through a stand of bamboo, or the red drama of a branch of autumn foliage. If that makes you feel philosophical about life, then you’ve understood what a Chinese garden is all about.
Panjiayuan Market From contemplation to cacophony is a matter of minutesin Beijing. The city has scores of street markets, but the best for overseas visitors lies off Panjiayuan Street at the Third Ring Road. Calligraphy, ceramic teapots, Qing Dynasty furniture, battered old opium pipes, laughing Buddhas, paper |anterns and memorabilia from the Cultural Revolution sit in tottering heaps. But it isn’t all predictable: locals come here, quite literally, for the kitchen sink. You can also End military binoculars, bronze Tibetan doorknobs, ivory carvings and plenty more that will ht in a suitcase. Panjiayuan is at its best on Saturdays and Sundays; if you’re aFter some genuine antiques, it’s best to turn up at dawn. Bargain fiercely, beware of fakes, and enjoy the hubbub.