This goo-year-old temple in Beijing’s northeast is often overlooked by visitors on tight schedules, which is a real shame. The former home of Emperor Yongzheng turned monastery, it was patronised by the imperial family throughout the Qing Dvnastv, and is China’s largest and best-preserved lamasery, with a distinctive Tibetan influence in its architecture. This is a spectacular place, a series of five halls and courtyards crammed with decorative stonework, sweeping red and gold eaves, and Buddhist art. Decorative steles are carved with calligraphy, stone lions smile against red walls, and ancient copper vessels are entwined with dragons. The details are delightful: in the Hall of Heavenly Kings statues hold different objects including a mouse, an umbrella and a musical instrument. There are a few monks about, whose duties these days seem to consist of preventing):ourists from taking photos of the interiors. Visitors come and go, spinning prayer wheels even as they gossip on mobile phones. The devout throw bundles of incense into giant burners, adding smoke and atmosphere to the yellow-and-gold backdrop.
Nothing says more about China’s changes over the last couple of decades than Wangfujing, its most famous shopping street. Even if shopping isn’t your thing, sightseeing here provides the flip side to imperial and communist history. Not so long ago, all you found along Wangfujing were a few dusty governmentrun stores. Now gawping peasants from the provinces wander in a daze around glitzy shopping malls. Throngs of shoppers tote brand-name bags and mobile phones, black BMWs cruise the streets, and young businesswomen stop at Starbucks for a cafTe latte. Today, Old Beijing is little more than a kitschy recreation in the basement oFSun Dong An Plaza. Still, among the top-end goods along Wangfujing you can still find discount fashions, and just around the corner from fast-food joints, woks sizzle at traditional street stalls. Perhaps the most unexpected sight is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a pretty little building whose forecourt is a favourite of teenage skaters and grey-haired gentlemen with newspapers.
798 Arts Area
The imperial sights of Beijing are all very well, but this city is far from mired in the past. If you want to see the capital at its most avant-garde, head to this trendy artistic and cultural zone in Dashanzi in the city’s northeast. Originally the 798 Electronics Factory and then taken over by artists, it includes exhibit spaces, art galleries, studios, design companies, an art bookshop, and video screening rooms. The Old Factory Bar new dishes up ltalian cuisine. Exhibitions change all the timel and activities include everything from Fashion shows and dance parties to product launches. Dozens of nightclubs and bars have now appeared in the surrounding streets, lending the area the moniker, the Soho of Beijing. Russian women, American marines and Gucci-toting Chinese yuppies mingle, quaffing imported beers and dancing the night away. For the record, the cocktail of the hour is Downtown Wu, which contains vodka, Malibu, pineapple, banana and grenadine, but by the time you get your order in, it might well be ’50 yesterday’.
The Great Wall
Okay, so it isn’t exactly in Beijing, but most people visit it on a day trip from the city. Marco Polo didn’t think the Great Wall was worth mentioning, and Richard Nixon could only manage “It sure is a great wall!” But this really is one of the world’s most impressive sights, running like a crazy mediaeval rollercoaster across the hilltops, and punctuated every now and then by crumbling watchtowers. Badaling, 50 kilometres north of Beijing, is its most accessible point and most crowded. PLA soldiers try to sell you Qing Dynasty coins, hawkers offer lukewarm beer, and American tourists buy ‘I Climbed the Great Wall T-shirts’. Camels sneer in the direction of Mongolia. Soon they have Japanese ladies screaming precariously from their humps as they nearly get tossed over the battlements. If you have the time and energy, it’s worth hiking away from Badaling, since the tourist hordes are soon left behind. A 30minute drive further north, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is even better: much less crowded and far more spectacular, leaving you only with soaring hawks and pine trees.