Best of Beijing

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Best of Beijing
Beijing's best offerings are found at its extremes: the ancient and the ultramodern. Visitors can marvel at the vestiges of imperial China juxtaposed with the new and daring architecture that announces the country's reemergence as a world power.
Photo by Holly Chiu
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    The Grandeur of Imperial Beijing
    The Chinese empire came crashing down in 1912 when the ruling Qing dynasty was overthrown in a revolt. Subsequent wars, occupations, and revolutions were not kind to China's historical treasures, but a surprising amount of imperial Beijing's heritage has survived. No visit is complete without a trip to the historic sites along the old city's north-south axis: the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Drum and Bell Towers. Both the "new" and "old" summer palaces are also highly recommended, though the latter was destroyed by British troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
    Photo by Holly Chiu
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    Wandering Beijing's Hutong Alleyways
    There are few better ways to soak in Beijing's charm than wandering the maze of narrow alleys that remain inside the walled city's original footprint. The word hutong comes from the Mongolian word for well, as the city's Mongol founders divided communities according to water sources. In modern times, Beijing's hutongs have gradually disappeared in favor of modern developments, but enough remain to lose yourself in the alleys for an afternoon. For a mix of authentic and trendy hutongs, venture into the neighborhoods around the Drum and Bell Towers, as well as the nearby Nanluoguxiang shopping street. Wudaoying Hutong, just west of Lama Temple, has tastefully restored courtyards occupied by upscale eateries and shops.
    Photo by Madhuri
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    Hiking the Great Wall
    Though the Great Wall's reputation has been inflated by a fair share of myths—it is not visible from space, nor are the corpses of a million workers buried within the mortar—it is a truly impressive sight that showcases ancient China's engineering prowess. The Great Wall is not a single destination; there are numerous, disjointed walls built by various ruling dynasties. The most popular and convenient section of the Wall is at Badaling, about 50 miles from Beijing, though this segment has been excessively restored and can be choked with crowds. For a more tranquil and authentic experience, consider a trip to Jinshanling, around 80 miles north of the city.
    Photo by Doug Hansen
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    Marvels of Modern Beijing
    China's rapid economic rise has made its capital city a playground for top architects from across the globe. Designs are daring, often controversially so, and projects are completed with lightning speed, thanks to a constant influx of cheap labor from the countryside. Notable additions to Beijing's skyline include the CCTV headquarters, an improbable balancing act of two towers connected at an unsupported right angle, and the bulbous National Centre for the Performing Arts, which is more widely know as "The Egg." Some of Beijing's most unique buildings can be found in the Olympic Green, which contains the striking "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and the "Water Cube" National Aquatics Center.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    An Artistic Revolution
    China's art scene has flourished along with the country's economic ascension, unleashing raucous and radical contemporary artists who have made a sharp departure from the culture's heritage of pastoral realism. Despite the country's censorship policies, much of China's modern works are thinly veiled political and social critiques that reflect the conflict inherent in the country's rapid modernization. Beijing's best location to take in the breadth, diversity, and controversy of modern Chinese art is the 798 Art District, a former sprawling industrial complex that has been converted into galleries.
    Photo by Thomas Roetting/age fotostock
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    Escape to Peaceful Parks
    The city's numerous historic parks are great places to escape the bustle of the main streets of Beijing and to witness Chinese culture in motion. Retirees frequent the parks to fly kites, sing in choirs, play traditional musical instruments, and practice calligraphy with water brushes. Some of Beijing's most popular parks are the ceremonial sites of imperial Beijing, such as the Temple of Heaven and the Temples of the Earth, Sun, and Moon. Chaoyang Park, built on the footprint of the former Prince's Palace, is nearly two miles long and covers over 700 acres, making it one of Asia's largest urban public parks.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Chinese Traditional Medicine
    Chinese traditional medicine (TCM), which comprises a wide array of herbal medicines, acupuncture, acupressure, and massage techniques, has over 2,000 years of tradition. While bear bile, which is prescribed for everything from sore throats to hemorrhoids, may not be for everyone, many of the more standard treatments are often attractive alternatives or supplements to Western medicine. Acupuncture and cupping, which involves placing heated cups on the skin to stimulate circulation, are popular treatments for a variety of illnesses. The Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine is a good place for non–Chinese speakers to try TCM. As with any medical treatment, consult your physician beforehand.
    Photo by Hans-Joachim Schneider/age fotostock
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    Explore the Mountains
    Take a break from Beijing's urban sprawl and venture into the mountainous countryside for the day. Over the steep terrain to Beijing's west lies Chuandixia, one of the region's best-preserved Ming Dynasty villages. Aside from the village's 500-year history, it is also notable for the friendly villagers' undying devotion to Chairman Mao and the outdated propaganda covering the walls of their homes. In the nearby Fragrant Hills area, the Mountainyoga Retreat offers meditation, yoga, and traditional kirtan chanting retreats. To the north of Beijing, parks like Mangshan National Forest Park offer a chance to stretch your legs.
    Photo by Steph
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    Peking-Style Opera
    Beijing's namesake form of theater combines elaborate costumes, acrobatic choreography, and operatic singing in a style formed in the courts of the Qing, China's last imperial dynasty. While newcomers tend to find the opera's exotic costumes and sounds fascinating, the plot devices are cryptic and complex, often confounding all but the most seasoned opera buffs. The Liyuan Theater provides the easiest introduction for newbies, with shortened performances and English subtitles. For those seeking an authentic experience in a modern setting, try the Chang’an Grand Theater.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Haggle in Beijing's Markets
    Though Beijing's markets are perhaps best known for counterfeit goods, there are several worth visiting for antiques and souvenirs as well. Panjiayuan, also known colloquially as "The Dirt Market," is an expanse of shops and stalls offering a mix of authentic and genuine antiques. Other popular marketplaces, such as the Silk Market and Yaxiu, mainly specialize in knockoff clothing, but they also have tailors who are competent at producing Western suits and dresses. In all of China's markets, expect to bargain hard, offering about one-quarter of the asking price.
    Photo by Luis Castaneda/age fotostock