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Beijing - Capital of The People's Republic of China

Beijing is a city undergoing a transformation. It's 17 million inhabitants gives the city the status of China's second largest, just behind Shanghai.

As well as being the major transport hub of the country it is also recognized as the political, educational, and cultural centre of the People's Republic of China.

It's historical and traditional significance is best experienced in the Forbidden City, situated in the centre of Beijing and home of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties including Bejing's Temple of Heaven (picture inset).

However, the city is changing fast and ever since the hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, cranes now dominate the skyline.

Where ruined temples and disused gardens loomed, modern glassy skyscrapers and top hotel chains now stretch upwards juxtaposing their ancient neighbours. You really get a sense that Beijing is struggling to find a balance between ancient and modern.

Apart from the building chaos, Beijing is a very orderly, structured and almost symmetrical city, perhaps as a result of over a half century of communist rule.

And in amongst the designer boutiques and branded coffee outlets, local people still go about their traditional businesses selling their wares from small shop fronts or at the marketplace.

However, just five minutes of lazily meandering along The Great Wall will transport you back to that magnificent time of long ago where an emperor sat on throne in his palace controlling one of the largest areas in the world.

Top 10 things to do in Beijing

Forbidden City

Located in the heart of Beijing city, the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty and now houses the Palace Museum.

Built in 1406 over 14 years, the complex contains 980 original surviving buildings and is spread over a vast 720,000m².

For almost 500 years, it was the seat of political power for the Chinese government and home to the Emperor.

It is locally known and referred to on maps as Gùgōng (Former Palace).

As the worlds largest surviving palace complex, it is also one of China's top tourist attractions.

Originally designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of Beijing, it is enclosed in a larger walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City.

You can exit the palace complex to the south, through Tiananmen gate, directly onto Tiananmen Square.

The area is huge, complete with gardens, smaller museum and statues throughout. The huge walls have a distinct tower at each corner which have served as fascination and inspiration for many a classic painter.

On display inside the Palace Museum are a plethora of collections from paintings, to jade and bronze ware pieces, all based on the Qing imperial collection.

Generally open daily from 08:30 to around 17:00 with last tickets being sold an hour before closing.

Tiannamen Square

The Tiananmen Square plaza sits centrally in Beijing city. The square is named after the Tiananmem (Gate of Heavenly Peace) which sits to it's north and is the gateway to the Forbidden City.

This is the largest city square in the world at 440,000m² and has been the site of many important world events, the most public and notorious of which is probably the gathering of pro-democracy protestors in 1989 where hundreds of protesters were gunned down and killed by government troops.

The video of a single protestor holding up a line of tanks in the middle of the square is so emotionally stirring.

The square was originally designed and built in 1651 and enlarged to it's present size in 1958.

At the centre of the square lies the huge 38m high Monument to the People's Heros built in 1958 and towards the south the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, completed in 1977.

The National Museum of China is at the east side of the square and the Great Hall of the People sits to the west.

Great Wall of China

Of course the Great Wall of China is one of the greatest man-made achievements of the new world and one of the very few man-made objects visible from low earth orbit, under perfect conditions.

It was originally designed to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire against intrusions by the Xiongnu (Mongolian armies) and comprises of sections of actual wall, trenches and natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.

The Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia.

Work started around 8BC and continued until around the 16th century.

The most recent estimates have concluded that the Great Wall, with all it's branches, stretches for almost 8.900km.

The famous Great Wall sections include the Badaling, Huanghuacheng, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai great wall.

There are many, many different walking and hiking tours of the wall available and it's always advisable to take some proper hiking gear with you including weather protection, boots, food and water.

National Museum of China

The National Museum of China is located towards the east side of Tiananmen Square.

The building was completed in 1959 to coincide with celebrations of ten years of communist rule of China.

The exhibits are displayed in collections and includes the "Simuwu Ding" (a form of vessel) from the Shang Dynasty, which was cast over 3,000 years ago and weighs 832.84kg making it the heaviest ancient bronze ware in the world and a Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) jade burial suit sewn with gold thread.

The frontage of the museum has been used since the 1990's for the display of a countdown clock relating to occasions of national importance.

The first such clock counted down towards the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997 and the third clock counted down towards the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The museum is currently closed for renovations, scheduled to be completed by the middle of 2010 and doubling the exhibition space.

Botanical Garden

The Beijing Botanical Garden can be found in the northwestern outskirts of Beijing between Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) Park and Jade Spring Mountain.

Established in 1955, the 564,000m² area includes a dozen exhibition districts and halls such as the tree garden, a perennial bulb garden, a rose garden, a peony garden and a traditional Chinese medical herb garden.

There are also several Buddhist temples and several lakes located throughout the gardens.

The gardens cultivate 6,000 species of plant, including 2,000 kinds of trees and bushes, 1,620 varieties of tropical and subtropical plants, 500 species of flowers and 1,900 kinds of fruit trees and water plants.

Of all the areas, the hothouse is said to be the highlight of the gardens;

The first room is filled with evergreens and members of the palm family.

The second room is given over to tropical aquatic plants, including water lilies and flowering taros.

The third room displays commercial plants and their breeding and propagation. Here there are specimens of the triple-leaved rubber plant, cocoa and coffee trees and the sugar producing sweet-leaved chrysanthemum which has been introduced into China from abroad.

The gardens require a small entrance fee and are open daily from around 08:30 to 16:30.

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Summer Palace

Locally known as Yihi Yuan, the Summer Palace is located northwest of Beijing city centre and can be easily reached by car or public transport.

The name literally translates to Gardens of Nurtured Harmony and this all make sense once you visit.

Situated around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, the area originally started out as the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750 with artisans reproducing garden architecture styles from various areas in China.

The majority of Kunming Lake is man-made with the excavated soil being used to build Longevity Hill.

Since it's conception it has been rebuilt, remodeled and renamed a countless number of times to it's form today and in 1998 was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List with the comment "...a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design..."

On its southern slope, Longevity Hill is adorned with an ensemble of grand buildings: The Cloud-Dispelling Hall, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, and the Sea of Wisdom Temple. In the centre of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue stands the Tower of Buddhist Incense (Fo Xiang Ge), which forms the focal point for the buildings on the southern slope of Longevity Hill.

The park is a very popular tourist attraction and recreational park area for locals.

Beihai Park

Beihai Park is an 10th century imperial garden located northwest of the Forbidden City.

The park contains a number of palaces, temples and historically important Chinese structures.

The park was formally connected to the Forbidden City until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 but was opened up to the general public in 1925.

The lake inside the park covers more than half of 69 hectares that the park takes up and has a small island in the middle which is accessible from the small boats you can hire around the lake.

As with other imperial gardens, the inspiration for the plants, structure and temples all came from other regions of China.

There are several renowned Buddhist temples located within Beihai Park, such as the Yong'an Temple (Temple of Everlasting Peace) and the Chanfu Temple.

On the north bank lies the Five-Dragon Pavilions, five connected pavilions with spires and pointed upswept eaves, which was built in the Ming Dynasty.

Here you can also see The Nine-Dragon Wall just north of the Five-Dragon Pavilion. It was built in 1756 and is one of three walls of its kind in China. It is made of glaze bricks of seven colours and is decorated on both sides with nine complete dragons playing in the clouds.

Both sites are well worth a visit for some great photo opportunities.

Bird's Nest - Beijing's National Staduim

Beijing's National Stadium earned the nickname the Bird's Nest, from it's unique design style.

It's the largest steel structure in the world, built to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, at US$423 million.

The design, which originated from the study of Chinese ceramics, implemented steel beams in order to hide supports for the retractable roof; giving the stadium the appearance of a "Bird's nest".

The stadium was originally designed for a 100,000 seat capacity but has since been reduced to 80,000.

There is a rainwater collection system employed around the grounds, purifying the water and using it throughout the stadium and surrounding area.

Although the site has struggled to attract other major events since the 2008 Olympics, a shopping mall and a hotel are planned to be constructed to increase future use of the stadium.

Despite the lack of significant events, the stadium appears to be quite profitable, drawing some 20,000 to 30,000 people a day at the price of a 50 yuan admission.

Wangfujing Street

Wángfǔjǐng is one of China's most famous shopping streets and can be found in the Dongcheng District of Beijing.

The street is mostly pedestrianised, however, do keep an eye out for the odd motorised bike flying through the small side streets and across the main causeway - usually without much concern for bewildered tourists who are in the way.

The street has been a hub for commercial activity since the Ming Dynasty.

In the Qing Dynasty, ten aristocratic estates and princess residence were built here, soon after when a well full of sweet water was discovered, thereby giving the street its name "Wang Fu" (aristocratic residence), "Jing" (well).

It starts from Wangfujing Nankou, where the Oriental Plaza and the Beijing Hotel are located. It then heads north, passing the Wangfujing Xinhua Bookstore, the Beijing Department Store as well as the Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore before ending at the Sun Dong An Plaza.

The Wangfujing Night Market has a selection of exotic Street food on the Snack Street. Deep fried insects, scorpions, and sea creatures can be found, along with other animals and animal parts not ordinarily consumed as food in the west. But while these exotic snacks can be found, other more common foods, such as Chuanr (meat kebabs, commonly made of lamb) and desserts, such as Tang hu lu, or candied fruits make up the majority of the food sold on the street.

A great place to mingle with locals and get a few great bargains as well.

Happy Valley Theme Park

This relatively new amusement park is located to the east of Beijing.

Opened in 2006, the Happy Valley has around 40 different themed rides, 10 of which are advertised as "extreme".

There are six main themed areas in the park; Firth Forest, Atlantis, Aegean Sea, Lost Maya, Shang ri-La and Ant Kingdom.

For those who'd like to take in the park at a more relaxed pace, there is a mini train which encircles the outer rim of the area.

Also within the park is a large iMax theatre with seven screens as well as a shopping mall.

Generally open every day from 09:00 to 19:30. Ticket prices vary seasonally so check the website.

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