The brash modernity of BEIJING (meaning Northern Capital) comes as a surprise to most visitors. Traversed by freeways (it's the proud owner of more than a hundred flyovers) and spiked with high-rises, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic. For the last thousand years, the drama of China's imperial history was played out here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe, and though today the city is a very different one, it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country. Between the swathes of concrete and glass, you'll find some of the lushest temples, and certainly the grandest remnants of the Imperial Age. Unexpectedly, some of the country's most pleasant scenic spots lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, is one of China's most famous sights, the old boundary line between civilizations, the Great Wall .
First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of identical apartment buildings in which most of the city's population of twelve million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It's an impression that's reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City , with its stunning wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian'anmen Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong , Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven , offering respite from the city's oppressive orderliness. In the suburbs beyond, the two Summer Palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times.
Beijing is an invaders' city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties - the Manchu and the Mongols - and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology - the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today it is perhaps the most cosmopolitan part of China, with an international flavour appropriate to the capital of a major commercial power. Only in Beijing will a foreign face elicit no second glances. The city is home to a large expat population , housed for the most part in separate suburban ghettos with little contact with the local Chinese. Indeed, it's quite possible to spend years in Beijing eating Western food, dancing to Western music, and socializing with like-minded foreigners - hardened veterans of the expat scene compare it favourably with Hong Kong.
Beijing is the front line of China's attempts to grapple with modernity - the cranes that skewer the skyline and the white character chai ("demolish") painted on old buildings attest to the city's furious pace of change. Students in the latest baggy fashions while away their time in Internet cafés and McDonald's, drop outs spike their hair and mosh in punk clubs, businessmen are never without their laptops and schoolkids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Red-light districts and gay bars have begun to appear as the city hits its own sexual revolution.
Rising incomes have led not just to a consumer-capitalist society Westerners will feel very familiar with, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture - witness the sudden re-emergence of the tea house as a genteel meeting place, or a recent fad for "nostalgia cuisine" - dishes from the Cultural Revolution eaten in restaurants named after revolutionary slogans. In the evening you'll see large groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao's favourite dance universally learned a few decades ago, and in the hutongs, the city's twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their birds and pipes as they always have done.
Beijing is a city that almost everyone enjoys. For new arrivals it provides a gentle introduction to the country and for travellers who've been roughing it round outback China, the creature comforts on offer are a delight. But Beijing is essentially a private city, and one whose surface, attractive though it is, is difficult to penetrate. Sometimes it seems to have the superficiality of a theme park. Certainly there is something mundane about the way tourist groups are efficiently shunted around, plugged from hotel to sight, with little contact with everyday reality. To get deeper into the city, wander the labyrinthine hutongs, "fine and numerous as the hairs of a cow" (as one Chinese guidebook puts it), and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks, some of the best in China, where you'll see Beijingers performing tai ji and hear birdsong - just - over the hum of traffic. Take advantage, too, of the city's burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.
If the Party had any control over it, no doubt Beijing would have the best climate of any Chinese city; as it is, it has one of the worst. The best time to visit is in autumn, between September and October, when it's dry and clement. In winter it gets very cold, down to minus 20°C, and the mean winds that whip off the Mongolian plains feel like they're freezing your ears off. Summer (June-August) is muggy and hot, up to 30°C, and the short spring (April & May) is dry but windy.
Getting to Beijing is no problem. As the centre of China's transport network you'll probably wind up here sooner or later, whether you want to or not, and to avoid the capital seems wilfully perverse. On a purely practical level, it's a good place to stock up on visas for the rest of Asia, and to arrange transport out of the country - most romantically, on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian trains. To take in its superb sights requires a week, by which time you may well be ready to move on to China proper. Beijing is a fun place, but make no mistake, it in no way typifies the rest of the nation.
Beijing requires patience and planning to do it justice. Wandering aimlessly around without a destination in mind will rarely be rewarding. The place to start is Tian'anmen Square , geographical and psychic centre of the city, where a cluster...
Beijing requires patience and planning to do it justice. Wandering aimlessly around without a destination in mind will rarely be rewarding. The place to start is Tian'anmen Square , geographical and psychic centre of the city, where a cluster of important sights can be seen in a day, although the Forbidden City , at the north end of the square, deserves a day, or even several, all to itself. The Qianmen area, a noisy market area south of here, is a bit more alive, and ends in style with one of the city's highlights, the Temple of Heaven . The giant freeway, Chang'an Jie , zooming east-west across the city, is a corridor of high-rises with a few museums, shopping centres and even the odd ancient site worth tracking down. Scattered in the north of the city, a section with a more traditional and human feel, are some magnificent parks , palaces and temples , some of them in the hutongs. An expedition to the outskirts is amply rewarded by the Summer Palace , the best place to get away from it all.