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Beijing

Shanghai may signify China's future and Xi'an its past, but Beijing is the best representation of China's present. It has been China's capital since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD), and Beijing's past, present and future are forced together in the crowded neighbourhoods and streets of the city. But despite a divide between new and old, one thing about Beijing has remained constant for centuries: hard-handed political power. Despite difficult political times, Beijing has largely remained the centre for intellectual and artistic thought, which continues to influence China and the world.

After cycles of destruction and reconstruction, Beijing's mix of new and old is truly unique. Ancient 'hutong' lanes and traditional single-storey courtyard homes are sewn neatly between the web of bold skyscrapers and vast avenues paving their way into the city. Beijing of today is a huge sprawling metropolis. It has six ring-roads, and the centre of Beijing can be defined as anything within the second ring-road. This is the area where one will find the majority of the hutong neighbourhoods.

The hutongs are quite simply what differentiates Beijing from other Chinese cities. One could spend hours wandering these narrow tree-lined lanes, getting lost, meeting people, finding artsy cafes and boutiques. As elder locals sit outside their hutong homes playing Mahjong, entertaining their grandchildren, or just watching the world go by, young Beijing hipsters sip craft beer in the many micro-breweries popping up around the old city’s lanes. Youthful tourists pose for selfies here and there, a budding guitar player sits in a trendy vintage café strumming away, as crowds of listeners gather around, cameras in hand. All around, bells are ringing as people of all ages zoom by on bicycles, interweaving their routes with delivery drivers on electric motorbikes. In the faint distance, the call of a man on a recycling cart gets louder and louder, as he ambles up and down the lanes looking for scrap metal to buy. A lady on the street corner cooks ‘jian bing’, a kind of savoury Chinese crepe, as ethnic Xinjiang people grill ‘chuan’ lamb skewers over hot coals, all producing clouds of delicious aromas of spice that permeate the city air. Around the corner, duck is roasted over applewood, using a method passed down over many generations, and served up in a way that the Peking Duck melts in your mouth.

Beijing is not immune to change, and the city is certainly not standing still. Buildings come and go, as city planners make rapid decisions on how to take Beijing into the future; make a visit to Beijing now, and then return in ten years’ time.

Historical sites pepper the city with scenes from the past: the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong looming over the gates of Tiananmen Square, in which lies his mausoleum. The Forbidden City is another huge draw and of the most impressive sites in the country. Visitors are free to roam the courtyards of the over 800 buildings and 9,000 chambers of the Forbidden City. It is a life preserved in chambers, where emperors ruled, empresses and concubines strolled in the gardens, and palace staff lived for centuries behind the towering red walls.

Further south, the ancient Temple of Heaven is a vast complex with big open symmetrical squares at its centre, and ornately decorated circular buildings. Built around 600 years ago, the Temple of Heaven is a place where the Emperor would pray for successful harvests and favourable weather. Today, spend hours exploring its open spaces and impressive architecture.

Located in the hutong area of central Beijing, Yonghe Temple is the largest Tibetan temple outside of the Tibetan region. It is a beautiful and serene place to visit and witness the devotion many Chinese people have towards Buddhism. To the west of the temple, are the Drum and Bell Towers, once invaluable for timekeeping, now stand as monuments to time, and offer beautiful views over the hutongs.

Heading further out of the city, in the far west sits the magnificent Summer Palace, built around Kunming Lake, a man-made body of water that required an army of over 10,000 labourers to complete.

Although there is much to keep the visitor entertained in Beijing itself, this is also the best place from which to spend the day exploring the Great Wall. There are many sections of the wall that are accessible to visitors, some busier than others. We have access to the best sections which few visitors venture out to.

Whilst Beijing winters are bitterly cold, its summers are oppressively hot. To avoid these extremes, the ideal time to visit the city is from April to May, and September to November, September being the optimum month when skies are often blue, and temperatures are very pleasant.

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