BEIJING — The capital of China is quickly becoming one of the priciest — and fastest-changing — cities in the world, driven by several decades of breakneck economic growth. But some of Beijing’s most interesting areas are still free to visit, and provide a bridge between the city’s rich cultural and political history and its modern incarnation as a dusty metropolis of gargantuan government buildings and glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
A walk around the heart of the city is also a peek into the country’s history. Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, is surrounded by buildings of political and cultural significance and is visited by thousands of tourists daily. The Great Hall of the People to the west is where the country holds annual legislative meetings and hosts visits by foreign leaders. The National Museum is located to the east (admission is free), while to the north is the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) with a gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong, which separates the square from the Forbidden City. A mausoleum in the center of the square displays Mao’s body.
While the square may be most famous outside China as the site of 1989 pro-democracy student protests that were suppressed by the military, inside the country it is known as the place where on Oct. 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Other highlights range from afternoon kite-flying to flag-raising ceremonies.
Some of the bigger parks in Beijing charge admission, but not Ritan Park, the historic garden where emperors once made offerings to the sun on an ancient circular wall-enclosed altar. Today the park offers a window on daily Beijing life, starting at dawn with residents practicing tai chi and other exercises like walking backward or rubbing one’s back against a tree. Retirees are often seen here playing ferocious games of badminton. The park also offers a shady, peaceful retreat from the nearby central business district.
798 Art District
Not everything in Beijing has been ripped down and replaced by nondescript buildings. The city’s art district, often compared to New York City’s Greenwich Village, is a thriving community of about 400 galleries, shops and restaurants on the eastern edge of Beijing housed in a complex of former electronics factories built with the help of East Germany in the 1950s.
Although heavy on kitsch, art can be found not only hanging on the walls of galleries but in the look of the buildings themselves. Designed by German architects in the Bauhaus style, the buildings marry art with functionality, with striking curved sawtooth roofs that allow an abundance of natural light to flood the spaces.
Murder Mystery Tour
“Midnight in Peking” is journalist Paul French’s suspenseful, beautifully written and meticulously researched book about a real-life 1937 murder mystery involving a motley cast of international expats and colorful Chinese. A free downloadable map and audio walking tour of key sites from the book provide an excellent flavor of old Beijing.
The tour starts at the Beijing Railway Station in the heart of the city and meanders through alleys, pointing out many fascinating and easy to miss details. Link to the map and the audio tour: http://us.midnightinpeking.com/audio-walk.
To see a side of Beijing other than glitzy shopping malls or imposing, Soviet-style government buildings, take an afternoon to explore the city’s ancient narrow alleyways, known as hutongs. Here you’ll get a glimpse of ordinary city life, with residents — often in their pajamas in warm weather — sitting on stools outside their homes chatting with neighbors or huddled around a chess game. Some alleyways are regular marketplaces, with vendors laying out the day’s vegetables on mats on the ground.
Though most hutongs run east-west, a detailed map is essential to navigate the warren of courtyard homes without getting lost, and a good route would include the trendy Nanluoguxiang alleyway of shops, cafes and restaurants, the ancient Drum and Bell Tower, and the alleyways around the Qianhai and Houhai lakes. Or from Nanluoguxiang, stroll north, then east across the main road to Fangjia Hutong, an alleyway with many little bars, including the popular El Nido, whose friendly Chinese proprietor serves a wide array of imported beer at great prices. Heading north, explore the tree-lined Guozijian Street, where the imperial college and the Confucius Temple are located.