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United Airline's Hemispheres

THREE PERFECT DAYS IN BEIJING

By Peter S. Crosby with Lisa Hough

August, 1994


Marco Polo pronounced Beijing the grandest city in the world. His descriptions of China's sprawling imperial palaces, silk-bedecked mandarins, lavish three-day banquets, and ~multitudes of inhabitants greater than the mind can comprehend" inspired centuries of traders to search for riches in the ~ East" That was 700 years ago.

Today, after a century and a half spent shaking off the ensuing foreign domination, Beijing is returning to its former glory-fast. All over the city, splashy restaurants, department stores, and skyscrapers erupt out of twisted alleys lined with traditional hovels. Fancy imported cars vie for road space with horse-drawn carts and bicycles by the millions. Armani-clad women dial portable phones while men in dusty Mao jackets croon to their canaries in a park. Above the frenzy, Beijing's imperial architecture looms, saluting 3,000 years of ego and might. Yet tourism is relatively new in China, and while comforts are available, many amenities are, shall we say, unpredictable. To walk this city; to bicycle with its locals, and to tour the outskirts is still to come face to face with the wild, wild East. Frontier sounds, smells, and tastes bombard your senses. English speakers, except around business districts or universities, are rare.

Still, Beijing is on everyone's itinerary now as the biggest Asian tiger of all. Few cities heat its grandeur, cuisine, and shopping. But it is the local smiles and hearty 'Allos!" that can give you a grin to wear home.


Day One
Dawn in Beijing first warms the swooping roofs of the palaces in the Forbidden City, heating their glazed-yellow tiles to a golden glow. Watch this spectacle from your bed in the Grand Hotel Beijing-it's a view no Chinese emperor ever knew.

After your dim sum breakfast -- or steak and eggs will do -- the hotel's concierge staff prepares you for your own imperial stay by setting up dinner reservations, tricky tickets, and a car to go to the Wall. For exploring on foot, you get maps with your destinations written in Chinese. This is your ticket to talking with taxi drivers.

A block west of the Grand Hotel Beijing, thousands of people mill about the heart of the capital-Tiananmen Square. One million people have at times crammed into this huge granite plain, and history is stained in the stones.

The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong-the creator of this elephantine space borders to the south, and monuments to bureaucracy and Soviet dreariness flank the east and west. Mao's gigantic, rosy portrait bedecks the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tian-an-men, the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Crossing white marble bridges, arched to keep the spirits at bay, and whisking past souvenir shops, you follow the imperial route and enter the largest of the five cavernous gates-the City's Meridian Gate. Here, a portable cassette player and the voice of Roger Moore-the latter-day 007-sweeps you into the decadent lives of emperors, eunuchs, and concubines. Scaled to dwarf humans, the Forbidden City's stately progression of wood palaces enforces the omnipotent power of the dragon (as the emperor was traditionally known)' Two hours of meandering the carved marble walkways and leering at gigantic thrones brings imperial privilege, and isolation, to life.

Exiting the imperial city's north gate, hop in a "little bread box" taxi and flash your directions to Quan Ju Dc Roast Duck Restaurant and your feast of the city's specialty-Peking Duck. Plunge into a thin pancake wrapped around crispy-skinned duck slices, rich plum sauce, and spring onion shreds. Slurp down Three Treasure Soup and finish off with a pot of jasmine tea.

The capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing captures the essence of this ancient culture and the excitement of its current revolutionary changes. A youth scaling a closed gate at the Forbidden City symbolizes a society at the door to a dynamic future.

Your next taxi drops you at the Temple of Heaven's south gate. Passing through altars and vaults that echo every clap-clap of your feet, you'll see the blue-tile roofs of the Hall for Good Harvests looming in the distance. Once the site of imperial sacrifices, this three-tiered monolith is now the symbol of Beijing. Its park is a haven for hand-holding strollers,

Out the north gate to the right is Hongqiao Market, a cozy, colorful collection of shops in a covered arcade. Push inside to the pearl market, where thousands of strands beg to be fondled. Ahead, dusty shelves of bronze incense burners, cloisonne' vases, and snuff bottles spill into the narrow pathway. Theatrical bargaining is the name of the game in free-market Beijing. Bluff and bluster to the bottom line. Out come calculators-a discount price is thrust your way-punch in your counter offer. Don't be shy, go for 50 percent off. Across the street, pet a bolt of magenta brocade or a Persian-styled silk carpet at Yuan Long Silk Store.

As afternoon dwindles, you may, too. Drop your treasures, and relax with a cup of tea and cucumber sandwiches in the Grand Hotel's huge atrium. Soon, evening and the Beijing Opera await. Liyuan Theater serves up this musical extravaganza of fantasy, folk tales, love stories, flamboyant costumes, acrobats, and discordant sounds. Munch almond cookies and lychee nuts, and catch story lines from an electronic scroll,

End the night on the Grand's rooftop terrace overlooking the Forbidden City Sip champagne outside, then drift into a turn-of-the-century Beijing parlor for a regal banquet. Preserved egg with ginger sauce and nutty sautéed scallops graduate into steamed mandarin fish and braised shark's fin. Platters are piled high. Try it all, for Chinese banquets are an adventure, and your bed is just a few floors below.

For an up close view of the city, pedaling with the proletariat is recommended. Rent a bike, but ride carefully for there are 6 million bikers here. Mao buttons purchased at street stalls make great souvenirs.


Day Two
Breakfast may be optional since your tented car and driver wait for a tour of country life. With a hotel picnic tucked inside, get a scholarly start at Beijing's best kept secret: the state-of-the-art Sackier Museum of Art and Archaeology at Beijing University. There's a vast array of pottery, bronze-ware, armor, and tomb relics. Excellent English explanations bring 5,000 years of China's social evolution to life.

Nearby, the Last Empress of China Dowager Cixi, rebuilt the Summer Palace into a sumptuous playground around Kunming Lake. Diverting money from the nation's embattled F 1 9th-century navy; she created 100-some structures such as the Pavilion for Listening to Orioles, the Hall of Virtuous Brilliance, and, ironically, a Marble Boat. Atop Longevity Hill, survey this majestic mini-world. Stroll the mile-long covered walkway, the willow-lined causeways, and picnic in your own royal time.

Perhaps humanity's grandest marvel, China's Great Wall undulates just northeast of Beijing at Mutianyti. If your legs aren't prepared for a 986-step climb, take the cable car up to unobstructed views of the most spectacular restoration of this 2,500-mile wonder. Wind whistles in your ears as the crenellated fortress zigzags along

The mountainous ridge tops like a dragon, menacing watchtowers dotting its back. Hike-well, trudge-to where the Wall crumbles back to rubble in just a mile or two. Pop a cork and commune with nature, solitude, and this historic wrinkle of the Middle Kingdom. Walking down, pose as an imperial warrior or buy your now-deserved T-shirt: ~ climbed the Great Wall."

Back in the present, a dip in the Grand's indoor pool or an indulgent bubble bath dissolves the day's veneer of Gobi dust and rejuvenates you for a homey local treat. Clustered behind the Forbidden City, courtyard dwellings remain, vestiges of the Mandarin class. Hidden along alleys, or hutongs, as they're called, one-story; gray-brick compounds, graced with moon gates, now shelter a dozen families instead of one. Your taxi will have to wend its way to Yangfang Hutong, but one of Beijing's oldest private eateries is well worth it.

Family Li's Restaurant is actually the Li family home. Mr. Li guides you through hanging laundry, potted plants, and neighbors' stares. Don't worry though: The likes of Winston and Bette Bao Lord, David Rockefeller, and Lawrence Tisch have preceded you, seduced by recipes passed down from the last emperor's household to the Li family woks. Phoenix Tail Prawns and Pork in Fragrant Wine are a couple of 20-odd delights. Mr. Li, with entrepreneurial pizzazz and professorial demeanor, regales you with tales of each dish's preparation and secrets of the imperial court.


Day Three
Peddling with the proletariat is recommended for an up-close view of the city. Rent a bike or grab a taxi and make sure you have your now-frayed map handy. There are 6 million bicycles in Beijing, so go slowly, and use your bell. Two blocks east of the hotel, turn left on Dongsinan Dajie and go straight for about three miles to Yonghegong Dajie and the maroon Lama Temple.

Incense wafts from bronze pots, and gongs echo softly among the five wooden temples. Built in 1694 as a prince's palace, Yonghegong is ornately carved and detailed in gold, green, and blue. Sunshine-dappled gardens surround the largest temple and house a 75-foot, 18th-century statue carved out of a single sandalwood tree from Tibet. It is Maitreya, Buddha of the Future.

Plunge back into the bicycle lanes, south and west toward Beihai Park, exploring more hutongs and everyday life. Catch a neighborhood squabble, or a kickball game in a schoolyard, but mark your map so you don't get lost! Beihai is Beijing's Central Park. Enter from Jingshan Qianjie at the junction of two of the three lotus-covered lakes. Once known as the Winter Palace, it's now a recreational haven for beleaguered urbanites. On display, you'll see a parade of China's fashions and parents spoiling their only child. Cross to Hortensia Isle, a mini-arboretum topped cherry-like by the White Dagoba. Along the island's northern shore, imperial-garbed waitresses will wow you in Fangshan Restaurant's semicircular halls. Or munch with the locals at nearby stalls selling egg pancakes, fried melon, or fish balls.

Heading east on Jingshan Qianjie, turn south at the corner watchtower onto Beichizi Dajie where more hutongs survive. Just north of Chang'an Jie, not far from the hotel, are the Imperial Archives, where chestfulls of mandarin scrolls and imperial seals detail a dozen dynasties. Next door, Waning Art Gallery exhibits many Chinese artists gaining international fame. The selections are cutting edge and top dollar.

If for you, true adventure isn't cycling but shopping, begin at Liulichang, a restored, traditional market where antiques, porcelain, scrolls, and beautiful Chinese art scrolls abound. Diplomats favor the Chaowai Antique Market (near the government-run Friendship Store), a warehouse emporium stuffed with traditional Chinese furniture and antiques. Precious porcelains, clay teapots, temple carvings, and old Chinese clocks crowd the inside stalls. Just south, Shen De Ge sells finely crafted, decorative boxes made from broken porcelain shards and fine, distinctive jewelry. Silk Alley, near the Alnerican Embassy, is a hustler's paradise touting Beijing's trendiest and finest ready-wear silk, lingerie, cashmere, linens, and quilts. If shopping is your bag, bring a spare suitcase here,

On your last night, go out with a Beijing bang at the Sichuan Restaurant. In a traditional courtyard setting, sample Gong Bao Ji Ding (literally ~~explosive chicken"). Not as threatening as it sounds, this spicy specialty combines morsels of white chicken meat, peanuts, and green pepper in a rich, fiery sauce. Sichuan food, from China's most populous and bountiful province, is chili-hot and spicy, frill of peasant culture and taste. Sizzling Rice Seafood and Mapo Dofu (a bean curd, peppercorn, and minced beef dish) are favorites. Your epic final dinner is guaranteed to provide you with a lasting impression of China.

Mr. Crosby is a free-lance writer and photographer based in Tokyo.


Where To Find It...

DAY ONE
1. Omid Hotel Beijing, 35 East Chang. An Avenue Beijing; Tel. 861-513-7788 Fax 513 0048 High volume months: September, October, and May.
2. The ImperIal Palace "Forbidden City" Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. (Tickets must be purchased before 3:30 p.m.)
3. Quan Ju De Roast Duck Restaurant, 32 Qisomen Street; Tel: 701-6321. Hours: 10 a.m.-l:30 p.m. for lunch; 4:30 p.m.,8 p.m. for dinner.
4. Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), South Cenual Beijing. Hours: 6 a.m.-8 p.m.
5. Honqiao Market (northeast corner) Temple of Heaven, Tiantan Lu. Hours: approx. 9 a,m.-6 p.m.
6. Yuanlong Embmideiy Silk Co., 55 Tiantan Lu; Tel: 702-0682. Hours: 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
7. BeijIng Opera, Liyuan Theatre, Qisamen Hotel; Tel: 301-6688

DAY TWO
1. SackIer Museum of Archaeology, Beijing University; Tel: 250-1667. Hotel staff will make required reservations.
2. Summer Palace, Northwest Beijing. Hours: 7 a,m.-6 p.m.
3. Tiqigurn Restaurant, Summer Palace; Tel: 258-2504. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch. Reservations required for dinner.
4. Great Wall at Mutlai.
5. Family Li's Restarant (U Jia Cal), 11 Yangfang Hutong, Denci Dajie; Tel: 601-1915. Lunch and dinner available; set prices for banquets. Reservations should he made well in advance of your trip to Beijing.


DAY THREE
1. Lame Temple Woiwheio Yonglaegong Dongsi.
2. Beibal Park (Winter Palace)
3. Langsnan Restaurant1 Beihai Park; Tel: 401-1879.
4. Wan Fmmg Art Gallery, Forbidden Citv Archives, 136 Nanchizi Street, east of Forbidden City; 'Fel: 523-320.
5. Ludian Restaurant1 west of Tiananmen Square, 51 Xi Rongxian Hutong; Tel: 603-3292.
6. Chaewal Antique Mark~1 Claaowai Shichang Jie, northwesr of lutan Park,
7. Silk Alley, Shul Xie Dong Jie, Ritan Park Area.
8. Seen Dc Gem & Crafts Shop, 1 Ritan Beilu; Tel: 500-3712.
9. Unlicharig Cultural Street, Nansinhua Jie.
10. Luftansa Friendship Shoppiug Centre, 5th floor, 3rd Ring Road (at Kempinsky Hotel); Tel:465-1851.