On a hot day, we climb the Great Wall of China. Not, unfortunately, at Simatai or Mutianyu, the less touristy sections of the Wall near Beijing, but at Badaling. Badaling is 70km from Beijing—the nearest the Wall comes to the capital—and the most commercial section.
Hanging on to the iron railing that snakes up one of the steeper sections of the Wall, I lean over at a crazy angle of 45 degrees, trying desperately to adjust my centre of gravity to match the gradient. I look down and feel faintly sick as I watch the crowds push on. I am reminded of something a Taiwanese friend had told me: the Chinese word for crowd is “people mountain, people sea”.
Come August, and the mountain will grow taller, the sea wider. For the 550,000 sports enthusiasts and 10,000-odd sportspeople expected to arrive for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the city is going to be spiffy and cosmopolitan. The sights will be spruced up, the hotels plush. There will be English-speaking volunteers to guide you around, and shiny malls with the biggest brands in the world. Yep, the Games are going to be big.
That is something peculiarly appropriate to the nature of Beijing. In the Forbidden City, the larger than life aspect is expected—after all, everyone knows the Chinese emperors lived in style—but just about everything in Beijing seems to be larger, older, more spectacular, more completely unbelievable than almost anywhere else in the world.
There is, for example, the Yonghegong Tibetan Lama Temple, a busy but charming complex of prayer halls, clouds of incense, white silk scarves, and trees laden with ripening persimmons and pomegranates. I walk through the temples, admiring the gilded Buddhas, twirling the prayer wheels outside each hall till I reach the last one. This is occupied by the pride and joy of Yonghegong: an 18m-high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, carved from a single block of white sandalwood.
Kings’ circle: The Summer Palace is known for its imperial gardens; the Forbidden City houses the Palace Museum.
Craning my head to look up at it, I realize that it is not just the mortal sportspeople who are in the business of bettering the best. Everything in the ‘Northern Capital’ seems to be vying for the Guinness Book. And to leave Beijing after watching just the athletes break records would be as incomplete an experience as tasting only the crisp skin of a succulent Peking Duck.
So, in between the opening and closing ceremonies, pencil in a visit to the Forbidden City, with its 8,000 rooms and lacquered and painted palaces. Push and jostle with the crowds for a glimpse of the exhibits—porcelain, scrolls of calligraphy, jewellery, imperial seals, weapons, even outsize drums. But there are quieter corners: The Museum of Clocks and Watches, hidden behind a screen of pine trees, is deliciously silent and home to some fascinating timepieces, from diamond-studded pocket watches to huge clepsydras that rise halfway to the ceiling.
Ditto with the Temple of Heaven, Tiantan. Like the Forbidden City, Tiantan isn’t one building, but a series of structures that sprawl across acres of land. The most important building in Tiantan rejoices in an equally grand name, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It is flooded with tourists when I arrive, but this temple is so huge, it dwarfs everything.
I circle around the hall, admiring the triple eaves of the roof—painted in blue, red, green and gold—and peer into the red lacquered interior, where the emperors once prayed for prosperity. It’s stunning, and I discover that this particular building is made completely of wood, without the use of a single nail.
The second discovery is even more striking, not to mention disconcerting. The all-wood structure of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest was struck by lightning in 1889 and burnt down. A subsequent enquiry revealed that prior to the fire, a lowly caterpillar had crawled all the way to the golden ball that surmounts the building, thus defiling it and attracting the bolt of lightning as heavenly retribution. Fanciful, but what really shook me was the fact that 32 court officials were executed for having allowed the caterpillar to get up there in the first place.
A porcelain wall in the Forbidden City.
That the imperial family was decidedly imperious in its dealings comes as no surprise. The Empress Dowager CiXi, who virtually ruled China for 47 years in the late 19th century, for instance, used public funds to build the vast Summer Palace, a series of pavilions, temples and halls on the shores of Lake Kunming.
If Bird’s Nest—as the National Stadium is fondly called—which can seat 91,000 people, is too much of a crowd, then get away to Dazhong Si, the Great Bell Temple. It is now a museum for bells, ranging in size from tiny thumb-sized midgets to iron leviathans carved all over with Chinese characters, cranes, clouds and dragons. The pièce de résistance is a bell that hangs all by itself in the very last hall, and weighs all of 50 tonnes.
That is still 13 tonnes short of Beijing’s biggest bell, which hangs in the Bell Tower. A vertiginously steep flight of 80-odd stone stairs, in a narrow and dark stairwell, leads up to the Bell Tower. I have never been scared of heights, but by the time I reach the top—and, like an idiot, glance down—I’m sweating. But the bell, towering massively above, is majestic and impressive. Quintessential Beijing.
Will the Games match up? We’ll see.
How to get there:
Flights: A number of Asian airlines connect India to Beijing, most with a stopover. Choose from Cathay Pacific (return economy fares start at about Rs44,000), Singapore Airlines (about Rs32,000) and Sri Lankan Airlines (from Rs25,000). Expect higher fares closer to the Games.
Visas: Single-entry tourist visas cost Rs1,000, and are available at the Chinese embassy at Chanakyapuri in New Delhi; in Mumbai, approach the Chinese consulate at Nariman Point.
Where to stay:
Plenty of excellent properties are available across Beijing, many of them concentrated around Tiananmen Square and Qianmen. Famous names include the Raffles Beijing (beijing.raffles.com; +8610-65263388; per night tariffs range from Chinese yuan 2,000, about Rs10,700, for a double, up to about yuan 13,000 for a suite), and the very exclusive St Regis, billed by Condé Nast as one of the world’s best places to stay (www.starwoodhotels.com/stregis; +8610-64606688; tariffs per night begin at about yuan 1,550 for a double). Other options are the Peninsula Palace Hotel (beijing.peninsula.com; +8610-85162888; tariffs from yuan 2,850 for a double, all the way up to the Peninsula Suite at Renminbi 43,500 per night) and the Grand Hyatt Beijing (beijing.grand.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp; +8610-85181234; double rooms cost upward of yuan 1,750 per night).
Where to eat:
Beijing offers a vast range of cuisines to choose from, but Chinese is (obviously) where this city excels. Topping the list of must-visit restaurants are Nengrenju (+8610-66012560; known primarily for its Mongolian hotpot); Gong Wang Fu Sichuan Restaurant (+8610-66156924) and Yushan (+8610-67014263; the restaurant prides itself on recreating imperial banquets). Beijing’s local speciality—Beijing Kaoya, or Peking Duck—is widely available; easily the best known (if somewhat commercial) place for this is Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant. It has several branches; Hepingmen Avenue (+8610-63023062) is a popular one, and seats 2,000 people.
What to do:
Catch the stunning Forbidden City and Summer Palace, both vast enough to merit a day each. Other must-dos include the Temple of Heaven; Dazhong Si; Yonghegong; and the twin grey stone structures of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, standing opposite each other and approached through dark and frighteningly steep stairs.
Tiananmen Square and its surrounding museums are communist to the core, but the fringes of this notorious square are getting increasingly commercial. Visit the Lao She Teahouse for live shows of Chinese acrobatics, music and dance; haggle with souvenir sellers; or take a bus to the Great Wall.
For all information on the Olympics, including tickets to the Games, check out En.beijing2008.cn/ and www.chinaembassy.org.in/eng/
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