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City of Contrasts

The number of visitors to Beijing surges as corporate travelers clamor to tap into the world's fastest growing economy. The number of leisure travelers multiplies also as the availability of luxury accommodations and services in China's capital increases.

Beijing is both surprising and stark in the clash of modern monolithic towers–hastily constructed housing, recently erected lodgings, office buildings symbolizing a new economy–and ancient alleyways filled with stall markets and cramped dwellings.

Although many sections of the city are unattractive, the appeal of the major tourist sites is so great that they more than make up for the mostly disappointing aura of the metropolis. Five sites stand out and they are on the must-see list. Two of them are in central Beijing and all are easily visited on one's own.

Before you leave home, watch a video of "The Last Emperor" if you have not already seen it. It is an apt introduction to the Forbidden City, residence of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties where the movie was filmed. In addition, if you rent a tape player on site, Roger Moore will guide you through the main attractions. With over 9,000 rooms and halls it is the biggest architectural complex in the world.

Forbidden City, Beijing

In Tiananmen Square, next to the Forbidden City, for a modest sum you can climb on the rostrum where Chairman Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic and view the world's largest (122 acres) urban square. From that vantage point you can see the monuments, museums, the Great Hall of the People and Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. Chairman Mao's body is preserved in a crystal coffin and long lines wait to view it (mornings only).

Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) is the most famous temple in China and refers to a group of ceremonial buildings, completed in the 15th century inside a walled park. The temples are astounding for their detail and color. The park affords visitors a chance to view the Chinese at play. You see families practicing Tai Chi, juggling, exercising, dancing, picnicking and massaging each other.

The Great Wall or "the Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li" may be entered from two places, both of them about a one and one-half hours taxi ride from Beijing. The most popular entrance is at Badaling. Travel to Badaling or Mutianyu, the other spot to begin the trek, by tourist bus, available at hotels, or hire a car and driver.

Great Wall, Beijing

Perhaps the most beautiful of all sites in the environs of Beijing is the Summer Palace with its gardens, bridges, pavilions, halls and towers. Dominated by Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, it is traditional China as pictured in silk-screen prints. Since the palace is on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing, again go by tour bus or hire a car and driver at your hotel.


Most guidebooks tout the state-run Friendship Store and the Yuan Long Embroidery Silk Co. as the places to shop. However, we found them wanting. The merchandise at the Friendship Store is overpriced and the clothing at Yuan Long hasn't been in fashion for many a decade. Beijing now has Hong Kong-style quality clothing shops and they are to be found in the arcades of the better hotels.

The best shopping mecca for moderate-priced apparel is Silk Alley, near the American Embassy. The numbered stalls run for blocks and are stocked with silk shirts, blazers, pants, scarves and blouses with labels like Bill Blass and Clifford & Wills. Bargaining is de rigueur and prices are a fraction of stateside.

Summer Palace, Beijing

Xinjian Tianshan Cashmere House in the basement of the China World Tower in the China World Trade Center sells cashmere that is marketed in the U.S. under the label TSE. Although this is a one-price establishment, the cost of sweaters, scarves and shawls in up-to-date designs is unbeatable given the quality.

To purchase antiques and art objects visit the centrally located Liu Li Chang Street.

All hotels have cards with the names of major sites and shopping destinations printed in English and Chinese to give to taxi drivers.

Friendship Store, Chang An Jie. Tel. 593531. Open seven days, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Xinjian Tianshan Cashmere House, Basement, China World Tower

Where To Stay

The Palace Hotel

Silk Alley, Beijing

A young man in a familiar-looking, brass-buttoned white outfit–cropped jacket and pillbox-like hat –opens the front door. He wears the page's uniform of the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotel chain of which the Palace in Beijing is a member. Guests are welcomed into the dramatic lobby where four levels of a sunlit atrium, soaring marble columns and a grand staircase are visible.

Although it is only six years old, the hotel is now a landmark in China because of the exterior architectural style, blending Chinese and Western design, and the downtown location. For those who like to walk, the Palace is within striking distance of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and major shopping.

The level of luxury and the attention to detail is extraordinary. For example, a clinic staffed by doctors, some trained in the West, is open 24 hours a day. Transportation available to guests includes the only fleet of radio-controlled taxis in the city, as well as chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes and Rolls Royces. Fitness buffs will find the health club up to American standards with a heated swimming pool, a fully-equipped gym and trainers on hand every day from 6a.m. until 10 p.m. Martial arts and aerobic classes are offered. The individual cubicles at the hair salon feature television, video and direct-dial phones.

Some other 20th-century touches are mist-free bathroom mirrors and in-room computerized controls for lighting and air-conditioning. Stay in accommodations on the club floors and you enjoy even more service– breakfast, tea and cocktails in the lounge, personalized stationery and complimentary pressing. The business center offers assistance to those who use the hotel as their office. We even saw an employee artfully wrapping gifts for a guest's Chinese partners.

You can avoid the so-so Chinese food in Beijing by eating at the hotel's Fortune Garden, Palace and Chiuchow Garden, which feature respectively well prepared Cantonese, Sichuan and Chiuchow dishes. But if you have a hankering for American food, you will also be pleased with the Palm Court, which offers an à la carte menu and buffets all day long. The variety was staggering, the food was fresh and tasty and the price just couldn't be beat.

Radisson SAS

Gustav Olafson, who heads up a food packaging company, travels to Beijing from Copenhagen three times a year and stays for several weeks each time. He likes the Radisson SAS for the familiar Scandinavian atmosphere and because it has a five-star rating. Many American businesspeople who visit China frequently are also regulars. In fact, only 20 percent of the hotel's guests are tourists.

Jack Johnson from Cincinnati said he is a repeater on his business trips because of the good value in comparison to nearby hotels. Although Radisson SAS is in an outlying district in the northeastern part of the city, he does not find transportation to be a problem. Taxis to the center of the city are plentiful and inexpensive and the hotel maintains a regular free shuttle bus to and from the commercial district, the airport and places of interest, such as the Silk Market.

The public spaces are modern looking, as are many of the rooms. A few are decorated in Oriental and in Art Deco style. The guest rooms on the royal club floor are very large and breakfast and tea are available in the club lounge. Facilities include an indoor swimming pool, gym, squash and tennis courts and saunas.

One of the nicest things about the hotel is the Royal Cafe where fresh fish, which is flown in from Norway three times a week, appears on the menu. A seafood buffet is served every Friday night. Many kinds of herring, salmon and other fish are offered on the cold smorgasbord and the hot entrees, such as bouillabaisse and shellfish paella, are cooked to order.

The Palace Hotel, 8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing, Beijing 100006, tel. 011-86-10-512-8899is a member of Preferred Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, 800-323-7500, and the Leading Hotels of the World, 800-223-6800. Rates start at $260. http://beijing.peninsula.com/index.shtml

Radisson SAS, 6A East Beisanhuan Road, Chaoyang District, 100028. Tel. 011-86-1-466-3388. Reservations 800-333-3333. Rates start at $145. www.radisson.com

Winter 1995-96