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Published: Verve Magazine, Travel, January 2007

Meandering through the oriental imperial gardens at the Summer Palace, digging into spicy Sichuan-style cuisine and watching an emotional tableau at the Red Theatre, in Beijing, Sitanshi Talati-Parikh finds herself riveted by the magnificent historical aura of the Chinese capital


The subdued historic capital of the People’s Republic of China is coloured bright with the anticipation of hosting the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in 2008. Steeped in history, this city hasn’t shed its old-world charm, whilst donning the garb of modernism. With memories of the past lurking in every corner and tourist site, Beijing is exciting for its strange and unsettling tenor of an ardent hold on the past and an unequivocal desire to be a forerunner of the future. I could feel this fill up my senses as I walked through the X-O line that divides it from east to west and is the heart of the city, on which lies its history….

In the light of the early morning sun, the Square, which is usually crowded with jostling tourists and insistent peddlers, is serene at this hour. I am lucky enough to catch the ritual national flag-raising ceremony at daybreak, where the largest square on earth celebrates the dawn of a new day and the beginning of an era. On October 1, 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China was solemnly proclaimed here and since then it has become the symbol of China and its capital, Beijing. Symbolism is prevalent in every aspect of this city, as I discover in my first lesson. My well-informed guide announces that the national flag is red in colour, as a reminder of the bloodshed that took place here and the yellow stars signify peace, harmony and freedom.

The fact that the name makes it sound mysterious and exciting adds to the fact that this metropolis has indeed seen a lot in its time. It was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Over a span of more than 560 years, 24 emperors called this home. It is the largest and the most complete complex of ancient palatial structures in existence, covering 7,20,000 square metres. Walking the X-O from Tian’anmen you reach the Forbidden City. With only one entrance and one exit, anyone who enters must complete the journey in order to leave! I learn that it was decree that to maintain the power of the imperial palace, no bright colours were to be used in its vicinity. Royal colours were only meant for the area inside the Forbidden City. It makes me wonder, whether the life inside the imperial palace was as rosy as its colouring, whilst the life outside remained as dull as its grey exterior.

The place slowly opened up to me. Situated at the foot of Xishan Mountain in Beijing, the Summer Palace, originally called the Garden of Clear Ripples, began to be built in 1750. Covering an area of 2.9 million square metres, it is chiefly formed by the Longevity Hall and the Kunming Lake. There is also the Suzhou Street, Garden of Harmonious Interests and the Longest Corridor in the world. Whilst embodying the style of oriental imperial gardens, is also an artificial lake. The Chinese believed that the beauty of a place should not appear immediately, but should unfold slowly, like the chapter of a book or a beautiful poem. The majesty of the place lies in its spacious exteriors and intricate interiors. The emperor was so moved by the landscape of Southern China, that he painted thousands of murals of this scenery in the Summer Palace. Moving through time, you slowly begin to imagine living here and the past begins to come alive. The story of the Dragon Lady unfolds: the queen who wielded command over the people for 48 years through two young emperors (her son and subsequently her nephew). When the nephew rebelled, he was imprisoned in the imperial palace and that is from where the prison derived its name. I surveyed the grounds through the lookout areas in the corridors, restored to its past elegance, where women, who couldn’t walk around openly would find a place to view the outside world. In a time when women were restricted, the Dragon Lady had found the ability to create an imperial prison for a prince!

1 p.m. IN A SOUP
In the moment of truth – the first lunch in the middle of the city, in a country of ten thousand cuisines, that is rumoured to be the bane of Indian vegetarians, I looked for sustenance. From a choice of noodle or dumpling restaurants, I managed to pull out a Sichuan-style meal, which to my astonishment, was not only palatable but also delicious. From then on, the food mantra was “Sichuan,” which meant food from the Sichuan province – hot and spicy!

Rejuvenated, I thought I had had my fill of history, as I trudged up the long walkway and enormous flight of stairs with aching feet. Everything in this megapolis was generously laid out. As I looked at the well-kept pastures surrounding the walkway, I asked my guide what these beautiful grounds had been used for. I was shocked at her unflinching reply, “breeding ground for sacrificial cattle!” Emperors would sacrifice an animal to please the gods in this Temple of Heaven. As I climbed up to the top, I surveyed the serene country before me, one that had seen bloodshed of many sorts, to one that now had camera-clicking tourists scampering around for a piece of history and a part of heaven.

4 p.m. SHOPPING FOR 2007
In this buzzing metropolis, I discovered that there are ample places to shop. I scouted the Silk Street, Panjiyuan Market and Hongqiao Pearl Market amongst others for hidden treasures. Easily diverted by the ‘magic trick’ peddlers, I am now the proud owner of curios of a bygone era.

A die-hard vegetarian, this is one thing I left untried and accepted the verdict from my husband. Eating Peking Roast Duck is considered as much a must-do, as climbing the Great Wall! Immersed in condiments, roasted over an open flame, it is served with Chinese onions and a special plum sauce.

As night-time arrives, for music lovers, Beijing is the prize catch with the capital’s very own international festival with musicians and performances from Chinese to Russian and from BBC Symphonies to Mozart. The renowned Peking Opera is my choice for an authentic Oriental experience: a breathtaking performance of song, spoken dialogue and movements. For those who miss the 7 p.m. show, let your hair down on the Bar Street to the tune of worldwide music including rock, jazz, blues, country, pop and folk.

If the sumptuous hotel buffets don’t do it for you, then grab the popular local snack off the streets. Sold by vendors, this pancake, into which an omelette of vegetables, sauces and spices is folded, is a quick and easy meal on the way to greater heights.

10 a.m. MING TOMBS
Quite missable except for the beauty of the walk and the view from the top!

I was amazed at the intricacy and delicacy of the work involved in making the famed Chinese porcelain. It was not possible to resist buying, buying and buying…!

Autumn is considered one of the best times to visit the Great Wall, to view the change in foliage, but this wonder of human civilisation remains breathtaking all year round. Its construction began in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. During the period of over 2,000 years, more than 20 dukes or princes and feudal dynasties contributed to the building of the Great Wall. Stretching 3,950 miles, the huge monument was built as a defensive structure.
The most well maintained and popular section is at Badaling, 50 miles north of Beijing and over 2,625 feet above sea level, but its magnitude and beauty can also be seen from more remote locations like Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Simatai. At any spot, however, climbing the wall is worth it, just to view the beautiful landscape that is China and a way to marvel at the feat that took thousands of years and millions of people to complete.

The Chinese capital consists of an eclectic mix of old and new styles of architecture. These contrasting designs can be noticed at the Dashanzi Art District. The city holds everything from dull grey monotonous buildings and beautiful ancient structures to modern skyscrapers. For the most upmarket address, drive down the Avenue of Eternal Peace and check out the luxurious hotels and buildings.

As if the wonders of the world were not enough, I am once more bowled over: this time by the brilliant Kung Fu show at the Red Theatre. The story describes the process of becoming a monk, training from childhood, the trials and tribulations and then passing the test of a warrior monk, brought to life with excellent live performances, brilliant lighting and stage effects.

As I prepared to say goodbye, I felt a sense of completeness, as if I had experienced the past and been shuttled back to the present. I peered down at the busy streets and reflected that here was a city where history had been made and one in which the glory of its heydays had not dimmed in the light of its future accomplishments.