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BEIJING, City with a Certain Magic

Few cities have such a profound sense of history as Beijing. It whispers down the grand boulevards, cries out from its megaliths and monuments, echoes in its palatial courts. And despite the fact that Chairman Mao's mausoleum now looks over the Colonel's Kentucky Fried, nothing of the past.

Almost 5000 years of history in any city tends to leave its mark. But Beijing, with its vast squares and ancient imperial architecture,does it in a grander style than most. No Middle Kingdom, center of the physical world.Standing in the one of the cavernous courtyards of the Forbidden City,former palace of the emperors, everything beyond its protective walls seems somehow distant and dream-like. Size and space are a potent combination in this archaic expression of empire.

Though the city had served as a main or subsidiary residence for successive dynasties, it's Emperor Yongle (the third Ming ruler) who earns credit for the city's geometric- and geomantic - planning. Traditional Chinese conceived the world as a square, a gigantic chessboard with the emperor at its very center. A city was meant to follow this cosmic order, laid out according to the principles of feng shui,which strives for a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. Everything is balanced in a traditional Chinese city.

Beijing,therefore,lies on a plain that faces south, considered the sphere of warmth and generosity.

Hills screen the city - but only barely- from the fierce Siberian winds of the north. The city's symmetry unfolds along a north-south axis, giving it eastern and western halves in which buildings were created in mirror image. For example, the Alter of the Sun on one side of the city is complemented by the Altar of the Moon on the other.

While Beijing's city limits sprawl for 80 kilometers,it's actually quite orderly and easy to get around. The lies on the north-south line. Major roads run east-west and streets are also split off compass points. The primary points of interest are mostly on the main avenues and boulevards, making it possible, if armed with the right references, to get around on foot.

Eclectic Street Encounters Nowadays the streets of Beijing are an eclectic encounter, with everything from Harley-Davidsons and haute couture to Mao and militaristic memorabilia on display. In this modern socialist metropolis, the most popular store - and the only place where the locals queue - is McDonald's hamburgers on Wangfujing. The streets crawl with Mercedes limos, portable phones ring constantly,and cadres swagger by in sharply cut suits.

But then in the midst of all this dizzying change stands Tiananmen Square, the world's largest pubic plaza (it's said to hold 500,000 people, one for every checkerboard SqUare) geographic heart of Beijing and scene of many milestones in the history of the People's Republic.

A place of profound political undertones, Tiananmen is the beginning of a journey back through time, starting with the creation of the Republic itself.

Atop the Tiananmen Gate, where a giant portrait of Chairman Mao hangs, the Communist Party leader declared that "the Chinese people have stood up." His celebrated took place, in fact, just above the painting's receding hairline. If Mao's prominent airbrushed visage is not enough to convince you of his significance, his waxy remains lie under crystal in a nearby mausoleum. Art from throughout the Chinese ages is kept on impressive display in the Museum of Chinese History, flanking the square. To the west is the Great Hall of the People, where the cogs of the Chinese universe turn.

Tiananmen Gate also leads to the Forbidden City, one of the architectural wonders of the world. In imperial times only the emperor could walk through the central gate.

Civic officials entered from the east and military officials from the west. Now everyone files through the main entrance.
Once home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties,thousands of eunuchs and countless concubines,maids and mandarins, the Forbidden City took17 years to build and is as perfect expression of its place in the universe. Only heaven could offer anything so perfect as a palace of10,000 rooms. had to defer. Therefore, his Forbidden City contains only 9,999 rooms in which more than 8,000 people lived in an area covering 72 hectares.

Strict Rules and Taboos Designed to keep the emperor in and the rest of humanity out, this city of walls-within-walls ran according to strict rules and taboos.Even the amount of charcoal allowed to heat the freezing rooms depended on hierarchy. The Empress Dowager the least and so on. Come bedtime, the emperor would turn over a series of jade tablets to decide which concubine would rest with him that night.

Anecdotes about the Forbidden City abound and the tape recording by Peter Ustinov, available at the entrance, is an invaluable source of detail about the gossip, intrigue, a world beyond reach until the demise of the "Last Emperor" (Puyi) in 1912.

When it came time for the Son of Heaven to commune with the almighty, he had three places in which to do it - the Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Sky and the Round Altar. Collectively, these symbol-laden structures are known as the Temple of Heaven, the place of worship where emperors prayed for the survival of Chinese civilization.It's an ethereal place to visit,especially in the gentle morning light when old folks are practicing their tai chi and qigong, opera singing and sword dancing. A place where Beijing can catch its breath from the relentless and perplexing change of recent years.

The serene Summer Palace is a similar escape into beauty. What we see today is a fragment of an expensive dream. The ambitious Empress Dowager Cixi reputedly hijacked money intended for China's navel fleet and then rebuilt existing royal gardens into a residence and park of outstanding beauty.

Designed on themes of water and coolness, the palace was a graceful respite from the ferocious heat of the city. Not all the original structures remain-various hostile forces tried to torch the Summer Palace. But those that do are linked by a Long Corridor painted with mythical scenes which frame a glorious lake that serves as the park's centerpiece The palace complex is divided into four areas temples,places for strolling and contemplation, official greeting areas and residences.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate this vision of splendor is to hire a rowboat on Kunming Lake and let the palace itself tell the story. Shopping Souvenir Slices lt's tempting to souvenir a slice of this rich history.And probably the best place to browse is Liulichang, home of antiques, curios, rare books and paintings. Shops are both government and privately owned.

Prices in state stores are fixed but bargaining is expected on the private side. Shops like Weng Sheng Zhai have specialized in decorative lanterns and fans since last century. A former supplier to the Qing palace, this shop's fans are still hung on Tiananmen Gate during Chinese New Year. Rong Bao Zhai Studio is a wondrous insight into the fine art of calligraphy.Founded in the 17th century, it's the largest and most famous shop in the district. The prices and expectations are considerably lower at Hongqiao Market,at the northeast corner of Tiantan Park, where Little Red Books and items less than a century old are found for less than"antique"prices. Undeniably "antique" is the structuie that lies way beyond Beijing but in many ways sums up its exclusive personality the Great Wall. Begun almost 2000 years ago, the wall is actually a series of separate structures strung together for strategic purposes. In fact, the slender dragon never really did perform its function of keeping out marauders. But it made a very impressive stone highway and as many people like to quote - the earth's only tourist attraction visible from the moon.

Moon, sun, earth and sky.Despite it's rampant progress,the cosmic elements are always there in Beijing,firmly fixed in its ancient nomenclature. Temple of Heaven.White Cloud Temple. Temple of the Azure Clouds. Garden of Cultivated Harmony. Perhaps it was wise ~o court ~he favor of the gods.For despite the contradictory forces that pull at its nature - a modern socialist city that clings to its imperial legacy - Beijing still conveys a certain kind of magic.

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