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Beijing is the current capital of China and one of its ancient capitals. The name "Beijing" means Northern Capital. Beijing is also known as Peking.
Beijing was established as a capital of China in the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century when the Mongols conquered China and wanted to establish a capital nearer their own homelands. The capital moved to Nanjing after the end of Mongol reign, but the emperors of the Ming Dynasty soon returned the capital to Beijing, where it remained throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties until the beginning of the Republic of China in 1912. Much of the basic layout of the city and many of the major sites were first established in the Ming Dynasty, though most of the surviving buildings date back to the Qing Dynasty.
Beijing is very large and very spread-out. The city still follows the basic outline of the Imperial City with a clear north-south and many streets following a grid. The loop line of the subway and the second-ring road roughly correspond to the location of the city wall, most of which was destroyed. The Forbidden City (Gugong) and Tiananmen Square lie in the center of the city.
The area around the Forbidden City once housed officials and nobles. Many of these residences can still be seen in the hutongs or alleys that are one of the highlights of a visit the city. In other parts of the city, the old alleyways are being quickly destroyed in order to make way for new development.
Several blocks to the East of the Forbidden City is Wangfujing, a bustling pedestrian-only shopping street and the location of several popular hotels. Although no location is Beijing is within walking distance of all of the sites, Wangfujing is a twenty-minute walk from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
To the Northeast of downtown is Chaoyang District, which is home to many of the cities expat community and also the location of a large number of hotels that cater to foreign guests. Further out to the Northwest is the Great Wall at Badaling, which is one of the closest sections of the wall to the city, but also the most touristy section. The international airport lies to the northeast of the city, and about 30-40 minutes from downtown by taxi, although heavy traffic can make the trip much longer.
Northwest of downtown is Haidian District and the location of many of Beijing's universities including Beijing University and Tsinghua University. The Summer Palace is also located to the northwest of town.
As a tourist destination, Beijing has a great deal to offer. Most obvious are the Great Wall (Changcheng), the Forbidden City (Gugong), The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), Lama Temple (Yonghegong), Tiananmen Square, and the traditional courtyard homes along the alleyways or hutongs. The main sights can be seen in 3-4 days, although smaller museums, temples, tombs, and shopping can occupy several more days, and a more relaxed tour taking in both city and district attractions can eaily fill a couple of weeks.
Other popular attractions are the markets, especially the famed Silk Market (now relocated indoors), it's cousin Yaxiu which sell mostly clothes, the Pearl Market (Hongqiao) which sells a wide range of clothes, souvenirs, and pearls, and the Dirt Market (Panjiayuan), especially vibrant on Sunday mornings, that sells art, souvenirs, reproductions and perhaps also some genuine antiques. There are also shopping opportunities around the increasingly developed-for-tourism Qianmen and Shichihai areas. For example, along the old commercial Dazhalan (or Dashilar) or 'traditional' Liulichang Streets near the former, and the hutong-style Nanluoguxiang near the latter.
The Shichahai lakes area north of Beihai park is composed of the three lakes Qianhai, Houhai, and Xihai, and is the home to many new and interesting bars and restaurants. Sanlitun is another area known for a large number of bars and popular with the international student and expat community, as well as the more progressive locals.
Many visitors to Beijing see performances of Chinese acrobats and excerpts from Peking Opera. There are several venues offering these performances. Listings for these and a wide-range of other events can be found in free English-language publications such as The Beijinger (formerly That's Beijing) and City Weekend.
FOOD AND LOCAL SPECIALTIES
Food is a highlight of a visit to Beijing. Specialties include Peking Duck, Mongolian Hotpot, and noodles with meat sauce (zhajiang mian) served up in numerous Old Beijing restaurants. Many people will also enjoy homestyle (jiachang) cooking, dumplings (jiaozi or guotie), and Xinjiang cooking from China's far northwest.
Mandarin Chinese is the language of Beijing, often spoken with a heavy and distinctive Beijing accent. Although most Chinese do not speak English, including taxi drivers, tourist sites and the subway have many English signs, and hotel staff in major hotels speak enough English that most travellers will have little trouble getting around even without a guide.
Beijing can be very cheap for people who stay in hostel-type accommodations and eat in small family-style restaurants. Travellers who stay in four and five-star hotels and eat in top restaurants will find that prices are as high as in other major cities around the world. The cost of taxis is quite low, and taxis are abundant and usually honest.
Beijing has a very dry climate. July and August are the rainiest months. June, July and August have higher-humidity and very hot temperatures. December, January and February have average highs just above freezing and accompanied by strong winds.
In April, sandstorms sometimes turn Beijing's skies orange and force most people to seek shelter indoors. October generally offers good weather.
Major holidays include: Labor Day (May 1), National Day (October 1) and Spring Festival or Chinese New Year (January or February). These holidays last up to a week. Offices are closed. Shops and tourist sites are open, but are often extremely crowded during these times. Travel within China can be more difficult during these times, especially New Year, because of local demand.