Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is awash with colour, the bright yellows and reds of the blossoming plants matched only by the children’s kites fluttering overhead. Behind us are the commanding fortress walls of the Forbidden City, the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong a reminder of the China’s strong communist past. A long queue forms in the centre of the square . . . tourists and locals gathering to pay their respects to the former political leader in the mausoleum.
Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is awash with colour, the bright yellows and reds of the blossoming plants matched only by the children’s kites fluttering overhead.
Behind us are the commanding fortress walls of the Forbidden City, the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong a reminder of the China’s strong communist past.
A long queue forms in the centre of the square . . . tourists and locals gathering to pay their respects to the former political leader in the mausoleum.
It is hard to imagine on such a carefree sun filled day that on this very square, around 23 years ago, pro-democracy protests took place leading to waves of bloody confrontations throughout the city.
Ironically, national capital Beijing, like most cities in the People’s Republic, has changed dramatically since those infamous days in 1989. It has adopted commercialism without losing sight of its communist roots.
No longer do bicycles clog the lanes, streets and wide boulevards. They have been overtaken by prestigious European cars carrying such badges as Mercedes and BMW.
And trying to find a local dressed in a drab blue or grey Mao costume is almost impossible, courtesy of the patronage given to giant ritzy department stores selling the latest designer labels rather than copies.
Even the rail networks linking China’s cities are of the high-speed futuristic design, enabling the growing number of domestic tourists to reach their destinations in swift time.
Yes, Beijing is more colourful in 2012, a change that has swept across its landscape of wide tree-lined boulevards and soaring skyscrapers, although pockets of China’s past remain intact, from the 1415-built Ming Dynasty gate to the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square, itself, which dates from the 17th Century.
Inside the Forbidden City’s vast palace compound – home of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties – is the Palace Museum, and an impressive display of imperial Chinese art, a must for all who have time to wander through the many pavilions.
A short drive away, in the western corner of the city, are the leafy grounds of the Summer Palace with its lake, open passageways and marble boat, a perfect spot to walk through on a clear day. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace is also renowned for its imperial gardens and palatial buildings which served as a summer retreat for the Qing emperors.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site is the Temple of Heaven, located in Beijing’s south-east, where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties made visits for annual ceremonies of prayers for a healthy harvest.
For an insight into life as it was and continues to be in some quarters, the cycle rickshaw ride through the hutongs or back alleys has the desirable effect.
Despite the rise of a new Beijing and the ultimate demolition of decaying hutongs, these historic family quadrangle-designed homes with their central courtyards continue to occupy around one third of the total area, providing housing for half the population – and an accepted mix of old and new.
During the cycle tour we have a chance to see how these generations of family lead their everyday lives within close proximity to the towering glassed apartments of 2012.
A 90-minute drive from Beijing is a highly visited restored section of one of the world’s most marvelled man-made creations – the Great Wall of China, said to be visible from outer space.
Although commercial with its many stalls of souvenirs and car park of tourist buses, the section is worth the climb – whether you turn right or left from the main staircase. Yet it leads to another photo for the album or more recently the Facebook page.
A visit to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a drive to this magnificent site, so too a sample of the famous finger-licking Peking Duck at one of the many large city restaurants.
Beijing’s population has swelled to around 20 million in 2012, a figure which just falls short of that of entire Australia.
We can only imagine as the number of ritzy department stores and European cars grows so too the sense Beijing has roundly welcomed its new commercial life, in the same fashion the emperors accepted life within the walls of the palatial Forbidden City so many years beforehand.
- Helen Wong’s Tours has a vast range of group and independent tours which include Beijing. Phone (02) 9267 7833 or check out www.helenwongstours.com