Beijing in Stride

Exploring the sprawling city isn't a cakewalk, but there are some districts you can take in on foot

November 04, 2007|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- A friend planning a trip to Beijing opened a map, pointed to a hotel and said, "I should be able to walk from there to the Forbidden City easily, right?"

Not easily.

In preparation for the Olympics, which begin Aug. 8 and are expected to draw half a million spectators from abroad and 4 billion TV viewers worldwide, the government has gone on a $40 billion building spree to make these the best Games ever and to turn this into a colossal coming-of-age party for a world-class capital.

Construction has left some districts haphazard and rough-edged, but other neighborhoods are so ritzy and well-groomed that they could be mistaken for Beverly Hills.

Tourists who come here for a few days to see the Summer Palaces and Ming Tombs are bound to notice these developments.

But one thing about Beijing hasn't changed in recent years. It is humongous, sprawling in every direction from the Forbidden City. Six ring roads, not the two of a decade ago, make concentric circles around the Imperial Palace, maintaining the symmetrical layout of the Jin Dynasty capital, founded almost 900 years ago.

Maps don't convey the city's size, which together with traffic and construction makes walking hard and even unpleasant at times.

The best way to reach such far-flung attractions as the Beijing Zoo and Lama Temple is by taxi or subway, a frustration for people who like to explore on foot.

But there are some districts where travelers can wander freely. My favorites were Dongcheng, Chaoyang and Haidian.

Dongcheng

Dongcheng, on the northern and eastern sides of the Forbidden City, is best known for Wangfujing, Beijing's main shopping street. Foreign visitors are more likely to be drawn to Dongcheng's old-fashioned narrow-alley hutong neighborhoods, where people go about daily life.

Wandering through the hutongs, which flow in a tangle toward big streets like streams trickling toward rivers, is one of the principal pleasures of visiting Beijing. They are lined with trees, tiny shops and low-rise courtyard residences, or siheyuans, built exclusively of gray brick during the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties.

Some siheyuan houses were large and luxurious, built by aristocrats, highly placed officials and well-to-do merchants who lived there with their families for generations. After the protracted revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949, many siheyuans were divided into densely packed, multifamily dwellings without private toilets, central heating or running water.

The city has recognized the attractions of the old neighborhoods, especially in Dongcheng, where signs in Pinyin - Romanized Chinese - identify every hutong to help foreigners find their way.

Instead of leveling old neighborhoods and forcing long-timers out, the Dongcheng District renovated Nanchizi Hutong, centered on the graceful Pudu Temple at the southeastern corner of the Forbidden City. When the dust settled, residents were moved back to upgraded quarters with tap water, toilets and broadband cable.

Grass-roots private enterprise has given new life to the alleyways leading off Nanluogu Street on the western side of Dongcheng, the hub of one of the city's most popular hutong neighborhoods. The government repaved the street and still maintains such historic sites as the siheyuan home of the Communist Revolution-era writer Mao Dun, but the restaurants, cafes and shops reflect the recent capitalist recharging of Beijing.

I found accommodations at Guxiang 20, a stylish new inn on Nanluogu Street that has a rooftop tennis court and canopy beds.

I favored Xiao Xin's Cafe a few blocks south for coffee and Wi-Fi and wandered every day to the Drum and Bell Towers, which kept the time in old Beijing. The National Art Museum of China, with its stunning collection of contemporary Chinese art and a wing devoted to intricately crafted shadow puppets, and Jingshan Park, an old imperial garden overlooking the northern gate of the Forbidden City, are also nearby.

Chaoyang

If you ask foreigners working in Beijing where they live, they likely will say Chaoyang on the eastern side of the city. The district's contemporary look and conveniences have made it attractive to embassies, multinational corporations, shopping mall developers and most of Beijing's big chain hotels.

It's decidedly too far to walk to the Forbidden City from Chaoyang. But when a new light rail line opens next year, the district will become one of the city's major transportation hubs, offering connections to the Forbidden City and the Olympic Green.

I settled into a room at the Poly Plaza Hotel (technically in Dongcheng but closer to the major sights of Chaoyang) to explore New China in Chaoyang.

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