Stop–start capital since the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Běijīng is one of China’s true ancient citadels. It is also an aspiring, confident and modern city that seems assured of its destiny to rule over China ad infinitum.
A vast and symmetrical metropolis, Běijīng is the orderly seat of the communist political power in China, so its architecture traces each and every mood swing from 1949 to the present, from felled hútòng (narrow alleys) to huge underground bomb shelters scooped out during the paranoid 1970s. One moment you are sizing up a blank Soviet-style monument, the next you spot a vast, shimmering tower rising up from the footprint of a vanished temple.
History may have been trampled in Běijīng over the past half century, but there’s still much more substance here than in China’s other dynastic capitals, bar Nánjīng or Kāifēng. You just need to do a bit of hunting and patient exploration to find the historical narrative. It’s also essential to sift the genuine from the fake: some of Běijīng’s once-illustrious past has been fitfully resurrected in the trompe-l’oeil of rebuilt monuments. Colossal flyovers and multilane boulevards heave with more than three million cars but ample pockets of historical charm survive. It’s the city’s epic imperial grandeur, however, that is truly awe-inspiring.
Frank and uncomplicated, Běijīng’s denizens chat in Běijīnghuà – the gold standard of Mandarin – and marvel at their good fortune for occupying the centre of the known world. And for all its diligence and gusto, Běijīng dispenses with the persistent pace of Shànghǎi or Hong Kong, and locals instead find time to sit out front, play chess and watch the world go by.
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