As pundits say, if 21st century belongs to China, then China itself belongs to Beijing, the bustling capital of the nation, which in the recent time has undergone unprecedented transformation that simply dazzle the world.
People from all over at the world are rushing to this destination to experience the mythical beauty and character of the oriental metropolis that was not till long ago almost veiled from the rest of the world by several layers of the legendary red cloth.
However, things have changed now. China's reputation as a friendly and welcoming nation is on solid grounds and was well proven to the international community during the Olympics in 2008.
I get the first taste of that gracious "huan ying ", the moment I board China Southern Airlines flight to Beijing via their ultra modern hub in Guangzhou, a highlight of which is its brand-new, award-winning Baiyun International Airport.
With a history of more than 3,000 years, Beijing, formerly called Peking, has a rich pedigree. Touched by Genghis Khan, kissed by Marco Polo and ruled by Mongol, Ming and Qing emperors since 13th century, this vibrant metropolis of 19 million today offers unparalleled wealth of discovery to delight and intrigue travelers as they explore Beijing's ancient past and exciting modern developments. It has become one of the planet's most tourist infected destinations, with about 140 million Chinese tourists and 4.4 million international visitors in a year.
It's not just the high rise buildings or the "siheyuans" (single story dwellings on four sides of a quadrangle with a courtyard in the middle), traditional "hutongs" (narrow alleyways) or flyovers and the broad sweeping avenues filled with latest models of Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and hordes of bicycles, emblematic to the city draw outsiders attention; the changed social fabric, now appearing in multitude of bright colors instead of the singed red piece, look equally if not more amazing. Consumerism seems to be skyrocketing, pizza and burgers competing with noodles and dumplings. Fashion, a taboo in the past has become an indispensible fad for younger generation, who crowd the growing contingent of trendy restaurants and bars where business men agree over million yuan deals over a glass of chilled Tsingtao Beer, while waiting for the medium rare steak to arrive.
Within Beijing environs, you will find most stunning sights from China's past and present that reflect rich heritage and zest for modernization: Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Olympic Stadium, Lama Temple, Ming Dynasty Tombs and the Great Wall are just a few to name.
The spectacular Forbidden City acts as the bull's-eye around which the city's other momentous sites cluster. Home to Ming and Qing dynasty emperors for over 500 years, rest of China was governed from this 14th century built gargantuan palace till early 20th century. Entry for commoners was "forbidden" then and the price for uninvited admission was strangulation by death, today just 60 Yuan will allow you inside. Conglomerated with 800 edifices and over 9000 rooms, some packed with precious royal memorabilia, this city-like complex occupies a primary position in Chinese psyche and hence was spared by the Red Guards during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 60's.
"Unfortunately crates of valuable relics were removed by the Kuomintang party and transported to Taiwan", tells Kelly, our omniscient local guide, as we trundle from Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square through the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace from where Mao proclaimed the People's Republic on 1st October 1949. Stuck on its front faÃ§ade is a huge portrait of Mao which was supposedly pelted with eggs during the 1989 demonstration in the Front Square, said to be the largest public arena in the world. Over a million people jammed the paved quarter in 1976 to pay their last respects to Mao whose mausoleum lies on one side, while the nation's many august cultural and political institutions dot the others, Great Hall of People being one of them.
A short drive from the square is the Temple of Heaven. Its generously ornamented architectural features have become a symbol of Beijing, filling countless pieces of China tourist brochures as easily as it does the horizon. In ancient times, this shrine was used to offer sacrifices to heaven and pray for good annual harvest.
Beijing is full of attractions and it can be rather difficult to see, though the city's public transport system, comprising of buses, trains, taxis and red hooded cycle rickshaws in some areas, efficiently take you to almost every end of the flat metropolis. However as use of English limited, best option is to use a reputed tour operator who will fill your time with everything that's considered mandatory for first time visitors.
In addition to meandering through key historical venues, as a part of our itinerary we also visit the 2008 Olympics site where the National Stadium, locally called Bird's Nest, is the centerpiece. We also visit a Jade factory, watch a thrilling acrobatic show and most importantly savor the world famous Peking Duck at the celebrated Qianmen Quanjude Restaurant.
Any visit to Beijing is incomplete without exploring its 2000 years old Great Wall which is a series of stone and earthen fortifications, built, rebuilt and maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century to protect borders from foreign invasions. Just like a colossal dragon, it winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching over 8000 kms from east to west of the nation. Many sections are now in ruins or have disappeared, however what still remains never fails to mesmerize modern day visitors by its architectural grandeur and historical significance.
Chairman Mao once said,"He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man", Obviously 'I am a true man' are the words that burst out of me with gusto, after clambering up the perilously sloping carriageway to one of the crowning watch towers at the top of the architectural marvel, recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and China's landmark for ages.
Getting There - One option is to fly China Southern Airlines (www.csair.com) from Delhi to Beijing via Guangzhou; the other is to fly Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad to Beijing via Singapore.
Staying There - There are no shortages of hotels to suit your budget; Jade Palace Hotel (www.jadepalace.com.cn), a favorite of group tour operators, offers good facilities. Located just across the road from the hotel is McDonalds which comes handy in case you want a cuisine break.
Eating - There are few Indian restaurants in Beijing, such as Mirch Masala (www.mirchmasala.com.cn) and Ganges (ganges-restaurant.com) if you are keen on a break from Cantonese or Szechuan cuisine
Visa - Tourist visa can be obtained from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi or Consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata. (http://mumbai.china-consulate.org/eng/)