Beijing Beckons

By on August 5, 2008
The eyes of the world are on Beijing, as thousands of onlookers descend on the Olympic city for the spectacle of the Games. Beijing is both a beautiful ancient city as well as a thriving metropolis: a fascinating mixture of old world culture and the new modern China.Alex (8) and Emma (7) were very excited to get a shot at collecting all five mascots of the Beijing Olympics. When you put the mascots’ names together: the Fish (Bei), the Pada (Jing), the Olympic Flame (Huan), the Tibetan Antelope (Ying) and the Swallow (Ni), they say: “Beijing welcomes you.” Arriving at the new and impressively vast and bright terminal 3 in Beijing was nothing short of breathtaking. As a sign of improved customer service, we were whisked to the front of the passport control line because of the children. We often hoped for this to happen but did not expect it after a mere 3 hour and 30 minute flight and not in China where waiting in line is common. It was a breeze to drive into the city on a beautiful highway now lined with flowers and trees. You could almost have thought you were in Singapore! While Beijing is adding about twelve hundred new cars every day, traffic is still flowing thanks to the wide boulevards, even though jaywalking is utterly out of control. With its ancient grid plan intact, the city’s structure and layout has been maintained and its most imposing monuments are standing as beautiful as ever. Our plan was simple: we would focus on just a few sights per day and relax every afternoon at the hotel’s indoor pool.It is obvious that the upcoming Olympic Games have projected the city into the 21st century and for Beijing, it is the occasion to make a grand entry. To the biggest square n the world, the biggest palace and the longest wall ow has been added the biggest Olympic stadium which can seat 91,000 people, the Bird Nest (the Olympic Stadium) and the most photographed swimming pool, the Water Cube. Do not miss the opening games on August 8th because without doubt it will be spectacular! I the city, many concrete buildings have made way for glass structures. Every new building showcases brilliant architectural creativity: one will find titanium domes, unusual angles or shapes , and walkways connecting buildings in the sky. Many of these buildings are designed by world renowned architects such as the French Paul Andreu, the Dutch Rem Koolhaas and Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Our children were mesmerized by the “Giant Egg,” the Grand Theater very close to Tiananmen Square.

Most food hawkers have disappeared in the center and made way for restaurants and shopping malls, and the number of bicycles is dwindling. But the old Beijing is still there. Around the lakes, the 700 remaining Hutong (small 6-foot wide alleys) have now become protected by the government and are being restored. This trendy lakeside setting is the perfect place to get away from the city’s hustle and bustle for a few hours.

Beijing inhabitants, though concerned with rising prices, seemed content and happy with the opportunities at hand and the future for their children. Their priority is to be able to buy an apartment in the city where real estate prices are skyrocketing and salaries are relatively low.

As we strolled around this capital of the North, we could not help but marvel at the imperial allure of the city combined with the proliferation of remarkable modern architecture. Many of the positive changes were accelerated because of the Olympic Games. So even though recent publications conjure up terrible images of the Chengdu earthquake, polluted skies and contaminated food, Beijing is and always will be one of the top places to visit in the world and what better time to do so than in 2008?

WHEN TO GO: Spring (May/June) and fall (September/October) are the best seasons to visit Beijing unless of course you have tickets to the Games.

WHERE TO STAY: The Grand Hyatt, centrally located in the Wanfujing district, offers a great family package/room with lower weekend rates.

GETTING AROUND: Try to get around without a guide or private car. The subway system is convenient, simple and clean. Taxis are cheap: ¥300 will let you cross the entire city. Hotel concierges are used to scribbling down directions for their guests. Expect to walk a lot because the vastness of Beijing’s roads and sights is unequalled.

WHAT TO SEE: The Great Wall at Mutianyu: it is cleaner and far less crowded than the Badaling section. You can take the chairlift up to save energy for a long hike on the wall, and every child’s favorite – Hutongs. / The Forbidden Cty: enter through the North Gate so you can finish at Tiananmen Square. Do not miss the National Grand Theater right next to Great Hall of the People. / The Olympic Park: it will be open for visitors after the Games. / The Temple of Heaven (my favorite): do go on a Sunday morning and spend part of your time in the park. Your children will be invited to dance, play and admire birds and you will have a most enjoyable day.

About Carine Veruschueren