BEIJING (北京, běijīng) is a city that almost everyone enjoys. For new arrivals, it provides a gentle introduction to the country, and for travellers who’ve been roughing it round rural China, the creature comforts on offer are a delight. The place to start exploring is Tian’anmen Square, geographical and psychological centre of the city, where a cluster of important sights can be seen in a day, although the Forbidden City, at the north end of the square, deserves a day, or even several, all to itself. Heading north brings you to a city section with a more traditional and human feel, with some magnificent parks, palaces and temples, some of them in the hutongs. To the east, the Sanlitun area is a ghetto of expat services including some good upscale restaurants and plenty of bars; heading south will bring you to Qianmen, an important shopping area which ends in style with one of the city’s highlights, the Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park. An expedition to the outskirts is amply rewarded by the Summer Palace, the best place to get away from it all.
Beijing requires patience and planning to do it justice – wandering aimlessly around without a destination in mind will rarely be rewarding. This is also an essentially private city, whose surface is difficult to penetrate; sometimes, it seems to have the superficiality of a theme park. To get deeper into the city, wander what’s left of the labyrinthine hutongs, and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks; the latter are some of the best in China, and you’ll see Beijingers performing tai ji and hear birdsong – just – over the hum of traffic. Take advantage, too, of the city’s burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.