Beijing revisited: Familiar sights amid progress

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The north gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The north gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

When it came to China, I had unfinished business. Half a lifetime ago, as a scraggly precollege teen, I'd whittled away a year struggling to teach English in two sprawling, industrial metropolises.

A fanciful, unfulfilled reunion with former colleagues at the 2008 Summer Olympics was nearly a decade old when I finally made it back to China, specifically Beijing. Swaths of the city were predictably unrecognizable. Just as China had changed, so had I. The diminished smog and prevalence of English signs credited to the Olympic overhaul were met midway with my mature sense of place in the world.

The Summer Palace in Beijing. Such ancient and enduring historic sights increasingly stand cheek by jowl with development that is remaking the face of China.
The Summer Palace in Beijing. Such ancient and enduring historic sights increasingly stand cheek by jowl with development that is remaking the face of China. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

Hosting the world's largest sporting event unleashed a daring dynamism in the Chinese capital, a momentum that can still be felt today, not least in the rafts of glitzy hotels that continue to sprout regularly in downtown areas. Headline arrivals include the Hyatt Regency Beijing Wangjing and the Bulgari Hotel Beijing, while the Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing is expected to open by the end of the year, marking the hotelier's entry into the Chinese capital.

These international brands are increasingly marketed at leisure rather than business travelers, with China now the fourth-most-visited country in the world. After Shanghai, Beijing is officially the second-most-popular destination, with both cities enjoying a jolt in tourism since the recent rollout of the 144-hour Transit Visa Exemption, which allows tourists to dip into key entry ports as long as they don't stray from the region they arrived in.

My visit coincided with that of one particularly noteworthy traveler. Touching down in Beijing, I unknowingly emerged amid all the pomp, ceremony and security checks of President Trump's visit to the Chinese capital — a fact hammered home by the scores of American flags hanging, side by side with their Chinese counterparts, along the central Chang'an Avenue (literally "Eternal Peace Street"), which separates the city's best-known landmarks: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Along with the tranquil Summer Palace retreat, the Forbidden City is Beijing's most essential attraction, a sprawling, closed network of nearly 1,000 buildings from which China was ruled for close to 500 years.

Famously, only the first lady made it out of the city to the Great Wall during last November's visit, smartly skipping the oversubscribed Badaling section in favor of the restored stretch at Mutianyu — which was closed to the public for the occasion, prompting my well-rewarded, 80-mile trek out to the wilds of Jinshanling.

The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall.
The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

While these blockbuster sites were just as I remembered, perfectly preserved in heartfelt homage to the past, I found much of China's heritage ripped up without remorse. The most remarkable transformation might be found amid Beijing's famed hutongs, the traditional alleyways that zigzag through low-rise, basic courtyard homes. Once alive with clattering trade and questionable aromas, the characteristic neighborhoods around the diverting Bell and Drum Towers are today a gentrified hub for art galleries and microbreweries, which each have their individual charms, while collectively relieving the area of its own allure.

There have doubtless been taller and shinier additions to the cityscape since my last visit, yet the structure that best defines Beijing's relentless optimism, rising affluence and indifference to convention is the National Centre for the Performing Arts, or as it's better known to locals, the Egg. Floating in the middle of a pond just west of Tiananmen, this looming glass and titanium ellipsoid dome houses three stages and a resident orchestra, which have done much to promote the arts to China's burgeoning middle class.

I soon discovered Peking opera to be a distinctly acquired taste. Quitting a diligent hour into a performance, I jumped into a cab and set out to discover the sound of Beijing today, not that of centuries ago. Following an insider's tip, I was delivered to a complex of edgy underground music venues in the trendy Dongcheng District, ascending to the top floor rock hangout Temple Bar just in time to catch a scruffy local quartet take to the stage and launch into a passable rendition of Green Day's "American Idiot."

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