For a summer trip to Beijing, invest in good walking shoes

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It is a bit off-putting when a family of Chinese ranging from a small child to grandmother skip effortlessly past you as you climb the steep steps of the famed Great Wall, just to the north of Beijing. 

Climbing the wall is a challenge at any time, but in midsummer, with temperatures hovering around 98 degrees, it can be positively enervating. Visitors should be sure to bring plenty of bottled water.

Fortunately there are a series of towers on the Juyong Pass section of the wall at Badaling that offer shade and a respite before tackling the next series of steps. The view from the "top" of the wall is spectacular and well worth the effort of climbing, although travelers who suffer from vertigo may have problems.

My humble efforts at scaling the wall on a recent day trip from Beijing paled into insignificance when I considered the incredible engineering, not to mention the labor, involved in building a structure that stretches more than 4,000 miles, from one side of China to the other.

Any day tour from Beijing should also include a stop at the Ming Tombs and lovely Sacred Way, located a few miles away. Set in the vicinity of the Tianshou Mountains, there are 13 tombs, but only one, the Yong Le tomb, is open to the public. However, it houses many treasures recovered from other tombs; its displays of jade and clothing worn by royalty and warriors is impressive.

The Sacred Way is a long avenue lined on both sides with trees and large, stone statues of elephants, camels and horses -- and other animals, real and imagined -- as well as figures of officials and warriors. Not too far off, vendors sell clothes, souvenirs, drinks and, when I visited in summer, large and juicy peaches.

Around Tiananmen Square

The central part of Beijing is set out in grid fashion, with wide roads many of which are bordered with trees and other greenery. Key attractions such as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are located in the city center, close to the major hotels where most Westerners stay.

At one end of Tiananmen Square, large crowds queue up to shuffle past the embalmed body of Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao's mausoleum is only open for short periods on weekdays, and not at all on weekends.

The crowds inside the adjacent Imperial Palace, or Forbidden City as it is commonly known, are just as substantial. The Forbidden City consists of a succession of courtyards surrounded by colorful buildings -- mainly painted in reds and yellows, many in similar style -- with little greenery to break the uniform greyness of the paving stones underfoot. 

Most of the buildings are virtually empty, as the treasures they once held were long ago moved to other places, including the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

A popular diversion on many tours is a ride in a rickshaw through the hutongs, or alleys, of Beijing. The hutong closest to the Forbidden City is among the best preserved -- the buildings and way of life of the inhabitants are relatively unchanged. 

A growing world capital, Beijing boasts many landmarks and attractions. Getting to them, however, is often a problem because of the city's constant traffic jams. 

Visitors with time to spare, however, will want to brave the congestion to visit the Beijing Zoo, with its giant pandas; the Summer Palace, featuring superb gardens; the Temple of Heaven, the largest temple in China; and the Yonghe Lamasery.

A visit to the Beijing Opera is another popular tour inclusion, and it's great fun.  Chinese opera singing is not every Westerner's cup of tea, but the English translations of the action on the stage are hilarious. The acrobatic and juggling skills displayed by the ensemble choreographing a fight between good and evil was a masterpiece of skill and endurance.

Shopping mecca

Despite warnings about pickpockets operating at Beijing's markets, I found the city safe. I felt quite comfortable strolling around the city center on balmy summer evenings, getting a glimpse of local life: packed restaurants; tiny shops; men playing mahjong and card games; family groups sitting on the pavement in deck chairs; people reading newspapers, children playing traditional games and flying kites; and young people buying the latest clothes and CDs, like teenagers anywhere. 

For many visitors, the opportunity to splurge on shopping is a major reason to visit China. Beijing is a place to splurge. Modern department stores and myriad smaller shops sell everything imaginable, but it is in the markets, such as the famous Silk Market, where bargains are found. 

The designer labels may be fake, but the quality is excellent. And after the obligatory bargaining, everyone is happy. There are clothes, handbags, leather goods, watches and silk -- the range is endless.

Most tours include a number of lunches and dinners, but these are usually rather standard, bland fare. If you have the chance, seek advice from locals and go where they eat.

For more on travel to Beijing, call the China National Tourist Office in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228. Or visit www.cnto.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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