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  • Forbidden City 


The Forbidden City, which was off-limits to most of the world for 500 years, is the biggest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Although the 'hundred surnames', or hoi polloi, are now permitted entrance, its original owners, the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasty, insulated themselves from the masses and maintained a rigid one-way communications flow. Regal fiats from the nerve centre of the country were delivered to peasant subjects beyond the wall by eunuchs and other powerful court officials. 
  The old world of beautiful concubines and priapic emperors, ball-breaking (and -broken) eunuchs and conspicuous wealth still hovers around the lush gardens, courtyards, pavilions and great halls of the palace. Most of the buildings are post-18th century; there have been periodic losses due to an injudicious mix of lantern festivals and Gobi winds, invading Manchus and, in this century, pillaging and looting by both the Japanese forces and the Kuomintang. A permanent restoration squad takes about 10 years to renovate its 720,000 square metres, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms, by which time it's time to start all over again.
The majority of visitors climb the wall at Badaling, along with the tourist packs, the touts, and the sellers of reclining buddhas with lightbulbs in their mouths. If you want to experience the wall far from this madding crowd, you'd do better to travel a little farther afield and take a walk on the wilder side of the Huanghua section, 60km (35mi) north of Beijing. It's a classic and well-preserved example of Ming defence with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers


  • Tiananmen Square   

    Forever sullied, Tiananmen Square lies at the heart of Beijing, and is a vast desert of pavestones and photo booths. Though it was a gathering place and the site of government offices in the imperial days, Tiananmen Square is Mao's creation, as is Chang'an Jie - the street leading onto it. Major rallies took place here during the Cultural Revolution when Mao, wearing a Red Guard armband, reviewed parades of up to a million people. In 1976 another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects. In 1989 PLA tanks and soldiers cut down pro-democracy demonstrators here.
      Today the square is a place for people to wander and fly kites or buy balloons for the kids. Surrounding the square is a mish-mash of monuments past and present: Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace); the Chinese Revolution History Museum; the Great Hall of the People; Qianmen (Front Gate); the Mao Mausoleum, where you can purchase Mao memorabilia and catch a glimpse of the man himself (when his mortuary make-up isn't being refreshed); and the Monument to the People's Heroes.


  •  Tiantan Park 

    Tiantan Park is an icon of such enduring value that it shorthands the entire city. The park's classic Ming architecture gives it heaps of symbolic value and the name has been used to brand products from tiger balm to plumbing fixtures, as well as decorating a plethora of tourist literature. It's set in a 267-hectare (660-acre) park, with four gates at the cardinal points, and walls to the north and east. It originally functioned as a vast stage for solemn rites and rituals.
    All of the buildings in the park, including the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are tangible conversations between the gods and mortals. The buildings are carefully thought out paeans to ancient gods and beliefs; fengshui, numerology, cosmology and religion all played a part in their original construction, and the result is an awesome display of god in the architecture and the devil in the detail. Tiantan Park remains an important meeting place where many city dwellers start the day with a spot of t'ai chi, dancing or game-playing in the park. By 9am the park reverts to being just a park so get there early if you want to see what Beijingers do before breakfast.


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