The modern city of Bejing, which means Northern Capital, comes as a surprise to visitors. Traversed by freeways and spiked with high-rises, this vivid metropolitan area is the most dynamic place in China. For the last thousand years, the drama of China's imperial history happened here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the core of the Chinese world, and though today the city is a very different one, it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country.
Between the swathes of concrete and glass, you will find some amazing temples, and surely the grandest remnants of the Imperial Age. Suddenly, one of the country's most pleasing scenic spots lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, is one of China's most legendary sights, the old frontier line between civilizations, the Great Wall.
First impressions of Beijing are of an impressive vastness city plenty of contradictions, conveyed by the sprawl of similar apartment buildings in which most of its population of twelve million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. This impression is reinforced from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its spectacular wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian'anmen Square and the large buildings of the modern executive around it, to the office complexes that line its massive roads.
Outside the centre, the scale becomes calmer, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong, Observatory and the magnificent Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city's severe orderliness. In the suburbs beyond, the two Summer Palaces and the Western Hills have been favored retreats since imperial times.
Beijing is a conquerors’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties - the Manchu and the Mongols - and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology - the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today it is perhaps the most cosmopolitan part of China, with an international essence appropriate to the capital of a major commercial power.
The city is home to a large population, housed for the most part in separate suburban ghettos with little contact with the local Chinese. Indeed, it's quite possible to spend years in Beijing eating Western food, dancing to Western music, and socializing with like-minded foreigners.
Beijing is the vanguard of China's efforts to grapple with modernity. New buildings have been constructed, replacing the old. Students in the latest baggy fashions while away their time in Internet cafés and McDonald's, businessmen are never without their laptops and school kids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes.
Rising incomes have led not just to a consumer-capitalist society, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture. Restaurants named after revolutionary slogans have dishes from the Cultural Revolution. In the evening you'll see several groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao's favorite dance universally learned a few decades ago, and in the hutongs, the city's twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their birds and pipes as they always have done.
Beijing is a city that almost everybody enjoys. For new arrivals it provides a gentle introduction to the country and for travelers who've been roughing it round outback China, the individual comforts on offer are a delight. But Beijing is basically a private city, and one whose surface, attractive though it is, is difficult to penetrate.
Certainly there is something ordinary about the way tourist groups are efficiently moved around, plugged from hotel to sight, with little contact with everyday reality. To get deeper into the city, wander the labyrinthine hutongs, and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks, some of the best in China, where 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.
Beijing has one of the worst climates of any Chinese city. The best time to visit is in autumn, between September and October, when it's dry and warm. In winter it gets very cold, down to minus 20°C, and the mean winds from Mongolian plains feel even colder. Summer (June-August) is humid and hot, up to 30°C, and the short spring (April & May) is dry but windy.
Getting to Beijing is no hard because it is the centre of China's transport network. On a wholly practical level, it is a good place to get visas for the rest of Asia and to arrange transport out of the country like the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian trains. Beijing is a fun place, but it no characterizes the rest of the nation.