Ring roads are rectangular in central Beijing. I discovered this (though I’m probably not the first to do so) when deciding how to tackle the sheer size and diversity of the city. How to handle something this vast? Well, break it down into smaller chunks of course. So sitting in overview – literally – before a map of the districts and greater roads, I am reminded of a cross section of tree trunk: count the rings to determine the age. The modern age at least, in this case. Here in the UK, Oxford and Sheffield have one ring road, and London has effectively two; whereas Beijing has six – with a seventh existing as a possibility.
These branch arterially through the 14 districts and two whole counties that make up Beijing’s concrete sprawl as they radiate and expand into the city’s outer regions. Some are arguably more relevant to visitors than others due to the nature of the treasures or points of interest within; so let’s take a selective look, starting centrally.
Xicheng or West City contains an interesting and disparate mix of locations, borne of differing mindsets and eras. Edifices of modern government and housing for Communist leaders (an oxymoron?) exist in the same 32 sq km area as amazing temples and museums, Beihai Park and Beijing Zoo/Aquarium. That’s just a fact, not a recommendation. Generally speaking, the existence of zoos – unless tied strongly into animal protection, species conservation and with exemplary living conditions- make me want to be physically ill. Type the words “Beijing zoo conditions” into your favourite search engine and consider whether you want to “buy-in” to this particular “attraction”.
Within Xicheng there are also theatres and concert halls, the Beijing Planetarium and the numerous markets of Xidan, apparently known for prices on the good side of “reasonable”.
There’s also a Lakeside cafe/restaurant culture, a chance to explore the more well-heeled side of Beijing’s history, and the truly beautiful: National Centre for the Performing Arts which, even in photographic form, is worth viewing and even still if you have no interest in the arts per se.
It’s really something: with a deceptively simple half-ellipsoid dome design and curving cut-through delineating both opaque exterior panels and spectacular skeletal glass/titanium framework. Interior seating throughout its three halls can accommodate an audience of nearly five and a half thousand. The building stands over 46 metres high over an area approaching 12,000 sq metres and mirrors itself regally into the artificial lake it surmounts. Spectacular.
In complete contrast to the new, there is Deshengmen: “Gate of Virtuous Triumph”, a medieval survivor in the form of a city-gate built in 1437 and now consisting only of an archery tower and barbican – the gate house was pulled down in 1921, followed by the wall in which the gate stood in 1969. That’s the city wall of course: a magnificent ancient structure, lost forever. Yes, it seemed that Mao’s regime had a thing about gates and walls (the anti-history stance of course). There used to be 16 gates in the walls of Beijing, now there are only three standing in any meaningful form (one was rebuilt), along with a few surviving fragments of wall. Ask the communists. It’s amazing what people will believe, isn’t it?
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 116) Arrival Beijing #5
[Photo by 82Gab]