Beijing, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in July 2012
Beijing's Tiananmen Square, 56-second video clip
Beijing's Forbidden City, #1, 47-second video clip
Beijing's Forbidden City, #2, 31-second video clip
Crowds in the Forbidden City, 32-second video clip

I’ve had the recent good fortune to visit the megalopolis of Beijing three times in 18 months.  China's capital, with a population of about 20 million and heavy traffic to match, is a fascinating tourist destination now sporting five ring roads!  Although construction of the city itself was begun in the thirteenth century under Kublai Khan, Beijing's Forbidden City, the gigantic palace compound which hosted emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for nearly half a millennium and which today is considered the city center, was only developed in the early fifteenth century.  Interestingly, Beijing, with populations of 600,000 in 1450 and 1.1 million in 1800, was the world's largest city for most of the four centuries between 1425 and 1825. 

There have been many changes since I first traveled to Beijing back in 1984.  Where armies of bicyclists once crowded the city's thoroughfares, now instead one sees millions of modern automobiles, including many sporty models only rarely spotted in the West.  Although local transportation has changed completely over the years, my favorite places to visit in Beijing have not.  I always enjoy sightseeing in the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and of course at the Great Wall of China.  In recent years some gems of modern architecture have also blossomed in Beijing. 

The Forbidden City, a rectangle 961 meters (3,153 feet) by 753 meters (2,470 feet) surrounded by a wall nearly 8 meters (26 feet) high, contains nearly 1,000 buildings; and its axes still form the central axes of modern-day Beijing.  A palace museum since 1925 and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, the Forbidden City is said to contain the world's largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures.  Although many of the museum artifacts were spirited away to Taipei by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1940s, there is still plenty to view today.  Tourists, who enter from one end of the huge complex and exit from another, pass through a dizzying array of gates and halls en route.  The 30-meter (98-foot)-high Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest.  Tourists can expect to spend 90 minutes or more making their way through the maze-like Forbidden City.

Originally constructed in 1420 and rebuilt several times since then, Tiananmen (or "Heavenly Peace") Square lies opposite the Forbidden City gate of the same name.  In more recent years this square, the world's third largest after its 1958 expansion, became infamous as the site where, in 1989, pro-democracy forces attempted to stare down government tanks.  The National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People were both constructed on the square in the late 1950s, and in 1977 the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong was also situated there.  Today almost all foreign tourist groups walk in Tiananmen Square and pose for photographs with the Forbidden City gate behind.   

The early fifteenth-century-built Temple of Heaven used to be visited semi-annually by the emperor, thought to be the son of heaven, to offer sacrifices and pray for a good harvest.  The delightful circular design and layout of the complex are based on complex Chinese cosmology.  Only in 1918 was the area turned into a public park.  

Undoubtedly the most amazing tourist site in the vicinity of Beijing is the Great Wall, which can be visited at several locations outside town.  Various walls, built as early as the seventh century to keep out nomads, were joined together eventually; and surveys show that a total of 6,260 km (3,890 miles) of wall was created in China.  Sections of the Great wall near Beijing have been reconstructed.  On my last visit I was forced to walk the last mile or so to the Great Wall due to a massive local holiday-caused traffic jam.  By the time I reached the World Heritage Site, it was dark; but I still scaled the Great Wall and photographed it at night under lights.

My favorite pieces of modern architecture in the city are the EGP 2.5 billion Beijing National Stadium (the so-called “Bird's Nest"), which opened in 2008 for the summer Olympics, and the unusual-looking and spectacular 44-storey headquarters skyscraper of China Central Television (CCTV), consisting of a loop of six horizontal and vertical sections, which opened in the same year.  Beijing, which has much to offer nowadays in terms of its ancient structures and modern creations, should be on everyone’s wish list.  The least expensive round trip restricted economy class airfare from Cairo to Beijing on Egypt Air’s non-stop flights is approximately EGP 4,100.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 316 of the 321 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open Saturday through Thursday 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  Web site:

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