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Beijing lies just south of the rim of the Central Asian steppes and is separated from the Gobi Desert by a green chain of mountains, over which the Great Wall runs. The Great Wall was built and rebuilt by a succession of Chinese emperors to keep out the marauding hordes of nomads who from time to time swept into China - in much the same way as the wind from the Gobi still sweeps in seasonal sand storms which suffocate the city. The rocks beneath the city yield bitter water, which is barely drinkable, and only the presence of a few sweet springs made the growth of an imperial capital possible.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is a vast 20th-century creation named after the Forbidden City’s southernmost gate—the Gate of Heavenly Peace. In the centre stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and behind that Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum (open to the public in the mornings only), which was built within six months in 1977 by a volunteer work force of 10,000 Beijing residents (Chairman Mao died on 9 September 1976). Previously the square gave an uninterrupted view from the city gate of Qianmen to the outer walls of the Forbidden City. On the west side of the square sits the Stalinesque Great Hall of the People, where party and national congresses are held. On the eastern side stands the huge National Museum of China, which is currently closed for a major revamp and enlargement. The work is scheduled to continue until the end of 2009, but once finished the museum, with 192,000 square metres of floor space, will be the largest in the world and home to more than a million cultural relics.

The square has been a stage for significant events in China’s modern history. Mao received millions of Red guards there in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and 10 years later it witnessed mass protests calling for the arrest of the Gang of Four. In the spring of 1989 unrest in the square threatened chaos on a larger scale, something the authorities were not prepared to countenance and in early June the inevitable crackdown took place. Beijing authorities again briefly closed the square in 1999. It emerged, repaved in granite as well as areas of green grass apparently imported from the United States, in time for the 1999 National Day parade.

The Great Wall

The only historical feature marked on maps of the world is represented by a castellated symbol which zig zags across the cartographer’s ochre-brown hues of central-east Asia. It is the Great Wall of China.

Daunted by neither landscape nor distance on its tortuous journey from desert to sea, this superlative-defying defence system, the longest, oldest, most timeconsuming, labour-intensive and material-demanding construction project in mankind’s history, is far more than a landmark: it is part of the geography of North China, the world, and beyond. Snaking along mountain ridges, the Great Wall dominates the landscape from miles around. From the air, where horizons are wider, the Wall still sits astride the horizons, reaching from where the sun rises to where it sets. And from the heavens, courtesy of satellite photography, we know the Great Wall is as prominent a geographical feature as the hand of nature at its most powerful in carving out the mighty valleys of the Yangzi and Yellow rivers.


The Forbidden City (Imperial Palace, Gu Gong)

The Forbidden City (Imperial Palace, Gu Gong) was the home of emperors from its creation by Emperor Yongle in 1420 until Pu Yi, who reigned briefly as the last Qing emperor, left it in 1924. Since 1925 the palace has been the National Palace Museum, the largest and most important museum in China.

Its exhibition halls and vaults hold some one million treasures and despite the removal of a substantial portion of the original collection to Taiwan in 1949, it remains one of the most important museums of Chinese artwork in the world. The vast pageant of halls, white marble terraces and deep red walls is now used to display many exhibitions ranging from court costumes to the imperial collection of clocks and, in the dry autumn months, rare paintings. (Much of the imperial art collection was taken to Taiwan before 1949.) The entire complex of the Forbidden City, covering 74 hectares (183 acres), was designed to overawe the visitor while reinforcing the majesty of the Son of Heaven, as every Chinese emperor was known. The palace requires a visit of at least half a day, and it can be daunting in the heat of summer, the time at which the emperor and his court retreated to cooler lakeside palaces. The palace is at its most beautiful after a light winter snowfall. To see the golden roofs at their most brilliant at any time of year, try to get a view at dawn from an upper floor on the west wing of the Grand Hotel or its Palace View Bar, or from Coal Hill.

Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)

Another stunning sight is the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan). This is actually a wonderful sequence of temples and altars set in a park as part of Emperor Yongle’s grand design. Heaven—or tian—was considered the source of harmony and spiritual authority by Chinese philosophers, and so it came to symbolize the source of imperial power.

The Temple of Heaven was the site of imperial sacrifices at the winter solstice to keep order and harmony on earth. The architecture reflects that sense of order: the northern wall of the complex is curved in a half-circle to symbolize heaven, and the southern wall is built as a square to symbolize earth. Whereas most imperial buildings have yellow tiles (the imperial colour) on their roofs, the blue tiles here are said to ‘reflect’ the colour of the sky. The main buildings and altars are also built in tiers of three to create nine dimensions of surface. Nine is the mystical number in Chinese tradition, and it also symbolizes heaven. At other times of the year, the emperor made additional sacrifices at the Altars of the Sun, Moon and Earth. These sites have been transformed into public parks and can be found in the east, west and north of the city, respectively