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THE BEST OF BEIJING
Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

Despite warnings about Beijing's pollution, the scene from my Ritz Carlton Hotel suite's windows on this April morning, encompass clear blue skies above a panoramic view of the city's financial district. In a courtyard below, citizens practise Tai Chi exercises, their elongated forms in the bright sunlight, twisting and bending in a seemingly choreographed shadow-play.

1. Tai-chi practictioners as seen from the window of my suite at the Ritz Carleton

First up on my day's itinerary is a pedi-cab ride to a traditional hutong settlement – in Beijing's old city quarter.

2. Pedi-cab rickshaws waiting for customers

3. My guide and I board a pedi-cab to visit the hutong settlement

The word "hutong" meant "water well" back in the 13th century, but today it refers to a colony of dwellings set within a warren of alleyways. It's hard to imagine living here, cheek-by-jowl with your neighbours, where the air is thick with cooking aromas and noisy vendors and where drains with kitchen waste or ditch water flow past one's door.

4. Entrance to hutong house courtyard

5. Hutong alley

6. Vendor in hutong alleyway

Yet even in this ants' nest of homes, each dwelling has its own character: specially crafted good luck stones placed below lintels of a doorway for example, or lovingly watered flowering plants.

7. Decorated house entrance door in hutong

Emerging from the hutong, a pleasant tree-lined avenue lies between the sun-flecked Houhai Lake, on one side and about a hundred restaurants and bars on the other.

8. Houhai Lake

Further on, stalls display souvenirs, toys and clothing items, and locals and visitors jam the road as far as the eye can see. Cyclists weave through the throngs, and three-wheeled vehicles, horns blaring, steer through the melee. Chinese pop music blares from a shop selling CDs and the smell of spicy fried noodles wafts out from sidewalk food kiosks.

9. Shop sign

On every visitor's itinerary is Beijings Imperial palace which is instantly recognizable from the set of The Last Emperor. As I walk through the majestic entrance gate into the Forbidden City, there is a concerted "Aaah!" from the crowd at the first sight of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, its fluted gold-glazed tiles shimmering in the afternoon sun.

13. Forbidden City – Palace Courtyard (1)

This was the centre of royal pomp and power where formal ceremonies—coronations, imperial weddings and investitures—would have taken place during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Only the Emperor could tread "The Imperial Way" that I, along with crowds of camera-toting tourists, stroll along so casually today.

14. Forbidden City- Palace Courtyard (2)

Moving from one courtyard to the next, it's as though I am unfolding a many-layered gift-wrapped treasure. Each gate opens to a new vista, with palaces bearing poetic titles imbued with meaning: The Palace of Heavenly Purity, once the private dwelling of the Emperor represents the "Yang" (heavenly energy) while The Palace of Earthly Tranquility representing the "Ying" (earthly energy)" was the home of the Empress. Red, emblematic of royal power, is the predominant colour throughout the City and every Palace boasts flamboyant ceilings with intricate interlocking wooden painted tiles. Magnificent cupolas, embellished by jade green and gold ceramic designs, and a frieze of nine imperial dragons runs along a wall by the side of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity.

15.Forbidden City Palace – Tiled Ceiling

The charismatic Dowager Empress Cixi, who rose from being a concubine to becoming Qing Dynasty Emperor Xienfeng's Imperial Consort, is a presence that dominates the elaborate Summer Palace. Built on the shores of man-made Kumming Lake, the setting is idyllic.

17. Decorated corridor adjacent to Kumming Lake, Summer Palace

18. Detail of painting mural on corridor, Summer Palace

19. Painted tile, corridor, Summer Palace

The Long Corridor that runs alongside Kumming Lake, lends itself to an imagined scene: the Dowager Empress being carried in a palanquin along with her entourage of lady attendants. Cool summer breezes would have wafted across the Lake and perhaps she too, like me, would have paused to contemplate the rich paintings that adorn the cross beams and walls, along the entire 728 metre length of the Corridor. Would she have gazed up the hillside at the Temple of Longevity while sipping tea in the exquisite Marble Boat Pavilion?

20. Tourist pleasure boat on Kumming Lake, Summer Palace

21. Marble Floating Pagoda, Summer Palace

22. Marble Decorative Bridge, Summer Palace

The next afternoon I stand on the walkway looking out from the ramparts of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, gazing at the same scene that thousands of workers, and soldiers would have looked out on from the 6th century onwards. There is an overwhelming sense of the passage of time embedded in the very stones on which I'm standing.

11. Posing for pictures – Great Wall of China

12. Sisters at Great Wall of China

I try to wipe out the clicking of cameras and the noise and chatter of hundreds of tourists, and envision a soldier more than 1400 years ago in one of the lookout towers, perhaps eating his lunch and chatting to a comrade. Or doing something even as mundane as blowing his nose! A gust of wind ruffles my hair, just as it would have ruffled his—and I can't but think that a human foible or two is what breathes life into the grand, yet impersonal, sweep of history.

IF YOU GO:

PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts

1. Tai-chi practictioners as seen from the window of my suite at the Ritz Carleton

2. Pedi-cab rickshaws waiting for customers

3. My guide and I board a pedi-cab to visit the hutong settlement

4. Entrance to hutong house courtyard

5. Hutong alley

6. Vendor in hutong alleyway

7. Decorated house entrance door in hutong

8. Houhai Lake

9. Shop sign

10. View through rampart of the Great Wall of China

11. Posing for pictures – Great Wall of China

12. Sisters at Great Wall of China

13. Forbidden City – Palace Courtyard (1)

14. Forbidden City- Palace Courtyard (2)

15. Forbidden City Palace – Tiled Ceiling

16. Kumming Lake, Summer Palace

17. Decorated corridor adjacent to Kumming Lake, Summer Palace

18. Detail of painting mural on corridor, Summer Palace

19. Painted tile, corridor, Summer Palace

20. Tourist pleasure boat on Kumming Lake, Summer Palace

21. Marble Floating Pagoda, Summer Palace

22. Marble Decorative Bridge, Summer Palace

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