It’s hard to believe that less than 25 years ago, China was more or less closed off to the rest of the world. In the past two decades, the country has gone through a period of rapid development and opening up to the rest of the world and the ongoing effects of that are fascinating to observe.
Temple of Heaven (Tiantan Park)
While Shanghai has long been considered a cosmopolitan and international city – evidence of which can be seen in the architecture along the Bund, and in the French quarter of the city – Beijing has more recently become an attractive place for people from all over the world to work and play.
The city sees new buildings, companies, restaurants, bars and service providers opening all the time. There is a great contrast there between the ancient culture of Beijing and its fast-paced growth.
The hutongs, or traditional neighborhoods, alone are worth seeing. Here you’ll see rows of homes clustered together in a maze that extends for several city blocks. In those that have seen less gentrification, you’ll get a taste of old Beijing, and will see people hanging their clothes out on the line, using communal bathrooms, gathering in the alleyways for a chat and patronizing the small shops that are abundant in the hutongs.
Contrast this with the scene you’ll see in many other parts of the city – such as Sanlitun, a foreigner-friendly neighborhood that now has several modern buildings, shopping malls and a slew of high-end shops and restaurants, and the difference is quite jarring. That’s part of the fun of visiting Beijing, but you’ll want to get there fast if you hope to see the hutongs in their most authentic form.
There has been tension in recent years between locals and foreigners seeking to preserve the integrity of the original structures and the government, which seeks to modernize them and make them more of a tourist attraction, or demolish them altogether in order to make way for more skyscrapers.
Certain sights in Beijing are not going anywhere – the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square – there’s no danger that you’ll miss out on these if you come to Beijing a few years from now. But the hutongs and older neighborhoods may well be gone and you’d miss a chance to see Beijing in its growth stage and get a chance to experience the real heart and grit of the city.
Beijing is not an easy place to visit. It’s exciting and rapidly changing and has lots to do in the way of nightlife, dining and entertainment, but it can be challenging to get around and really get the lay of the land at first. But it is worth the effort. It’s worth all the effort and aggravation to experience what is truly one of the world’s most fascinating cities before its modernized to the point of no recognition.
The same can be said for other parts of China as well – this is an ideal to see this massive country continue waking up from history and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to witness it.