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The Forbidden City's red walls and golden roof tiles. Labyrinthine lanes running through low-slung grey brick hutong neighborhoods. Futuristic skyscrapers punctuating the horizon in all directions, broad avenues and the expanse of Tian'anmen Square. Traffic jams and dust storms, ancient imperial gardens and bustling electronics markets.... Beijing (Běijīng, 北京) holds an astonishing range of experiences for the curious and adventurous.

Steeped in the past even as it focuses with all its might on the future, Beijing is continuously emerging and re-emerging on the global stage, cementing its place as the capital of a bona fide world power after hosting the 2008 Olympic Games. Since the Olympics, vast areas of the city have been transformed as new high-rise complexes displace old hutong warrens, yet Old Beijing holds fast in surprising ways and places.

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North of the traditional Han Chinese heartland, Beijing has been at the center of China's cultural and political life for the better part of seven centuries, although archeological record show the first human settlements in the Beijing area occurred as early as the 11th century BC.

During the 8th century AD, the Yan Kingdom established its capital, Yanjing, in the area, but later relinquished control to the Qin Dynasty, which unified China in 221 BC after the Warring States Period.

Later known as Jicheng, Beijing remained a center of trade, government and military operations, defending China from aggressive northern tribes. In 938 AD the Northern Liao Dynasty established a second capital near Beijing, called Nanjing (a different city entirely from the Nationalist capital Nanjing, Jiangsu). The Liao built the first city walls, which were expanded by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, who made it their capital in 1153 AD, once again renaming the city, this time to Zhongdu.

In the 13th century AD, after the Mongol invasion, Beijing fell under the jurisdiction of Kublai Khan, serving as the capital of the Yuan Dynasty under the names Khanbaliq (Mongolian for "grand home of the Khan") and Dadu ("great capital"). This metropolis impressed explorer Marco Polo so greatly that his tales of his time in the court of the Khan inspired generations of European explorers to seek better trade routes to the East.

After several more regime changes, Yongle (1403-1425), ruler of the Ming Dynasty, seized power; leveled all Yuan Dynasty buildings; initiated the construction of many of modern Beijing's most famous landmarks, including the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven; and renamed the city Beijing ("Northern Capital").

As the capital of Imperial China for the next 586 years, Beijing witnessed wars, corrupt Emperors and Empresses, foreign attacks (the British and French in 1860) and revolts (the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, for one).

As the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) decayed at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, ceding territory to Western colonial powers and Japan, Beijing became a center of political agitation as nationalist students demonstrated against Qing corruption, in favor of modernizing China. The city fell into turmoil after the fall of the Qing, changing hands repeatedly during 1911 and 1912.

The end of World War II brought about the end of the Japanese occupation that began in 1937 and the abolition of all foreign concessions in the city, restoring Beijing to Chinese sovereignty. After four more years of civil war, the Communists emerged victorious and on October 1, 1949, in Tian'anmen Square, Mao Zedong proclaimed Beijing the capital of the People's Republic of China.

As previous rulers had often done, Mao made a symbolic break with the previous order by reinventing Beijing. Between 1965 and 1969, the old city wall were torn down. Hundreds of temples and monuments were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and old neighborhoods were leveled to broaden boulevards and enlarge Tian'anmen Square.

The upheaval of the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao's death in 1976, and in the years that followed, China began its reform and opening up economic policy under Deng Xiaoping. Along with economic changes, many Chinese began to look for increased freedom of expression and broader political reform.

Beijing students took the lead, challenging the status quo with the Democracy Wall in 1978-1979 and a decade later with the protests that culminated in the tragic 1989 Tian'anmen Square face-off between the People's Liberation Army and demonstrators. Deng's economic reforms have continued under subsequent leadership, fueling China's epic economic boom.

That boom has transformed the city even further, as new highways, subways, apartment blocks, office complexes and shopping hubs have been built atop the sites of ancient neighborhoods and far-flung suburban fields alike, making today's Beijing a city of relative superlatives. It's one of the most crowded, most populous, most active (and, at times, most polluted) metropolises in the world.

The test now, in the wake of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is to see if China's capital can live up to its promise as a global hub of culture as well as of industry and of innovation rather than imitation.


The best times to visit Beijing are spring (April and May are nicest) and fall (September and October can be beautiful). Beijing experiences cold and dry winters, with January temperatures falling to -8ºC (17ºF). By July, the city's average highs exceed 30ºC (86ºF) as Southeast Asia's monsoon system pushes hot and humid air northward, bringing with it regular rains.

Spring and summer also see occasional sandstorms, as sand and dust from the Gobi Desert blow into the city. Air pollution often combines with humidity and dust to create a thick smog that blankets the city, but since the clean-up-the-skies initiatives launched for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there have been a few more "blue sky" days annually.

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