4 Hours In …
Navigate China’s sprawling capital to discover authentic Chinese tea, Eastmeets-West shopping and cultural wisdom in the narrow hutong alleyways
1 TIANANMEN SQUARE
Beijing is a sprawling urban aggregation of more than 22 million people, making it difficult for the visitor who’s squeezed for time to find the right starting point. But Tiananmen Square is the city’s historical and political center and a good place to begin.
The largest public square in the world covers more than 108 acres and the scale of it is simply enormous. Standing in the middle of it is enough to give a sense of how small you are as an individual – undoubtedly the intention of former Communist chairman Mao Zedong, who oversaw its expansion in the 1950s. Tiananmen Gate at the north, with armed guards in front, has a huge portrait of him and marks the entrance to the Forbidden City, a massive complex of 980 buildings that takes hours to tour – worth it if you have the time.
In the center is Mao Memorial Hall, where the leader’s embalmed body lies, while to the east is the National Museum of China, and to the west the Great Hall of the People. However, it is the student-led pro-democracy protests of June 3 and 4 in 1989 for which the site is remembered by most of the world – an event brutally and sadly ended by government troops, not on the square itself, but on its perimeters and surrounding streets.
At the southern end of the square sits the ornate, 144-foot-tall Zhengyangmen gatehouse, originally constructed in the 15th-century Ming Dynasty as an entry point to the imperial city. Between 1949 and 1980 it was occupied by the People’s Liberation Army, but it is now a tourist attraction.
Continue to the long, pedestrianized Qianmen Street, marked by a colorful gateway. There has been a thoroughfare here for almost 600 years but as the city prepared for the 2008 Olympics, most buildings were torn down and rebuilt in the old style – a project that also saw many surrounding hutongs (alleyways) from the 1800s destroyed. Today, Qianmen is almost clinical in appearance, with signs of globalization in the form of Western brands such as H&M, Nike, McDonald’s and KFC