The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace complex boasts one of the best classical Chinese gardens in the world. The walled grounds stretch around man-made Kunming Lake, about nine miles from central Beijing. Here, you can read poems, written with water right on the sidewalks. You can take a boat across the lake or ramble along a seemingly endless covered Long Corridor featuring thousands of colorful paintings of domestic and battle scenes. The biggest attraction: the marble boat. An ancient Chinese proverb says: "Water can carry the boat as well as overturn it." In this allegory, the emperor is the boat, and the people are the water. The marble boat, which, of course, cannot be sunk, is one emperor's attempt to throw such populist ideas overboard.
Another amazing must-see place is the Ming Tombs. Chinese army guards and a prominently displayed photo of Mao resting by the tombs greet you at the entrance. But duck into the internal courtyard, and it's all ancient China: tiled steepled roofs, red-orange walls, and stone carvings. Locals stop by to leave paper money in special little yellow huts in hopes their wishes will come true. In response to our question, "Where does this money go?" our guide told us: "To the Chinese government." Little stalls around the tomb sell silk Chinese hats, the sort emperors wear in the movies. Inside one of the pavilions, you can view gold bejeweled crowns of ancient Ming emperors.
My favorite part of this sprawling complex is the Sacred Way, a 10-minute bus ride away. This four-mile-long pathway leading to the Ming Tombs features sculptures of camels, elephants, and the emperor's loyal soldiers, guarding the tomb.
While in Beijing, be sure to also partake of some of the local delicacies. Beijing is famed for roast duck, of course, and we went to the world's largest duck restaurant, Hepingmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, whose prior diners include President Richard Nixon. It's a little old and dusty, but the duck is top-notch. Another must-try: whole fish, marinated in sweet sauce and with a cherry tomato in its mouth. It looks beautiful, like a prickly redfish, and the meat is wonderfully tender.
Sitting there, drinking delicious tea out of a tiny cup, I realized that I would definitely come again. After all, China is changing and building out so rapidly, it will feel like a different country in a couple of years.
Read about China's push to ready Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.