When it comes to getting bums on seats and bodies in beds, hosting the world’s biggest sporting event is about the best leg-up a city can hope for.
With the 2008 Olympic Games less than nine months away, Beijing is awash with plans for the 4.5 million-odd tourists expected to flood the city. The games will run August 8-24, 2008 and construction of the 31 Beijing-based venues is well advanced.
The centrepiece, the National Stadium (dubbed the bird’s nest for its rounded, woven design), has a seating capacity of 91,000 and will be used for football and athletics competitions, as well the opening and closing ceremonies.
Beijing’s subway system is undergoing major expansion that will see a further seven lines created and some 80 new stations built, including a direct link to Beijing Capital International Airport. In the airport itself, 11 unmanned trains holding up to 83 passengers will travel around the terminal.
But the PR hasn’t all been positive: concerns over the potential for boycotts from pro-Tibetan organisations dominated the bidding process, while China has also been battling problems with air pollution both in Beijing and neighbouring areas.
But the show must go on and overwhelming demand for the first round of tickets earlier this year suggests it will. On the sporting front, spectators can choose between 28 sports in 302 events. Applications for the second round of tickets are currently open until December, and the final round opens next year from April to September.
Even if you’re not a sporting fanatic, Beijing is a brilliant destination where you can easily fill a couple of days or weeks sightseeing in and around the city. As the final stop on an east-bound Trans-Siberian railway route, Beijing also provides an impressive conclusion to one of the world’s most fascinating train journeys.
During the lead-up to the games, though, the Olympic tourism machine has gone into overdrive, pushing the image of ‘an Ancient Capital in the East and the Homeland of the Great Wall’.
Indeed, the Great Wall is high on the list of any best-of Beijing tour – but be warned: you may need some Olympic-style stamina to tackle the climb. Once there, the view of the mountainous terrain commands a genuine appreciation of this remarkable engineering achievement and the history it contains.
Camera-toting tourists gather in stifling numbers on Beijing’s other famous attractions, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Although my guide neglected to mention it, Tiananmen Square was the centre of major protests in 1989 against the Chinese Communist rule, which saw hundreds of protesters killed or injured.
Today you can wander freely about the world’s largest public square and gaze upon Chairman Mao’s portrait before walking through the Meridian Gate and into the Forbidden City.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was once off-limits to plebs, known only to the emperor and those who worked or resided with him. Home to the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, the scale and beauty of this walled world are impressive.
In a city of 15 million people, it can be hard to find a little bit of Beijing to call your own. Thankfully, the city is blessed with some beautiful parks with locals engaging in anything from t’ai chi to group singing.
The Temple of Heaven Park ticks the respite and recover boxes particularly well for weary tourists with acres of peaceful parks surrounding an ancient and full-preserved temple.
And if you’re planning to visit during the Olympics, a little bit of time out might be a welcome addition to your itinerary.
10-19 days, prices from £499
Seven million tickets will be sold to the public for the 2008 Olympics, but at this stage applications have only been made available to domestic residents. This should extend to everybody nearer to the games with the final round of tickets going on sale from April 2008. Applications can be made through the official ticketing website http://en.beijing2008.cn.
Prices for events range from 30-1000 Yuan (approx. £2-£65), with tickets to the preliminary events priced at and below 300 Yuan (£20). Ticket prices for the opening and the closing ceremonies (good luck scoring these) start at 200 Yuan (£13) and 150 Yuan (£10) respectively. Some of the sport events such as road bike, road walk and marathon are free of charge.
While you’re there
1 Take a hutong tour
Away from the shiny, public facade of Beijing’s tourist hotspots you’ll find the mikado alleyways that make up the city’s traditional, residential areas. They’re largely unmapped so it’s best not to explore the cement-walled warrens at dusk. If you’re worried about getting lost then take one of the several hutong tours on offer outside Beihai Park. Whizzing round the ancient neighbourhoods on a rickshaw, peeking into daily lives of cooking, cleaning and washing, it’s a great way to see a heritage rapidly being bulldozed for more modern housing.
2 Munch on a grasshopper
Fried scorpion, boiled starfish, chicken hearts and chrysalis of silkworm. These are just a few of the interesting delicacies you’ll find at the Donghuamen night market near Wangfujing. A must for adventurous travellers with tastebuds to match, it opens
at dusk and closes at 10.30pm. For fare less obviously aimed at tourists, head to Wangfujing Snack Street where you’ll find a cheap and cheerful selection of restaurants and food stalls that are just as popular with locals as they are with visitors.
3 See a mummified leader
It’s almost worth heading to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall just to see the queues. You think your local post office is bad? Hours before the mausoleum doors even open, a 10m wide line of Mao Zedong devotees stretches halfway round the vast Tiananmen Square. It goes down faster than you might think, though, thanks to the unsmiling guards ushering visitors rapidly past the embalmed corpse. Controversial as his legacy might be, Mao is, in general, held in high regard in China. For many, seeing his body is an emotional pilgrimage and most Chinese tourists will buy flowers to lay respectfully at his feet.
4 Go on a lakeside bar crawl
North of the Forbidden City is the neighbourhood Houhai (officially called Shichahai), where three man-made lakes surrounded by weeping willows and dotted with rowing boats create a laid-back urban oasis. Lovely as the area is by day, the best time to visit is night when the area’s several bars and restaurants come to life. For bustling pubs with throbbing music, stick to the lake shores. If you’re after something a bit more relaxed, wander a couple of streets back into the hutongs (not too far, mind) and you’ll find some hidden gems.
5 Bag some bargain souvenirs
If you’re dismayed by the rows of international boutiques in Beijing’s main shopping district Wangfujing, then jump in a taxi (they’re really cheap, but you’ll need your destination written in Chinese) to Panjiayuan market. Just outside the town centre, the huge hall is overflowing – literally, several stalls line the outside – with goodies. From antique vases to chopsticks and Mao memorabilia, it’s a one-stop shop for mementos of your trip to Beijing. (Amy Adams_
• Janelle Estreich travelled to Beijing as part of a 15-day Highway to China Trans-Siberian rail journey with On The Go (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com). Trips range from £499.