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Beijing: City of contrasts

Beijing's Forbidden City, once home to China's imperial dynasties
Beijing's Forbidden City, once home to China's imperial dynasties  

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Beijing is a city more closely associated with Chinese operas, contorted acrobats and giant Communist edifices than with the sports of a Summer Olympics.

The capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing carries the burden of a somber history of political upheaval and social repression.

It is home to a mixing pot of politicians and diplomats, students and intellectuals.

Beijing's chief landmark is the enormous Tiananmen Square, in the center of which is the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the father of China's communist regime.

Dominating one side of the square is the ominous Great Hall of the People while nearby is the gate to the magnificent Forbidden City, which for hundreds of years was home to China's imperial dynasties.

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Ask a local what they think of Beijing and more often than not they will tell you of its 'glorious history' and 'ancient civilization' spanning some 5000 years.

The key statistics

The following are key official statistics on Beijing: POPULATION - 13.82 million, including rural counties. LAND AREA - 16,807.8 sq km (6,490 sq m). PER CAPITA GDP - $2,700 (2000). PER CAPITA INCOME - $1,251 (2000). ANNUAL OVERSEAS VISITORS - 2.82 million (2000). MOBILE PHONE SUBSCRIBERS - 3.3 million (2000). INTERNET SUBSCRIBERS - 2.8 million (2000). AUTOMOBILES - 1.58 million (2000). BICYCLES - 8 million.

The city is undoubtedly a showcase of Chinese history, and it boasts a boundless number of museums, mausoleums, temples, parks, palaces and galleries.

The reminders of Beijing's long and turbulent history are apparent even during a short cab ride.

On the way out of town is the impressive Summer Palace, which stretches some 2.5 kilometers from east to west. It was burnt to the ground by French and English troops in the 19th Century during the Second Opium War, but was later restored by the corrupt Empress Dowager Cixi.

Still further out, on the fringes of the Beijing Municipality, is China's best-known landmark, the 2000-year-old Great Wall.

Millions of tourists pass through Beijing each year if only to take a stroll along a stretch of the wall, which in fact is in many segments and in places is little more than moss-covered rubble.

Like much of China, Beijing is a study in contrasts. Its older generations maintain an austere manner more in touch with the frugal years under Mao, while its youth carry mobile phones, attend rave parties and wear designer labels.

Carrying the paradox further are the sleek office buildings and shopping malls that sit side by side with ancient hutongs, or traditional old alleyways.

Towering high above the streets is a forest of construction cranes carefully piecing together shard after shard of glass that will eventually protect a new wave of consultants, lawyers, accountants and engineers from Beijing's notorious dust storms.

At street-level, food stalls tout barbecued meats as well as all manner of deep-fried bugs. The Chinese tendency to eat almost anything that moves holds as true in Beijing as it does anywhere else in this nation of 1.3 billion mouths.

From dog to duck

All manner of food is available in the capital
All manner of food is available in the capital  

If you want to gnaw on a sauteed scorpion, you can. You might want to sample some dog meat, or more likely you'll be looking for the famed and fatty Peking Duck.

Although the streets are teeming with police and security guards, there are markets where you can sift through pirated DVDs and fake fashion goods.

On many street corners you will see the ubiquitous McDonald's sign or its emerging competitor to global domination, the Starbucks coffee house

Until recently, Beijing's musical legacy has been one of distinctive Chinese operas and world-renowned classical musicians.

But stroll into a nightclub today and you're as likely to be bombarded by techno as you are to catch a local version of the all-singing, all-dancing boy band.

Meanwhile, the city's arts scene is experiencing something of a renaissance as closer ties with the West nurture fresh ideas and a growing number of migrants feed on a variety of cultural influences.

"China has gone through drastic changes over the past few years and the transformation is so fast that people feel they are not able to catch up," says artist Zhang Xiao Gung.

Cultural renaissance

Beijing's nightlife is also full of contrasts, from boy bands to techno and everything in between
Beijing's nightlife is also full of contrasts, from boy bands to techno and everything in between  

"Since the nation started to open up to the outside world, there have been a lot of exchanges of cultures with foreign countries. Beijing is not only a city for Beijingers any more, it is a city of different cultures and ethnic diversity."

Standing in front of a portrait of Mao with a bow tie and painted female lips, artist Feng Zhengxie says Beijing's stern political façade belies a thriving cultural underbelly.

"Beijing is a city that is very political on the surface but is really a very accepting city," he says. "It's a very interesting and dynamic city."

As a budding Olympic city, Beijing has some work to do on its sporting image. It is home to State-run schools full of tiny gymnasts being bent and plied, tossed and twirled.

Cyclists are abundant but most bicycles would be older than their riders, while joggers can relish the city's flatness while inhaling coal smoke, dust and exhaust fumes.

Still, its residents are confident that this city is well on its way to graduating from being the stuffy capital of a developing nation to being viewed by the rest of the world as a bustling modern metropolis.

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