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Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Hutong area

Beijing is dominated by the huge Imperial Palace, completed in 1420. Since the palace was off limits to most people for over 500 years, it is also often called the Forbidden City, and is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. At one end of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square. While the Forbidden City is linked to the ancient dynasties of China, Tiananmen Square is linked to Mao Zedong and the cultural revolution. In the late 1960's, hundreds of thousands of Chinese supporters crowded the square during Mao's reign, waving his little red book and chanting his name. Tiananmen Square was also the site of the June 1989 tragedy, when Chinese troops killed hundreds of protestors during a pro-democracy rally. That tragedy continues to haunt Sino-American relations today.

Tiananmen Square was expanded in the 1950s so that it would hold over a million people and make contribution to Beijing's China tourism . Today it is full of all sorts of amazing sights such as people flying kites or practicing tai chi. Visitors also need to be prepared for the masses of street vendors trying to sell you a little of everything! We bought cute "Beijing 2008" hats for about $1, so the prices are right. Unfortunately, once you have purchased something, you become "fair game" for all other vendors. We just ignored them and marveled at the magnificent plaza, dominated at one end by the Mao Mausoleum and the other end by the gate to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is the largest and best-preserved example of ancient Chinese buildings and culture in China. It was the home to many royal dynasties of China such as the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. The Forbidden City was so massive and impressive that many emperors never even left the self-contained conclave! Most people enter the Forbidden City (called the Palace Museum by the Beijing authorities) through the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) next to Tiananmen Square. A huge portrait of Mao Zedong dominates this gate. To the left of the portrait is a slogan, "Long Live the People's Republic of China", and to the right is the slogan, "Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World."

The basic layout of the city is from the early 15th century, but many of the buildings seen today were constructed in the 19th century. The original Imperial Palace buildings were constructed by 200 thousand laborers in just 17 years. The complex has been decimated by fire, earthquakes, and war over the centuries. In the 20th century the Imperial Palace was looted first by the Japanese during World War II, and then in 1949 during the Communist takeover. Thousands of crates of relics were moved to Taiwan at that time.

The Forbidden City (must-see for last minute China travel deals) is a 200 acre massive complex of buildings and artifacts. It will take at least two hours just to walk from the Gate of Heavenly Peace through the main buildings of the Imperial Palace to the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) at the other end. Allow a couple of more hours to explore any of the outlying structures.

Travel around Hutong area

The city of Beijing originally was protected by huge walls, and each Beijing home also had a wall built around it. Walled houses were attached, forming a labyrinth old city with narrow paths connecting the maze. Anyone with a sense of adventure who wants to see a more traditional Beijing will need to explore the old city on foot or via pedicab, checking out the numerous gardens, courtyards, and alleys along the way. This ancient part of the Beijing is called the hutong. The hutong area is rapidly disappearing, replaced by modern apartments and stores.

We checked out of the hotel and our guides made sure our suitcases were loaded on the buses. Our cruise tour group then rode the short distance from the Beijing hotel to the hutong near Tiananmen Square. We climbed aboard two-person pedicabs for the fascinating ride around the hutong. It was great fun riding the narrow alleys, peering into doorways and homes. We stopped and toured a school area, but since it was a Saturday, no students were present. My husband, a retired educator, would have loved this school and hearing about the Chinese educational system. We also visited the home of an elderly retired couple, who told about their lives in China from the days of World War II, through the cultural revolution, to the present. The man was a retired accountant at a power plant, and he proudly spoke about their home, which they shared with their married son's family. The two couples had separate bedrooms, but shared a common living room, kitchen, and courtyard. The communal bathroom was down the alley, shared with other hutong residents who lived nearby. The most interesting feature of their home was a large (30+ inch) television set, which dominated the small clean living room. It was a stark contrast--no private toilet or bath facilities, but a very modern television!

We also spent time wandering the hutong area (should be stroll around for top China tours) on foot. What a marvelous photo opportunity this was! Small grocery stores, shops, and tiny eating areas all were wonderful sights. Watching women make dumplings, men grilling meats, and vendors selling their wares was simply fascinating. It was hard to imagine that modern Beijing was just a few blocks away. I think we all felt that our tour of the hutong was a highlight of our short time in Beijing.

Our three days in Beijing had come to an end. We had seen just a small part of the city's highlights, and I think everyone was impressed with the city, its history, and its people. The buses took us to the airport, where our afternoon flight to Chongqing awaited. As much as I hated to leave Beijing, I was anxious to board the Viking Century Star and cruise the Yangtze River.

You should contain the above included in your popular China tours.

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