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Beijing Essentials

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A guided tour of the city’s top attractions, accommodations and dining.

Agent@Home MagazineIf your clients are visiting Beijing for the first time, they should take in top historical attractions but also get a sense of the city as it exists today. That’s exactly what Imperial Tours, an upscale operator offering FIT and small group programs, provides in its three-day program showcasing the city, which in this case was part of a 10-day program including Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai.

Beijing itself is a modern capital city with wide boulevards lined by government buildings and corporate offices. It’s also one of the great repositories of China’s imperial past, with such iconic attractions as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. Here’s a rundown of the sightseeing, accommodations, dining, guides and transportation offered during this Imperial Toursprogram.

SIGHTSEEING: On the first day in Beijing, the tour visited the Temple of Heaven (first built circa 1420 during the Qing Dynasty), the most famous of the four main temples in the city. A complex of courtyards and buildings for worship, all surrounded by trees and gardens, the Temple of Heaven is a popular gathering place for local residents seeking to socialize, exercise (Tai Chi), dance, and play music and games, and so it truly provides a way to interact with the locals.

From the Temple of Heaven, the tour then moves to Beijing’s antique market, a large outdoor emporium of statues, furniture, china, old phonographs and Chinese military uniforms. If your clients are into Chinese antiques, this is clearly a market they need to visit.

The tour then visits Tiananmen Square, the giant open space where the famous student protests occurred in 1989 and where massive rallies took place during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Visitors can see Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum and the Great Hall of the People, where the annual National Communist Party Congress is held. On one side of the square is the giant gate to the Forbidden City, adorned with a large portrait of Mao.

The tour proceeds through that gate into the inner sanctum of the Forbidden City, where over the centuries some 24 Chinese emperors resided. Visitors pass through a series of courtyards and gates to Chong Jing Dian (the Hall of Adoration), which was the throne reception room of the emperors. The highlight of the Imperial Tours visit is a private viewing of one of the many intimate palaces where the emperors actually resided—the Chong Hua Gong (Palace of Double Brilliance), which features exquisite sitting rooms and sleeping chambers, as well as small inner courtyards.

The second day of the Beijing program showcases the Great Wall of China, located a little more than an hour’s drive on a superhighway from the center of the city. The Great Wall remains one of the seminal wonders of the world, stretching as it does for more than 4,000 miles over steep hills and through five provinces of China. Construction began in the 7th century B.C. and continued on for hundreds of years as various stages of the wall were linked to keep out the invading Mongols.

Imperial Tours usually organizes a special lunch on the Great Wall, but winter weather forced cancellation of those plans on this particular trip. Instead, the tour group visited the wall at Mutianya, a highly developed tourist area where visitors take a cable car (four to a car) up the mountain, since the wall is located on a ridge high above the valley. There they can walk in either direction on the wall’s wide top as it climbs and descends steeply along the ridge. They also can take in spectacular views from ramparts of the structure as it undulates along its path.

On the third day in Beijing, the tour spends time visiting the famous Summer Palace in the outskirts of the city. This huge, park-like complex is located around Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake, which is entirely man-made. Construction was begun in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong. In 1888, it was given the name Yihe Yuan, and served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who reconstructed and enlarged it. In December 1998, UNESCO put the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.”

Like many other parks in Beijing, including the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace also serves as a gathering place for the local residents, who use it for outdoor dancing, exercise and games. You can rent small pedal boats on the lake and see a giant stone boat (not one that floats) once used for ceremonies and now for parties.

ACCOMMODATIONS: This particular Imperial Tours group was housed in the Raffles Beijing,  located on Chang’An Avenue just a short walk from Tiananmen Square. The 171-room Raffles Beijing was originally known as the Beijing Hotel and was the first official hotel in the city, dating from 1900. It has a long and colorful history (Mao reportedly enjoyed taking tea and dancing in the ballroom when he ruled in Beijing). Under Raffles’ management, the property has been transformed into a well-appointed luxury hotel with very traditional décor but modern conveniences. The old building flows into a newer addition that houses restaurants, a spa and several shops.

Another option offered by Imperial Tours is the Park Hyatt Beijing, which opened in 2008 as the tallest hotel in Beijing in a 63-floor building. The hotel’s 237 very modern and spacious rooms take up only floors 27-49, while the lobby, spa, pool and restaurant are located on other floors.

More bucolic but less convenient to the center city is the Aman at the Summer Palace,  located in the park next to the Summer Palace. The property, which is built to look like the Summer Palace, has just 57 rooms spread out among buildings situated around nine courtyards. Accommodations include eight guestrooms, 10 courtyard guestrooms, eight suites, 17 deluxe suites, seven courtyard suites and an Imperial Suite. While the Aman property is very traditional in its accommodations, it offers a giant spa, pool and fitness center (a total of 300,000 square feet) capable of serving far more than its guest population. There are also squash courts and a large screen room with reclining chairs.

DINING: One of the great pleasures of China is its cuisine—and this Imperial Tours program offered a wide variety of dining experiences. The tour begins with a Western-style meal in the Raffles Beijing at Jaan, which is decorated in 1920s style and offers a dance floor and crystal chandeliers. Breakfast was in East 33, another restaurant in the modern section of the hotel, which offers a buffet with a large number of selections.

Lunch on the first day was in the China Grill restaurant at the top of the Park Hyatt Beijing. The fare included a wide variety of Asian specialties, but the main reason for dining here is the great views of the city. Dinner that night showcased a very modern side of Beijing—a trendy restaurant called the LAN Club Beijing, located on the fourth floor of the LG Twin Towers. Designed by Philip Starck, the restaurant features framed paintings that hang upside down from the ceiling and different kinds of chandeliers over a large dining area. It serves a new wave version of Chinese cuisine.

Lunch on the second day was at a restaurant, spa and bath house called Green T. House Living Bath House & Spa.  Located in the Beijing suburbs in a warehouse district, this restaurant serves modern Chinese meals all themed around tea. Guests dine on massive long communal tables and sit in designer chairs that have backs soaring to the ceiling. The tour group then visits the adjacent bathhouse and spa, which are in another building similar in construction but containing two loft rooms, where guests can book an overnight stay, and a giant in-ground tub that can be filled with tea for day spa treatments. There’s a full kitchen, bathrooms, a large fireplace and a hot tub on the roof.

Dinner that night was in a traditional Beijing courtyard house called the Cheng Courtyard Restaurant near the Forbidden City. The establishment is overseen by a young chef whose grandfather served as personal cook to Mao Zedong. The chef himself comes out during dinner to show photographs and tell stories about his grandfather’s experiences with Mao and other Chinese Communist Party officials. The cuisine is very traditional Chinese, but the exclusivity of the experience is what sets apart this dining event.

GUIDES: Imperial Tours provides a China Host, often an American or European who speaks fluent Mandarin, who acts as the tour leader but also is available to dine with guests and help them shop or interact with locals. The company also employs knowledgeable local guides, who provide a commentary on top attractions and insight into life in China today and in the past.

TRANSPORTATION: For ground transportation, Imperial Tours uses an 18-seat minibus for groups of six or more (plus the China host and local guide). It can also offer a private car or minivan depending on the size of the group. Guests fly into Beijing’s giant and ultra-modern international airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics in 2008.

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