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Beijing Information

With all the modernization taking place in Beijing these days, it is easy to forget the Chinese capital dates back more than 3,000 years. Yet remnants of the city's rich past have survived into the 21st century.

Even before China was unified in 221 BC, Beijing served as the capital for early dynasties, as well as off and on for dynasties since then. It has pretty much served as the nation's capital since the Yuan Dynasty when Kublai Khan made Dadu, as it was known then, his capital. Modern travelers today can walk on Qinghua Island where he stayed on his first visit in 1261. The island, located in Beihai Park, is marked by the famous White Dagoba Tibetan-style temple. A short distance north, the Drum Tower, built in 1272, marked the geographic center of the city and houses a museum today.

At one time walls 78 feet thick surrounded the city, with entrances at 11 gates. Travelers can identify where these gates were by looking for "men" in the pinyin names of places. For example, one gate, Jianguo, was located in central Beijing where one of Beijing's main streets is known as Jianguomen. Other gates were located at Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, and Deshengmen on Second Ring Road. Independent travelers should remember Deshengmen, a huge stone building, because it's where public buses depart for the Great Wall, which was built to defend China from northern invaders. As a defense mechanism, it didn't work that well, since invaders only needed to find breaks in the wall to get through, as did Genghis Khan and then his grandson, Kublai Khan.

Yongle emperor Zhu Di renamed the city Beijing or "northern capital" in 1403, and began construction of the Forbidden City, home to centuries of Chinese emperors, in 1406. The last emperor to live there was Pu Yi, crowned when he was but a toddler and abdicated a few years later.

Today Beijing is a thoroughly modern city, filled with upscale shops and five-star hotels, but a city where one can find glimpses of its glorious past by walking just a couple of blocks or so off the beaten path. Still the seat of Chinese government, the city is home to perhaps 20 million people, second in population only to Shanghai.

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