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Guide to historic attractions in Beijing
15:40, July 15, 2008

With its 3,000-year history, Beijing boasts some of the most renowned historic attractions in the world.

The following are the highlights of a visit to the ancient city:

The Forbidden City, or Gu Gong

As the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties for five centuries, the 72-hectare Forbidden City is the world's largest palace complex with 9,999 rooms. It lies at the heart of Beijing, just to the north of the Tian'anmen Square.

The palace, which used to be off-limits to the common people, is surrounded by a 10-meter high wall, which measures 960 meters from south to north and 750 meters from east to west. Outside the wall is a 52-meter-wide moat. It is indeed a city within a city.

Until 1924 when Emperor Pu Yi -- as portrayed in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-sweeping masterpiece "The Last Emperor" -- was driven out of the palace, 24 emperors had reigned there.

Historical data show that a million workers were involved in the 14-year building of the palace, starting in 1407. To transfer the stones quarried from outside the city, it is said that a well was dug every 50 meters along the road in order to pour water on the road in winter to slide large stones on the ice. Building materials included glutinous rice and egg whites, making the wall extraordinarily strong.

Listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987, it features numerous architectural wonders, rare ancient treasures and painted decorations. Amble through the seemingly endless courtyards and halls and you can almost smell the history.

Service: Tour guides are able to speak Chinese, English and Japanese, and audio guide machines offer services in most foreign languages, including French, German, Korean, Russian, Thai, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic and Italian.

Cost: Entrance costs 40 yuan during autumn and winter, but 60 yuan (8.8 U.S. dollars) from April 1 to Oct. 31 as a result of higher maintenance costs. A foreign-language audio guide device costs 40 yuan along with a deposit of 100 yuan.

Opening hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Oct. 15 to March 31) / 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (April 1 to Oct. 14). Ticket sales stop an hour before closing time.

Three hours might just be enough to appreciate its beauty, but of course you might need more than half a day to see most of the details.

Transport: take the No. 1 subway line and get off at Tian'anmen East. Walk through the Tian'anmen Gate under the huge Chairman Maoportrait, to find the ticket office.

More information is available on www.dpm.org.cn.

The Temple of Heaven, or Tian Tan

Lying slightly southeast the Tian'anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty as the place where the imperial family made offerings to Heaven.

Since Chinese emperors called themselves the "Son of Heaven", they built the 273-hectare temple much bigger than the Forbidden City, their own living place, to show respect for their lineage.

The complex was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1998.

The Circular Mound Altar is the key building inside the temple with three layered terraces of white marble, where the emperors worshipped on the day of the Winter Solstice every year. This ceremony was to thank Heaven and hope everything would be good in the future.

The highlight, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, is a big cone-shaped structure with round roof and three layers of eaves. Inside the Hall are 28 huge posts. The four posts along the inner circle represent four seasons; the 12 posts along the middle circle represent the 12 months; and the 12 posts along the outer circle represent 12 "shichen". Shichen is a time scale in ancient China and one shichen equaled two hours. The roof is covered with black, yellow and green glaze representing the heavens, the earth and everything on earth.

Also interesting is the Echo Wall with its 193-meter perimeter. The person standing at the west end of the wall can clearly hear a whisper from the east as the wall was built to a acoustic design.

Other sights include the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Nine-Dragon Cypress tree whose branches have grown over more than 500 years to look like nine dragons twisted around each other.

Cost: 30 yuan (Nov. 1 to March 31), 35 yuan (April 1 to Oct. 31)

Opening hours: The gates open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 10:00 p.m. (ticket sales stop at 8:00 p.m.), but the major sites in the temple open at 8:00 a.m. and close at 6:00 p.m. during the summer.

Transport: Take subway line No. 5 and get off at Tiantan East Gate station, or take a taxi.

More information is available on www.tiantanpark.com.

The Bell and Drum Towers, or Zhong Gu Lou

Bells and drums were used by the ancient Chinese to tell time as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD).

Though bell and drum towers were built in almost every city throughout the country, the towers in Beijing are said to be the largest and tallest. Built in 1272 and rebuilt twice after two fires, the towers tolled the hours during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911).

Bell Tower: Hanging on an eight-square wooden frame on the second floor, this bell is the largest and heaviest in China. It is 7.02 meters high, and weighs 63 tons. The bell is made of copper, and can be heard over great distances. The 2-meter wooden beams hanging at the sides are used to ring the bell.

Drum Tower: 100 meters south of the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower is built on a 4-meter-high stone and brick base. It is 46.7 meters high, slightly lower than the Bell Tower's 47.9 meters. The drum is beaten quickly 18 times and then slowly 18 times. This pattern is done three times, making108 beats, representing one year in ancient times.

Telling time by ringing the bell and beating the drum was abolished after Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, left the Forbidden City. On New Year's Eve in 1990, the long-silent bell rang out again. The drum was also beaten again on the New Year's Eve of 2001. Now the bell and drum are beaten every New Year's Eveto send blessings to the people.

You can climb the steep stairways up to the towers. On the Drum Tower, you can also watch a five-minute ceremony of five people beating 25 drums, which is performed every 30 minutes during the day.

Cost: 15 yuan (Bell Tower) / 20 yuan (Drum Tower)

Opening hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Transport: Take Subway Line No. 2 to Guloudajie Station, or a taxi.


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