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From ancient walled capital to showpiece megacity in barely a century, Beijing (Běijīng, 北京), spins a breathless yarn of triumph, tragedy, endurance and innovation.

Layers of History

Capital of China since Kublai Khan came a-knocking (with a hundred thousand Mongol horsemen behind him), Beijing has hosted the last three imperial dynasties: the Yuan (Mongols), the Ming (Han Chinese) and the Qing (Manchu). Hutong, the city's residential alleyways, are a Mongolian legacy. The Forbidden City? Hat-tip to the Ming. Summer Palace? The Qing. Nor does it stop there. Chairman Mao slumbers in Tian'anmen Square, hallowed turf for the Communist Party of China. And over it all loom giants like the 528m CITIC Tower, which topped out in 2018. What next for this restive superpower? You're about to find out...

Have You Eaten?

In Beijing, chī le ma? (have you eaten?) is literally how locals greet their neighbours. Food is the glue that binds all Beijingren, no matter their beliefs or bank balance. Whether you're slurping noodles, queuing for jiānbing, or guiltily rolling just one more Peking duck pancake, you're in good company. A mouth-watering melting pot, Beijing hosts exotic regional cuisines from across China, which equates to unbridled adventure for foodies.

State of the Arts

From Peking opera troupes to world-class contemporary art, Beijing draws on a profound well of creativity, and that's despite the vagaries of censorship. To give the government its due, museums are more numerous than ever, curation is less prescriptive and innovation is at an all-time high. China's finest universities feed Zhongguancun, the 'Silicon Valley' of Beijing, which is making seismic waves with its breakthroughs in AI and Big Data. At the humbler end, post-punk bands drone away in divey livehouses, local DJs get the hands in the air, while old folks still warble the revolutionary songs in the city parks.

Party Capital

Undisputed party capital – the Communist Party, that is – Beijing is a uniquely micromanaged megacity, a showpiece where the State's latest schemes are piloted to the populace. 'Xi Jinping Thought' is the guiding mantra (Xi being China's prez for the foreseeable future). When Beijing needs to get things done, it gets things done. Air pollution? Improving year on year. Winter Olympics in a snowless city? No problemo. Country-wide surveillance? Easy-peasy. The world's biggest airport, Daxing, was ready to open at time of research, as ever more bullet trains race outwards to the provinces. All in a day's work for Beijing.

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