The first thing to realise about Beijing is that you won't see it all in a week, or even two. The whopping scale of China's capital means that many visitors are limited to doing the obligatory rounds of famous, and admittedly dazzling sights including the Forbidden City, the Great wall, the Temple of Heaven, and the Ming tombs. The 2nd thing to know is that inital impressions of the place, generally acquired through a car window while hurtling down the airport expressway, will do little to inspire a longer stay. Recent affluence and preparations for the 2008 Olympics have created a frenzey of demolition and development, with the inevitable construction-site dustbowls. The city's new roads, absorbing new cars at an estimated rate of 30,000 each month, now experience jams of almost Bangkok-ian magnitude.
Other aspects of city life are making giant leaps forward and living standards are rising fast. Beijing's notoriously gritty, dank air is improving, the number of clear blue sky days is up more than 200 each year. Beijing is also coming of retail age. Shopping has yet to reach the sophistication of say, Hong Kong, but even so it's hard to leave the city empty handed. The city's markets are attractions in themselves. practice your haggling skills at Pearl market. sift through the treasure and trash at Panjiayuan market during a weekend. For bargain clothes, shoes, and leather goods, Yashow market is the place to be.
There are plently of other low-key sights, too, and some are undeservedly overlooked. While the masses trail through the Yonghe Gong temple for example, it's possible to have the Ancient Architecture museum to yourself. This interesting museum is situated in a renovated temple complex at 21 Dongjing Lu, Xuanwu district.
Sometimes, the best places to hang out are just near or around the famous sights, along the wall that surrounds the Forbidden City, for example, you can spot old men fishing in the moat.You can catch glimpses of the iconic Temple of Heaven through the 500-year-old thuja trees in the vast tranquil Tiantan Park. Just after sunrise, this park fills with locals meeting to exercise, dance, play checkers, or practice traditional opera.
Getting the most from a visit in Beijing isn't difficult, but it does require some planning. The use of English is limited, so buy a decent guide book beforehand. A good map is vital too, with streets and sights marked in English and Chinese too.