Greg Baker  /  AP file
Chinese soldiers prepare to take part in a mass run held to mark 500 days until the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square Sunday March 25, 2007.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/30/2007 1:06:18 PM ET 2007-04-30T17:06:18

In Chinese literature and art, the crane is an important symbol, representing both long life and the wisdom that comes with age. It’s been replaced in the day-to-day life of China, however, with a more ubiquitous type of crane: the building crane.

Visit Beijing and you see a city that’s literally exploding, adding skyscrapers and other buildings (many in preparation for the 2008 summer Olympics) at a breakneck pace, the skyline of the city revised every few months or so. While the following itinerary concentrates mostly on the must-see, classic sights of Beijing, be sure to take some time to simply wander the streets and see 21st century Beijing being fashioned before your very eyes.

8:30 a.m. - 1 p.m.: You have only a day, so lace up your sneakers and dash. There are far too many important sights to see in this amount of time, and you’ll need to accept feeling disappointed and rushed (sorry!). Start at Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, an unremarkable building with extraordinary people-watching opportunities; you’ll be startled at the level of veneration this long-dead leader still inspires in his visitors. TiananmenSquare itself is your next area of concentration, the scene of both historic parades and squelched protests. Built to awe, it’s the world’s largest plaza. But even that famous square pales in comparison with The Forbidden City , the palace that served as home to 24 emperors between 1420 and 1923. Its entrance is on the north side of the square. Within are a dazzling array of imperial gardens, magnificent halls, and 980 other assorted rooms (about half are open to the public); on guided or audio tours you’ll learn about the royal family, the concubines and the many eunuchs (1500 when the monarchy was routed in 1923) who once lived here.

Daylong alternative
You know you want to see it. If you’ve already done the Forbidden City, head to Ba Da Ling to see The Great Wall . The first part of the wall to be opened to tourism, this section was begun in 1368, and has been restored to its Ming Dynasty appearance. Though this stretch gets mighty crowded, it also has the convenience of a cable car (for those who can’t make the difficult walk to the top) and an on-site museum. 

1 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.: Picnic. There are no good restaurants near the Forbidden City or the Great Wall and your time is limited. Pick up supplies at a small market near your hotel or ask your hotel to pack you a portable lunch.

1:30-5 p.m.: Cycle through the fast disappearing Hutongs. These neighborhoods of tiny winding lanes (sometimes with streets as little as 20 feet wide) once snaked throughout the city, but today they’re being bulldozed with abandon. Before it’s too late, book a two-wheeled tour with Cycle China .

5:20 p.m. - 6:40 p.m.: Again, you know you want to try it. So sample Beijing Duck at the restaurant where locals go to indulge, Beijing Dadong Kaoya Dian . You order a whole bird or a half, and it comes out crisped to perfection and sliced into moist slabs, sided by garlic, green onion, and radish plus plum sauce to smear on top and pancakes to wrap it all up in.

7:15 p.m. - 9:15 p.m.: Shanghai’s acrobats may be more famous, but the Beijing Acrobatics Troupe are definitely making a name for themselves, too. Catch their fast-paced extravaganza of pretzel contortions, plate spinning, extreme balancing and lightning-like flips.

10 p.m. -  on … The ’90s are cool again at The Den , a dance club where you’ll get down to the music of MC Hammer (yes, his tunes are still being played in this corner of the globe), Boyz 2 Men and Brandy. If you’d rather make your own music, head to Cash Box , grab a cold one and the mic for a fun-filled night of karaoke.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Chairman Mao’s Mausoleumis at the south end of Tiananmen Square. It’s open Mondays-Saturdays 8 - 11:30 a.m.; sometimes also 2 p.m. - 4 p.m. (usually Tuesdays and Thursdays). Admission is free. Since no bags are allowed in the building, you'll have to store whatever you have with you in a building across the street, directly west: ¥10 ($1) per piece.

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There’s no admission charge to enter Tiananmen Square. If you’re jetlagged anyway, you may want to head over at dawn for the daily flag raising ceremony.

The Forbidden Cityhas an entrance on the north side of Tianannmen Square across Chang'an Dajie, phone 010/6513-2255; www.dpm.org.cn. The palace is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during summer, until 4:30 in winter. Admission is ¥60 ($8) in summer, dropping to ¥40 ($5) in winter but you’ll pay extra to visit many of the halls and gardens inside. Audio tours cost ¥40 ($5) or you can hire an English speaking guide for between ¥200-¥350/$25-$44 per person, depending on tour length.

There are many places to see the Great Wall. If you choose Ba Da Ling, you can take bus no. 919 (which runs daily from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m., about every 30 min.; it’s a 1-hour trip; cost ¥10/$1), which leaves from the east side of Desheng Men. A slightly more comfortable option is to take one of the air-conditioned city-sponsored tourist (you) buses (phone 010/6779-7546): You no. 1 leaves from the northeast side of Qian Men (daily 6 a.m. - noon, every 20 min.; ¥50/$6), and you no. 2 leaves from Dong Zhi Men and the Beijing Railway Station (daily 6:30-10 a.m., every 30 min.; ¥50/$6); the price includes Juyong Guan and one of the Ming Tombs (usually Ding Ling). A round-trip taxi will cost about ¥300 ($38).  The ticket office at Ba Da Ling is open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is ¥45 ($6) in summer, ¥40 ($5) in winter. A round-trip ride on the cable car costs ¥50 ($6) per person.

Cycle China, phone 010/6424-5913; www.cyclechina.com.

Beijing Dadong Kaoya Dian, Tuanjie Hu Beikou 3 on the east side of East Third Ring Road, north of Tuanjie Hu Park, Chaoyang East, phone 010/6582-2892.

The Den, is at the intersection of Gongti Dong Lu 4A, next to the City Hotel (Chengshi Binguan), phone 010/6592-6290. Cover is ¥30 ($4)

Cash Box, Qian Gui; tel. 010/6588-3333. Open 24 hours.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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