Travel: Power to the people

Explore the Great Wall and the Forbidden City - then see the real Peking.
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The Independent Culture
There are probably three ways in which a Western traveller can approach a visit to Peking. He or she can fly in, dewy-eyed, in search of some overly-romanticised, mysterious China which supposedly still lurks behind a mythical bamboo curtain.

Alternatively, after the all-important trips to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the more realistic traveller can set out through the polluted, traffic-clogged streets to experience some of the huge social changes underway in an over-populated, half-reformed Communist country.

Or one can simply take the view that modern Peking is best used for its shopping potential; one can easily cover the cost of a cheap London-Peking return air ticket by stocking up on a year's supply of cut-price clothes (Monsoon, Laura Ashley, and even the occasional Shanghai Tang can be found in the markets at the moment), freshwater pearls or children's toys.

Except in the case of the most myopic package-tour traveller, the romantic view of Peking is unlikely to survive the journey from the airport to the city hotel.

"I just was not prepared for the ugliness," said a recent guest, as we sat trapped in the afternoon's stasis on the Third Ring Road, flanked by towering socialist apartment blocks to one side, and China's contribution to 1990s architectural design to the other - heavy rectangular buildings clad in the ubiquitous white tiles and blue glass. Better then to let the occasional charming scene take you by surprise, and concentrate instead on talking to some of the city's population of 11 million locals and migrants about their fast-changing lives.

Unemployment is the scourge of China's late 1990s, and Peking is no exception. The country's centrally-planned heavy industries were hopelessly over- manned for decades and are now being forced to shed workers by the millions. Stop and talk (with the help of your tourist guide) to people hawking goods on the pavement, and the odds are that they were "sent home" by some loss-making local factory. If they are lucky, they will still be receiving a subsistence wage, but others have been left to fend for themselves, often opting for life as a street trader or setting up a mobile food stall.

Departing from the normal tourist trail, take a taxi out to the Capital Iron and Steel Works in the far West of the city. This is one of China's giant state-owned enterprises, with 218,000 people on its payroll, one- third of whom are not needed. It's unlikely that a tourist will be able to talk his way through the front gate, but even from outside the perimeter fence, one can appreciate how these mammoth state factories functioned as self-sufficient towns, with housing, schools and even hospitals all part of the cradle-to-grave "iron rice bowl" which is now being dismantled. When the urban hell gets too much, continue westward out of the city to the tranquillity of the Tanzhe temple, a serene spot usually deserted during the week.

For a complete contrast, head back to the north-west of the city, towards the university district, to investigate Zhongguancun, the thriving computer centre of Peking. Adverts on the windows of the dozens of small shops give the prices of components which upstairs are assembled to your specification within 24 hours. Outside on the streets, pirate CDs and CD-ROMs can be purchased very cheaply, in between the occasional appearance of the "Intellectual Property Police".

A trip to one of the city's Internet cafes to send messages home to Britain can round off an afternoon in "New China", before checking the new local English-language fortnightly guides, City Edition and Metro, to decide on the evening's restaurant, concert, or disco.

For a glimpse of how large numbers of ordinary Pekingers still live, go for a wander in the hutong alleys to the north-east of Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) Park. There are other parts of Peking where beautiful courtyard houses have been lovingly restored by millionaire Hong Kong businessmen or newly rich locals.

But most of the dilapidated traditional one-storey homes in Peking provide cramped living quarters, devoid of both privacy and modern conveniences. Everyone has a television, but no one has a bathroom. During the day, the old people are often at home, and with suitable tact (and perhaps a small gift), you can venture into some of the entrance yards. The public toilets and bathhouses can be found along the main hutongs. The question is what to do about rehousing people, but also preserving something of old Peking. The city's government is currently clearing many of these old neighbourhoods, usually for commercial development, and relocating people into apartments out in the suburbs. But little is being done to conserve something of the past.

Shopping is a major Chinese pastime, so after all the sight-seeing you should feel no guilt about loading up with bargains. The "Silk Alley" market, just near the US Embassy, is well-frequented by both foreigners and Chinese and, with some stern negotiations over price, offers genuine brand name items to obvious counterfeits, from smart suits to anoraks. For ordinary consumer goods, there is Hong Qiao market, opposite the east gate of Tiantan Park, although those with claustrophobic tendencies should avoid the weekend crush.

On the third floor is the popular pearl market, its stalls run by peasant girls from Zhejiang province who have been transformed into very rich businesswomen. The early-morning weekend outdoor curio market just west of Panjiayuan Bridge on the east side of the Third Ring Road is fun, but get there before 9am.

Everything in China is negotiable, but some naive tourists still get fleeced. If anyone starts calling you "lao pengyou" (old friend), you can assume you are about to be had. And remember, nothing you buy can possibly really be Ming dynasty.

Between them, Air China (0171-630 0919) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly daily, non-stop, between Heathrow and Peking. Lower fares and more choice can be found on flights to the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region of China. British passport holders need no visa to enter Hong Kong, but beyond that you need a Chinese visa, which is most easily obtained through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL (0171- 836 3688); this agency charges pounds 10 on top of the normal pounds 25 fee. You need your passport, a completed application form and one photograph. Allow a week for processing. You can obtain a visa more quickly in Hong Kong if you are travelling to China via the SAR, and pay only HK$100 (about pounds 8).