Peking is full of contradictions. Follow the tour guides and you'll miss the point. Teresa Poole should know. She lives there
On about day three of a typical China package tour, Western visitors to the capital city tend to wake up suffering from "Jet-lag Peking duck Syndrome". It marks the first of many victories to be scored by China over unwary foreign tourists.

The idea seems to be to exhaust the city's visitors into submission at an early stage. Within 48 hours of arriving, the tour group will have been marched through Tiananmen Square, around the Forbidden City, up the Great Wall and down again, and herded through the Ming tombs. The Peking duck banquet, in all its greasy splendour, represents the final assault on the innocents abroad. Tour group members awake the next morning feeling their stamina already drained and wistfully remembering how they spurned the option of a trip to Bali.

That is when the more robust might profitably decide that a tour-group holiday in China is rather missing the point. Peking's temples cannot compete with those in South-east Asia, the food on offer to tourists is mostly dreadful, and there is none of the opulence of many other Asian capitals.

Peking is an ugly, polluted, corrupt city whose population has a developed sense of disdain for foreigners. Yet that is part of the reason to come. For Peking is also, arguably, the most extraordinary capital in the world, the political centre of a country that 16 years ago decided to re-invent itself using a melange of Communist control and capitalist free-for-all. Off the tourist trail, life is a bundle of contradictions, conflicts and annoyances, where sometimes it seems that the only Asian value left is an insatiable desire for money.

These are complaints voiced by Pekingers themselves. Of course, visit the Great Wall, but it is the country's most recent history that will leave the deepest impression on any visitor who makes a bit of an effort. Most Western tourists arrive already aware of the contradictions. They remember the graphic TV pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown when the Chinese army stormed through Peking killing unarmed protesters. Yet, since then, the "story" from China has been one of unprecedented economic improvement, streets jammed with imported saloon cars, a real- estate development bonanza, and an export industry that has suddenly put "Made in China" labels in products across the world.

That contrast is precisely what makes Peking such an interesting city. Most foreigners, for instance, complain heatedly about the traffic. Yet watch, for a moment, how many of the fanciest cars carry the tell-tale white number-plates which identify them as military or People's Armed Police vehicles. Marvel at the city's traffic police who, about six weeks ago, metamorphosed overnight into human robots. It was part of a propaganda exercise aimed at brushing up the image of the police. Now they stand on their podiums, choreographed into perfect uniformity, never an arm bent out of line.

It is in Peking's lanes - or hutongs - that you can glimpse the old world of the city. Around Houhai Park, or to the east of Dongdan shopping street, you can wander down any lane, and the challenges of modernising such a city immediately become apparent. These are the traditional courtyard homes, picturesque from the outside but on the inside usually desperately crowded and lacking in such luxuries as toilets. Look into the yards to see the bizarre mixture that makes up many family's lives: the inevitable bicycles, a wall of cabbages stored during the winter, and in the main room state-of-the-art television and karaoke equipment.

On a Sunday, head for one of the city's parks, perhaps Beihai or the Temple of Heaven, for the most romantic view of Peking life. Soon after dawn, blue-suited old men will arrive, carrying their songbirds in cages which they hang in the trees. For hours they play chess, or sit idly talking. Throughout the early morning, local Pekingers turn up to take their daily exercises. In my local, Ritan Park, old women exercise their brains (they say) by walking backwards, Chinese of all ages practice shadow boxing and other martial arts, and one group of middle-aged women meet for disco keep fit.

This is, of course, not the modern Peking hurtling down the expressway of economic reform. For that, visit a big shopping centre (try the Landao department store or the Hongqiao indoor market), and see a national retail spending spree in action. Wander through the outdoor market of "Silk Alley" and see if you can resist the advances of the hawkers selling pirated CD-Roms from southern China for a fraction of the cost back home. Bravely go where few Westerners dare to tread - a Chinese karaoke lounge, and witness the major national pastime.

If it all gets too much, do not retreat to some hotel restaurant where the menu is printed in English. The Chinese, for all their nationalistic fervour, are at their most tolerant in situations involving food. Pick any brightly lit restaurant, order a round of Peking draught beers (Beijing jia pi), and point to a few key words in the Chinese phrase book. It will probably taste awful, but the look on everyone's faces will be worth every unidentifiable mouthful.

Six of the best sights in Peking

The Great Wall: Not to be missed. Those with sturdy legs and knees should head for the wall at Simatai, while anyone who might need a cable- car ascent is best off at Mutianyu.

The Summer Palace: On the north-west side of Peking, the gardens are beautiful in summer and winter. On the return journey into the city, try to stop off at some of the traditional villages near the old city moat.

Mao's Mausoleum: He looks like wax, and from time to time there are reports that he is leaking, but the Chairman's body stays where it is because it would be far too politically sensitive to move him. You can stock up on tacky Mao memorabilia by the exit.

Prince Gong's Palace: An unusually quiet retreat north of the Forbidden City. The gardens are very peaceful, and the palace gives some idea of what life was like for the well-connected before 1949.

The Pearl Market: Situated on the third floor of the Hong Qiao indoor market, on the north-east corner of the Temple of Heaven. Head for a vendor called Ms Bai at stalls 113 and 123, provider of freshwater pearls and semi-precious jewellery to Mrs Thatcher (complete with framed photograph).

Chaowai Antiques Market: Near the north-west corner of Ritan Park, these two warehouses offer a selection of Chinese knick-knacks, and a few real antiques. Never mind if it is a modern copy or an outright fake, just bargain very hard. (True antiques cannot be exported from China without the necessary documentation.)

How to get there

British Airways and Air China fly non-stop twice a week between London Heathrow and Peking, but the lowest fares are available from discount agents for travel on other airlines. For example, Campus Travel (0171- 730 8111) has a fare of pounds 493, including tax, on Air France from London, Birmingham, Edinburgh or Manchester via Paris.

How about by rail?

Regular trains operate between Moscow and Peking, with connections from western Europe and to Hong Kong. Most travellers make the week-long journey only in one direction, and fly the other. A basic round trip comprising a flight from London to Moscow, train to Peking and onwards to Hong Kong, with a flight back to London, would cost around pounds 750 through companies such as Bridge the World (0171-911 0900), Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) and the Russia Experience (0181-566 8846). There are endless stopover possibilities, but these can add substantially to the cost.

How tangled is the red tape?

British passport holders need a Chinese visa, which is most easily obtained through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane WC2H 9DL (0171- 836 9911); this agency charges pounds 10 on top of the normal pounds 25 fee. Allow a week for processing. You can obtain a visa more quickly in Hong Kong if you are travelling via the territory, and pay only HK$100 (about pounds 8).

There have been some reports that the documents of British visitors are being checked especially assiduously by Chinese officials because of the political differences over Hong Kong.

What about flights to Hong Kong?

Air fares are generally lower to Hong Kong than direct to China. STA Travel (0171-361 6262) has a fare of pounds 487 on Emirates via Dubai. Numerous travel agencies in Hong Kong make arrangements for China: Phoenix Services (00 852 2722 7378), based in Kowloon, will arrange tickets and accommodation in China.