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Beijing: A city of progress, with an eye to the past

By Bruce Connolly | | Updated: 2021-10-19 15:18
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A more traditional view of a courtyard entrance on West Damochang Street, July 2021. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

In 1987, the Beijing I saw was one of former imperial splendor. It was truly fascinating to walk through the Forbidden City or take in the Summer Palace's tranquil beauty. However, discovering its many complexities and history would begin seven years later when I started exploring, on my own, the alleys of what had been old Beijing.

Gradually I realized Beijing was a city of walls within walls, containing several "mini-cities". Central to it was a 7.8-kilometer central axis line, which in recent years is gaining significant prominence as Beijing's unique early urban layout is increasingly appreciated. As a historical geographer I was fascinated by this.

One area I would spend considerable time exploring was south of the massive front gate, or Qianmen. It marked the crossing point between an increasingly imperial inner city to the north and the bustling commercial and everyday living area of the outer city beyond.

Running south from the gate, Qianmen Street was where emperors were carried between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The street, previously cluttered and congested with traffic, was renovated in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Today, as a pedestrian throughway, it mostly attracts domestic visitors who enjoy strolling its length while also cutting westward to the busy shopping and dining alleys of Dashilar.

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