48 hours in Beijing, China’s compelling capital city

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A huge portrait of Mao Zedong hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City, a closed network of nearly 1,000 buildings from which China was remotely ruled for close to 500 years. (Reuters)
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A trip outside Beijing to the fabled Great Wall can be easily done by booking one of the readily available half-day minibus excursions to the ever-popular restored brickwork of Badaling. (AFP)
Updated 11 August 2018
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48 hours in Beijing, China’s compelling capital city

  • No traveler should leave China without ticking off three headline attractions — The Forbidden City, Summer Palace and The Great Wall
  • Grab a workers’ lunch at Wangfujing Snack Street, a lively alleyway where locals chow down barbecued cockroaches, grasshoppers and scorpions,

SINGAPORE: If you’re only planning to spend 48 hours in Beijing, then you’ve already made your first mistake. Of course, the same could — or should — be said of every capital city, but frankly, the impenetrable sprawl and intensity of bucket-list attractions of the world’s most populous capital put it in a league all of its own.
No traveler should leave China without ticking off three headline attractions — The Forbidden City, Summer Palace and The Great Wall — each uniquely headline-grabbing, gasp-inducing manmade marvels united only by their rare ability to clog one’s windpipe on first viewing.
And despite the distances between them, with a little planning one can fit all three icons into two days, and still have ample time to soak up 21st Century Beijing.
Start by ticking off the Summer Palace, the glorious complex of gorgeous gardens and picture-postcard pavilions that served as a retreat for generations of Chinese emperors. Set over three square kilometers around the tranquil Kunming Lake, it’s as quintessentially “Chinese” a sight as you might ever see.
Take a cab back toward the center and grab a workers’ lunch at Wangfujing Snack Street, a lively alleyway where locals chow down barbecued cockroaches, grasshoppers and scorpions, alongside more conventional street food. From there, you’re within striking distance of the looming, monolithic might of the infamous Tiananmen Square, the northern side of which is flanked by the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the sprawling, closed network of nearly 1,000 buildings from which China was remotely ruled for close to 500 years. Today, a huge portrait of Mao Zedong hangs over the entry passageway.
Allow the rest of the afternoon to explore its ornate majesty, off-limits to mere mortals for centuries.
Nearby is the National Center for the Performing Arts — a dazzling , domed venue known to locals as “The Egg” — which has been hailed as the center of the much-touted Chinese classical music revolution since opening in 2001. Here, you can catch a world-class symphony, or dabble in traditional Peking Opera.
A great spot to stay locally is the Zhong An Hotel, handily located near the main Beijing Railway Station. It also serves as an extra tourist attraction — it was the former residence of Edgar Snow, the American journalist who penned the influential “Red Star Over China.”
A trip outside the city to the fabled Great Wall is mandatory for day two. To make the most of your time, it’s advisable to book one of the readily available half-day minibus excursions to the ever-popular restored brickwork of Badaling. However, for a more authentic experience, dodge the crowds and touts by riding out to Wangjing West Station and hopping on a local bus to make the 130km journey to the untamed, hikeable stretch of the wall at Jinshanling.
Upon your return, head to the ancient Drum Tower and explore the area’s “hutongs” — narrow, Insta-ready alleyways bristling with color, quirks and tradition.
After soaking up the past, get a taste of how today’s young and affluent Beijingers do things by stopping for a bite at the hip Punk Rock Noodles to refuel, before heading to check out the city’s thriving underground music scene. Nearby hotspot Temple Bar programs multiple original bands nightly, of a uniformly intriguing standard, while downstairs in the same DIY building block Dada Bar serves edgy electronic beats until well past your bedtime.


Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

Updated 21 September 2018
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Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

DUBROVNIK, Croatia: Marc van Bloemen has lived in the old town of Dubrovnik, a Croatian citadel widely praised as the jewel of the Adriatic, for decades, since he was a child. He says it used to be a privilege. Now it’s a nightmare.
Crowds of tourists clog the entrances to the ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as huge cruise ships unload thousands more daily. People bump into each other on the famous limestone-paved Stradun, the pedestrian street lined with medieval churches and palaces, as fans of the popular TV series “Game of Thrones” search for the locations where it was filmed.
Dubrovnik is a prime example of the effects of mass tourism, a global phenomenon in which the increase in people traveling means standout sites — particularly small ones — get overwhelmed by crowds. As the numbers of visitors keeps rising, local authorities are looking for ways to keep the throngs from killing off the town’s charm.
“It’s beyond belief, it’s like living in the middle of Disneyland,” says van Bloemen from his house overlooking the bustling Old Harbor in the shadows of the stone city walls.
On a typical day there are about eight cruise ships visiting this town of 2,500 people, each dumping some 2,000 tourists into the streets. He recalls one day when 13 ships anchored here.
“We feel sorry for ourselves, but also for them (the tourists) because they can’t feel the town anymore because they are knocking into other tourists,” he said. “It’s chaos, the whole thing is chaos.”
The problem is hurting Dubrovnik’s reputation. UNESCO warned last year that the city’s world heritage title was at risk because of the surge in tourist numbers.
The popular Discoverer travel blog recently wrote that a visit to the historic town “is a highlight of any Croatian vacation, but the crowds that pack its narrow streets and passageways don’t make for a quality visitor experience.”
It said that the extra attention the city gets from being a filming location for “Game of Thrones” combines with the cruise ship arrivals to create “a problem of epic proportions.”
It advises travelers to visit other quaint old towns nearby: “Instead of trying to be one of the lucky ones who gets a ticket to Dubrovnik’s sites, try the delightful town of Ohrid in nearby Macedonia.”
In 2017, local authorities announced a “Respect the City” plan that limits the number of tourists from cruise ships to a maximum of 4,000 at any one time during the day. The plan still has to be implemented, however.
“We are aware of the crowds,” said Romana Vlasic, the head of the town’s tourist board.
But while on the one hand she pledged to curb the number of visitors, Vlasic noted with some satisfaction that this season in Dubrovnik “is really good with a slight increase in numbers.” The success of the Croatian national soccer team at this summer’s World Cup, where it reached the final, helped bring new tourists new tourists.
Vlasic said that over 800,000 tourists visited Dubrovnik since the start of the year, a 6 percent increase from the same period last year. Overnight stays were up 4 percent to 3 million.
The cruise ships pay the city harbor docking fees, but the local businesses get very little money from the visitors, who have all-inclusive packages on board the ship and spend very little on local restaurants or shops.
Krunoslav Djuricic, who plays his electric guitar at Pile, one of the two main entrances of Dubrovnik’s walled city, sees the crowds pass by him all day and believes that “mass tourism might not be what we really need.”
The tourists disembarking from the cruise ships have only a few hours to visit the city, meaning they often rush around to see the sites and take selfies to post to social media.
“We have crowds of people who are simply running,” Djuricic says. “Where are these people running to?“