World ? Asia ? China ? Beijing

Beijing: In Three Days

It's time to get away from the city center. For the third full-day tour, we take you to the far northwest corner of Beijing. The district is home to China's top two universities, the self-styled Harvard and M.I.T. of China, as well as the Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University (BLCU), where you can find foreign students from all over the world learning Chinese. Nestled amongst all the student bars and Wi-Fi cafes are a couple of imperial playgrounds. Start: Take a cab to the east gate of Peking University (Beida Dong Men).

1. Peking University (Beijing Daxue or "Beida")

This is China's most famous university and its campus has seen plenty of action in its hundred-odd years. Beida, as the university is commonly known, was traditionally home to student activists, including some of the leaders of the infamous Tian'an Men demonstrations of 1989 (ironically, the campus has a road called Minzhu Lu, Democracy Road). You can ponder the campus' historical significance from the rocky seats surrounding Weiming Lake. Better yet, if you're visiting in winter, rent some skates and take a spin around the frozen lake.

Exit from the east gate and walk 800m (1/2 mile) north to the major T-intersection marked by the west gate of Tsignhua University (gaggles of Chinese tourists will be taking their photos here). Turn left and walk 400m (1/4 mile) to:

2. The Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan)

If pushed for time, just visit the northeast side of the park, which is home to the remnants of the Xi Yang Lou (Western Mansions). These buildings were razed by British and French forces in 1860, a year before Cixi rose to Empress Dowager status. They featured spectacular fountains and housed magnificent European art, but it could have been worse -- the Anglo-French forces considered destroying the Forbidden City.

Head to the park's east gate, beside the parking lot, to find:

Take a Break -- It's worth coming to Mima (Zuo You Jian) just to enjoy the architecture: The cafe consists of a minimalist loft with an outdoor maze of rice paper domes, punctuated by clusters of bamboo. Don't miss the original bathroom design. Mima serves simple snacks and cold beer. (tel. 010/8268-8003).

Give your feet a rest and take a cab to:

3. Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan)

Later in her rule, Cixi spent a considerable amount of time in this watery imperial playground, even setting up her own photographic studio. Modeled on Hangzhou's West Lake, the complex was ransacked by foreign troops in 1860 and 1900, and restored under Cixi's orders, on the first occasion with funds earmarked for the navy. The lake is the gem of the palace: Escape the crowds for an hour or so by hiring a boat, or in winter a pair of skates. On land, allow 3 hours for a cursory look around.

Proceed to the south exit to join a rusty "imperial yacht."

A short cab ride north brings you to:

4. Fragrant Hills (Xiang Shan)

This outdoor playground has been around since 1168. It covers 160 hectares and the highest peak is supposed to look like an incense burner. Take the chairlift to the top for a leisurely purview over Beijing's northwest district for ť30 ($4/ţ2) one-way, ť50 ($6.65/ţ3.35) return. The multitude of pools, pavilions, temples, villas, and ancient trees make it an idyllic picnic spot, far removed from the din of the city traffic. In 1949, Mao Zedong stayed here while commanding the battle of crossing the Yangtze River, which clinched victory over the Nationalist forces. The building that played witness to this shining moment of Communist history is now maintained as a shrine.

Take a cab to the Wudaokou metro stop.

Take a Break -- You are now in Wudaokou, a coffee shop/bar/bookstore area that has sprung up around the metro stop of the same name. It is a veritable hub of intellectual activity where all the foreign students come to hang out, study, and party. Sculpting in Time (Building 12, Huaqing Jiayuan, Chengfu Lu, south of the metro on the street that runs parallel to the tracks; tel. 010/8286-7025) is a cafe in the heart of this youthful area. It serves some excellent coffee with free wireless Internet to boot.

Take the metro one stop to Da Zhong Si and explore:

5. Da Zhong Si

This Qing temple now houses the Ancient Bell Museum (Gu Zhong Bowuguan). It was once known as Juesheng Si (Awakened Life Temple), but clearly there wasn't enough awakening going on, so a 47-ton bell was transported here on ice sleds in 1743. The third hall on the right houses clangers garnered from around Beijing. Some were donated by eunuchs wishing the relevant emperor long life, with hundreds of donors' names scrawled on their sides. But frustratingly, none of this is fleshed out in the museum. The main attraction is housed in the rear hall -- a big bell carved inside and out with 230,000 Chinese and Sanskrit characters. It tolls once a year, on New Year's Eve. Visitors rub the handles of Emperor Qianlong's old washbasin, and climb up narrow steps to make a wish while throwing coins through a hole in the top of the bell. But it is no longer the "King of Bells" -- that honor now goes to the 50-ton bell housed in the Altar to the Century (Zhonghua Shiji Tan), constructed in 1999 to prove that China could waste money on the millennium, too.

Navigate the confusion of the metro system by changing trains twice to get to the Wangfujing stop. Get out here to explore:

6. Wangfujing Dijie

In contrast to today's first destination, this pedestrian mall is "new China," the side the regime is desperate for you to see. Those with weary legs may wish to duck into Oriental Plaza for coffee and air-conditioned comfort, while the energetic can sample part of our Walking Tour of Wangfujing.

Be sure to reach your final destination before sunset.

Take a Break -- With nothing but air between you and the Forbidden City, the rooftop bar Palace View Bar (Guan Jing Jiuba) offers a magical spot to view Beijing's pollution-enhanced sunset. Open June through October. In the Grand Hyatt (tel. 010/6513-7788, ext. 458).

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