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Passport to Beijing

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    From Imperial Hutong to Designer High Rise


    The ancient Chinese concept of yin yang espouses the philosophy that seemingly opposing forces are necessary parts of a larger whole, and perhaps no city in China lets its yin and yang hang out as boldly as Beijing. It's a place where ancient imperial palaces abut gleaming high rises, a modern metro system operates alongside a mass of bicyclers, barebones state-run restaurants share the block with glam-tastic nightclubs, and the wills of nature (we're talking ferocious dust storms from the Gobi Desert) wreak havoc on the best-laid cultural plans. What was once a quaint backwater is now a hyper-connected, tech-forward haunt of international jetsetters. How's that for yin yang to the max?

    Just like the Taijitu (traditional Chinese symbol for yin yang), the layout of the city itself comes in the form of nested circles. Those ancient royals were nothing if not scrupulous city planners: the emperor's throne in the magnificent Forbidden City lies at the city's dead center, and concentric circular roads known as the Ring Roads expand outwards from there, starting with the Second Ring Road. Generally speaking, everything within the Third Ring Road is considered central Beijing, with the majority of sights, restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and business residing there.

    It's a good thing there's some undergirding order because Beijing just so happens to be a ridiculously HUGE city. (Walking just one city block can take 15 minutes–need we say more?) The best way to approach a visit without getting completely overwhelmed is to think in bite-sized (OK, really big bites, but still...) districts, which contain a variety of distinct neighborhoods.

    On the east side of the city is the expat-friendly, entertainment-heavy Chaoyang district, which balances the yin of catering to foreigners with the yang of authentic Chinese flavor. In the lively embassy neighborhood of Sanlitun, you can soak up zen vibes with a stay at Opposite House and a Chinese foot massage at Dragonfly, or get a bit more frisky with a pint and burger at Blue Frog. In the adjacent neighborhood of Gong Ti (aka "Workers' Stadium"), you can equalize your inner yin and yang with a class at Yoga Yard, or choose bacchanal over balance with a sweaty turn on the dance floor at Vics. Things are a little more refined in Chaoyang's Central Business District ("CBD"), home to the sleek Park Hyatt and swanky Centro lounge, but even here there's a dash of excess with the Starck-designed madness at cocktail-driven LAN Club and the high-end fashion gluttony of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi.

    On the west side of the city, the Xicheng district–with a smaller business hub than the CBD–is a yin of luxury to Chaoyang's yang of entertainment. For sinfully lavish accommodations (and massages), check in at the The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street, where the spa has its own dedicated floor. Pleasure your palate with Malaysian delights at Café Sambal, and don't be shy about giving into all-out hedonism while reclining on antique opium beds and sipping mojitos at sexy Bed Tapas and Bar.

    If all this east-west trekking makes you want to return to center, head back toward the Wangfujing neighborhood, located near the city's midpoint, to explore must-see sights like Tiananmen Square. Yes, Wangfujing is touristy, but this pedestrian haven is anything but pedestrian. East meets West in the Grand Hyatt's cosmopolitan-chic Redmoon lounge, and Peking duck goes upscale in the hotel’s Made in China restaurant. International fashion powerhouses hold court with Chinese luxury brands in nearby boutiques-for-miles Oriental Plaza.

    When the city center gets to be a little too...central, take an excursion to the metropolis' margins. Watch the yin of capitalism collide with the yang of communism as professional art buyers snap up soon-to-be multimillion dollar art works in the former Communist munitions factory digs of Dashanzi Art District. Witness perhaps Beijing's greatest example of yin yang forces at the Great Wall, where nature (and Starbucks) are triumphing against the integrity of this man-made Ming Dynasty marvel. But don't feel too troubled about the encroaching development–the distinction of good/bad has never had a place in yin yang philosophy. In a city with this many contrasts, it's all good!

    Photo of the Temple of Heaven courtesy of kevinpoh on Flickr Creative Commons