In Beijing, evidence of China's astonishing growth greets the visitor at every turn, from the ultra-modern Bird's Nest Olympic stadium to the Egg, the city's sleek performance centre. But while China's meteoric rise is in no doubt, what does it mean for the Chinese people – and for the rest of the world?
The answer – or part of it at least – may lie a few kilometres north-east of Beijing's centre in 798, a burgeoning arts district showcasing the cream of Chinese contemporary art and thereby affording a glimpse into the country's modern soul.
Far removed from classic Beijing attractions such as the Forbidden City, this collection of former munitions factories lies in a nondescript suburb just off the thundering Airport Expressway and can only be reached by taxi – but once you arrive the creative buzz is unmistakable. Over the space of just a few years, the old East German-designed buildings have been converted into a diverse complex of galleries, shops and cafes.
Fashionable young Chinese and foreigners, cameras slung over their shoulders, wander up and down the tree-lined and traffic-free streets, dipping in and out of the galleries, some housed in big refurbished spaces, others in smaller and more ramshackle buildings in various stages of development.
In fact, with squads of Chinese labourers busy digging up the roads and the information office still under construction, 798 can be confusing for the first-time visitor. I needed some advice, and the art bookshop Timezone 8 seemed like a good place to start.
"In 2002, empty new office buildings and imported cars were all you could see of China's modernity," says Robert Bernell, the shop's 46-year-old Texan owner, describing how Chinese artists drawn to the area by cheap rents attracted international attention.
"So it became a request that world leaders would make, to see this grassroots artistic creative district that they had heard about. It was dynamic and very free. People wanted to see the contemporary side of China."
At the same time, the Chinese authorities decided to allow the creative district on the city's periphery to flourish, Bernell says.
"They know China can't just keep making widgets for other countries, it has to have creative people making value-added products if it is to move beyond where it is now. For that you need a certain amount of artistic freedom," he adds.
"Contemporary China is what we see around us and artists are responding to that with a critical attitude, looking beyond the surface and asking difficult questions."
Opposite Timezone 8 is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Robert Bernell's first recommendation.
The non-profit gallery, owned by Belgian food tycoon Baron Guy Ullens, opened to global acclaim in November 2007.
Employees there say it aims to be one of the dominant exhibition spaces in Asia. The Chinese art market recently overtook France to become the world's third-biggest, after the United States and the United Kingdom.
Inside, the gallery has been painted completely white and some of the former factory machines have been retained in a significant nod to the past.
The show is a retrospective of the Paris-based Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping and big ideas are in play. The largest piece is a vast wooden skeleton of a python, suggesting that both viewers and art itself are somehow digested by the gallery system. Twin scrolls three metres tall bearing verses from the Quran and Tibetan script recall the Twin Towers and the Tower of Babel.
But I'm looking for Chinese artists' reflections on their country's modernity. I begin wandering into galleries at random and make discoveries: photos of people wearing scuba masks in towns destined to be flooded when China completes its massive Three Gorges dam system; paintings looking at growing up in new urban China and examining attitudes to authority. It's exhilarating viewing.
Exhausted by so much information, it was time to flop down in one of the outdoor cafés with a cold drink before walking out into the bustle of urban Beijing and hailing a taxi. Chinese artists may not have easy explanations for what changing China means – but they are thinking about it on levels beyond simple statistics. And thanks to them, I am too.
But if it is classic China you crave, then what better place to start than Beijing. There are things that simply must not be missed, no matter whether they are modern or not. The Great Wall is the country's top attraction. Work on the Wall began more than 2,000 years ago, its purpose being to keep out marauding barbarian hordes from the north, and an estimated 180 million cubic metres of earth went into its original construction as well, it is said, as the bones of the labourers who died making it.
Tours to the Great Wall, located in the mountains north of the capital, are easily arranged through a variety of operators such as Beijing Service (beijingservice.com/tour/greatwalltour). Visitors should bear in mind that climbing the Great Wall involves some serious exercise – the steps are extremely steep in parts – and are advised to avoid going on weekends, when the site becomes heavily crowded with tourists.
The weekend warning also goes for Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square, and the Forbidden City, located just to the north of it through the Gate of Heavenly Peace bearing the famous and very large portrait of China's Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao Zedong.
Tiananmen, notorious for the pro-democracy protests of 1989 in which hundreds died, is today a great place to observe ordinary Chinese from all walks of life as they show up to get the obligatory photo in front of Mao's portrait. The Forbidden City was the residence to emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties over a period stretching from the early 1400s to 1912 and is the largest collection of ancient buildings in China. It is open from 8.30am to 4pm.
Once you have gorged yourself on all this culture, it is time to gorge yourself on the best Chinese cuisine has to offer. The city is packed with restaurants of all descriptions – but one of the most diverse ways to fill your stomach is to head to Wangfujing Snack Street, to the west of Tiananmen Square. Scorpion, seahorse and cockroach kebabs are just some of the unusual delicacies to be had in this small but well-signposted street off the main shopping drag.
Then jump in a taxi and head north of the Forbidden City to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, the hippest hutong street in all Beijing. Beijing's hutong are areas of single-storey courtyard homes giving onto narrow streets. Over the course of the 20th Century, living conditions in the hutong worsened and today vast areas of hutong are being demolished to make way for office and housing blocks. But Nan Luo Gu Xiang has not only survived the cull, it has become home to a welter of trendy cafés, bars and restaurants and throngs with an international crowd of young people, offering a glimpse of how China can pull its old and new together into a vibrant contemporary scene.
BERNELL'S 798 TIPS
- The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (ullens-center.org)
- The Long March Space (longmarchspace.com)
- Commune (beijingcommune.com)
- Continua (galleriacontinua.com)
- Beijing Tokyo Art Projects (tokyo-gallery.com)
LEARN THE LINGO
The Chinese are working hard to learn English – but even in the capital English is not widely spoken. Thus, a few words of Mandarin may come in handy.
- Ni hao?: How are you?
- Xiexie: Thank you
- Wo qu Tiananmen: I would like to go to Tiananmen Square.
- Yi ge hao de fandian zai nar?: Can you tell me where to find a good restaurant?
- Zhe she duoshao?: How much is that?
Emirates airline has daily direct flights to Beijing. (www.emirates.com)
WHERE TO STAY
All the major hotel chains have hotels in Beijing but the St Regis Hotel consistently gets good reviews (21 JianGuomenwai Dajie, +86-0-10 6460 6688, starwoodhotels.com/stregis/index)
WHERE TO EAT
Cheap eats are on offer at Wangfujing Snack Street, a few blocks west of Tiananmen Square. In the 798 art zone, Sichuan Chinese cuisine can be had at No6 Sichuan Food (+86-0-10 6432 3577). At the top end, the Courtyard restaurant by the Forbidden City offers unparalleled views and international-standard cuisine (95 Donghuamen Avenue, +86-0-10 6526 8883, courtyardbeijing.com)
BEST TIME TO GO
Now – the city is buzzing with pre-Olympic fever and China is the talk of the world.
Beijing has the biggest seasonal temperature variation of any city. It is very hot in summer and extremely cold in winter.
Visitors from most countries require a visa. Contact the consulate in Dubai (dubai.china-consulate.org/eng/)