China, the world's oldest surviving civilization, approximates the size of our country at 3.6 million square miles, but with 1.3 billion people, it holds 5 times the population. Every fifth person on the planet speaks Chinese. They're speaking it now to an American who's bending to photograph the sedan chair bearers at Beijing's Bell Tower, a structure built in 1272. Suddenly he's bundled into the chair and trundled around by four grinning porters. In former days, such chairs, which were reserved for the emperor, required 36 porters. "Why do I rate only four?" the visitor asks. "Tourist class," the Ritz Tours' guide answers.
Actually, going with Ritz is a first-class way to see this country. The company (800-900-2446; www.ritztours.com), the largest tour operator taking Americans to China, has been in service for 20 years and has snapped up the best guides, who are all fluent in English. Sometimes you wish they weren't so fluent. "Why are the people smiling at us?" I ask. "Foreigners are still new," the guide replies. "They call you 'big noses.'"
It seems that those button-nosed people enjoy Americans. They believe, "The Chinese invent everything, the Japanese copy everything, and the Americans buy everything." Such national pride ignores China's lackadaisical attitude to intellectual property rights, but this is a country on the move, and, clichÃ‰ though it is, the United States needs it as a friend and not an enemy.
It is said that China's distant past is best seen in Xian, with its terra cotta soldiers, and its future in Shanghai, with its spectacular architecture. However, for the feel of China's last 800 years and its very soul, the visitor has to head for its capital, Beijing.
Beijing is China as we know it. Here are the vast reaches of the Forbidden City, breathtaking despite the unattractive Soviet-style buildings of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Beijing is home to the Temple of Heaven, where emperors prayed to their gods for good harvest. Here is the Summer Palace, erected so a feudal emperor could pay tribute to his mother. Ten thousand laborers dug a huge lake, while others built the stationary 117-foot-long Marble Boat and, in 15 years and at a cost of one seventh the country's annual revenue, created 3000 marble buildings so the emperor could escape the heat of summer. Here are the Ming Tombs, where 13 emperors lie buried in a valley chosen by feng shui. Two of the tombs have been opened, and porcelain dragon jars, jade bowls, gold wine vessels, and the crown of the 13th emperor studded with 150 gems compete as attractions in the museum. The Ming Dynasty, the Chinese dynasty best known to Westerners because of its art, lasted almost 300 years until it ended with a peasant uprising in 1644.
Also here is the 3750-mile-long Great Wall, begun in 221 BC when the Emperor Qin Shihuang unified the warring states into China and linked the small defensive walls built to hold back the barbarian hordes. Historians write that the emperor used nearly a million people, one fifth of China's workforce, to create a wall wide enough for "six horsemen riding abreast. Those who perished had their bones crushed and used for mortar, earning the wall the grim sobriquet, â€˜the longest cemetery in the world.'"
The China of the past is gone. In its place is a vibrant country that's turning to the Western world. It's a land where children learn English in elementary school, replacing Russian as the secondary language of choice. So stop a young person when you want directions. An elderly taxi driver recently picked up a tourist who needed to go to the airport. Using body language, the tourist flapped his arms like wings. Unfortunately, he missed his plane. The driver took him to a market for caged birds. For more information on touring Beijing, visit www.ebeijing.gov.cn/tour/default.htm.