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Beijing: Top of their Games; OLYMPICS HOST GETS GOLD FOR SIGHT-SEEING.

Byline: By RICHARD PURDEN

The romance of Asia had already got to me before I reached Beijing, the final stop on my trip of a lifetime around China.

In Hong Kong I even proposed to my girlfriend Louise - although the passion was dampened by the constant sound of spitting. It is normal in China and people cough from their toes up.

I was full of doubts before entering the communist country but my imagination and heart were immediately captured on arrival.

The locals tend to stare but offer them a simple smile in return and they almost always tender a wide grin back.

Many travel books recommend hiring a local guide while in Beijing as the language barrier can be a problem. But we decided to ditch ours when he started asking us for directions.

We then headed for Tiananmen Square via the grounds of the Forbidden City and the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The square, the largest in the world, is an overwhelming vision.

Famous for protests in 1976 and 1989, the latter ending with a massacre, the plaza feels both inspiring and oppressive.

We visited on Labour Day and Tiananmen was teaming with Chinese tourists and red flags, which added to the spectacle and atmosphere.

The day - marking the achievements of China's workforce - was a wonderful celebration and boosted anticipation for the Olympics.

The only let-down was the continual presence of soldiers marching in line, which felt more than a little sinister. If you have more than a few days, a visit to the Great Wall is a must. Worthy of a wonder-of-the-world title, this spectacular structure is unforgettable.

Buses run regularly from Tiananmen Square and getting there is an all-day adventure.

Our tour guide gloriously burst into song and there was a feeling that the bus passengers were in it together.

One couple who didn't speak English had something Scottish about them - they kept a seat for us at regular stops, passed round a hip-flask and congratulated us when we reached the top of the Wall.

There are legions of tourists swarming around buying hot dogs, beers and tacky, rip-off souvenirs but even that can't take away from the sheer splendour and beauty when you reach the top. The wall, the world's largest construction, winds endlessly over the spectacular northern mountains of China.

Cuisine in Beijing can be a hit or a miss. I'm not quite sure what I ate but I can still taste the sting.

If you grow tired of local food but want to avoid the usual fast food suspects, visit American diner Grandma's Kitchen. Traditional fry-ups and steaks are served by friendly, English-speaking staff.

The Bookworm is another good English speaking restaurant where you can browse books and mags from home and meet with fellow travellers. It has a charm and modern sass you won't find anywhere else in China.

The language barrier can be a problem in some local restaurants and especially with taxis. It's a good idea to have your destination and the name of your hotel written down in Chinese. Most hotels can give you a card with their details.

Crossing the road even when the walk light is green can also be an experience. It's a bit like playing an involuntary game of chicken...and that's just the bikes.

But we survived a trip to south-east Beijing to explore the stunning 15th century Temple of Heaven, where China's emperors would go to pray for good harvests.

Our final stop was a visit to the National Stadium built solely for the Olympics. Known as the bird nest, the 80,000-seat, skeletal structure is a unique and innovative piece of architecture.

After a wander round it was back to our hotel, the Dawan, which was in the business district and just a seven-minute walk from Tiananmen Square.

Mid-price hotel rooms offer the kind of quality you would get in any major city and our room was comfortable and clean with no frills.

But all you really need in a city like Beijing is a place to lay your head - the real pleasure is in walking round the city and sampling its miraculous delights.

LATE DEALS

CHINA from all Scots airports between September 2008 and November 2009. Sixteen-day tour includes Beijing, Great Wall and Xian. From pounds 2089pp.

GRENADA from Glasgow on August 31. Seven nights room-only from pounds 579pp.

For more on the above offers call 0141 242 1300 or visit www.barrheadtravel.co.uk

CANADA AND USA from Glasgow. Free flights for under-18s with two full-paying adults. Maximum two children, fees and taxes payable on child tickets. Bookings must be made by August 31. Quote 'Children2008'when booking at www.flyzoom.com or on 0870 240 0055.

LONDON breaks. Book into base2stay in Kensington this month and they will adopt an animal on your behalf at London Zoo. Prices from pounds 93 per night, quote 'London zoo offer' when booking at www.base2 stay.com or by calling 0845 262 8000.

PORTUGAL from Glasgow on August 25. Seven nights B&B from pounds 299pp. Book at www.lastminute.com or call 0870 443 9902.

FACTFILE

Ibooked accommodation and flights at the Flight Centre in Edinburgh (0131 226 686).

To find out more on things to see and do in Beijing log on to www.thechinaguide.com

Get more details about the Bookworm restaurant at www.beijingbookworm.com

CAPTION(S):

Richard makes Louise an eastern promise; Beijing's National Stadium - nicknamed the bird's nest due to the round, skeletal structure - was built especially for this year's Olympics; Tiananmen Gate separates Square and Forbidden City; Stunning Temple of Heaven; Spectacular Great Wall has breathtaking views
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 10, 2008
Words:941
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