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Beijing puts out the welcome mat

It used to take an official invitation and a truckload of patience to visit China. The invitation was for the visa, the patience for the bureaucracy. As Beijing loosens its grip around the borders of its expansive country, the iron fist is opening in a genuine welcoming gesture to outsiders.

No longer are two prices charged _ a sky-high foreigner rate and a rock-bottom resident one _ for trains, museums and parks. Now, ticket costs are standardized. An increasing number of signs are in English, taxis with meters abound, and tourists no longer are given a special "foreign" currency when they exchange money at the bank. Visitors now get yuan for the dollar, which makes dealing with locals much easier.

China is jumping on the tourist wagon, and Beijing is the first stop. Keep that between us and visit quickly, before crowds descend on Beijing. The height of China's tourism season is the fall, after the summer rains and before the frigid winter. Going during the off season offers the indisputable advantage of no crowds. I walked the brick and rock path of the Great Wall on New Year's Eve, the silence broken only by the rhythmic clunking of my footsteps. My breath blew out in visible puffs that lifted up to the gray winter sky, where bluebirds and eagles were frequent flyers.

Touts selling postcards (some dressed as Ming Dynasty warriors ready to pose for touristy photo ops) line the entrance, telling of a distinctly non-Communist entrepreneurial spirit. They are not aggressive hawkers like the sorts travelers encounter in the more crowded neighboring countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines. Bargaining with these vendors can be great sport. You can spend $10 for a T-shirt advertising, "I walked the Great Wall." Or maybe $3, if you hang around and haggle.

There are three major entrances to the Wall, all within a two-hour taxi or bus ride from Beijing. Two of the sites have trams from the hills to the Wall, a sign of the Disney-fication of the world.

The trams do make the site far more accessible, but I suggest walking, if you can. It's only a 20-minute stroll from the car park along a winding path through the woods. Walking toward the mammoth structure underscores the forbidding nature of the Wall that kept invaders, the undesirable and criminals at bay.

Such a feeling is typical of the monuments throughout China, most of which commemorate rules that often have said, "You're allowed in. You're not. You're allowed to speak. You're not."

Take Tiananmen Square. In the heart of Beijing, it is usually a wind-swept promenade of strollers and kite-fliers, picnickers and tourists. During the Cultural Revolution, millions of people paraded there under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. In 1976, millions more turned out to pay their last respects to him. The world watched aghast in 1989 as pro-democracy demonstrators were plowed down.

Stand in the middle of the square, beneath the mammoth red flags. The space and the scale of the monuments can overwhelm, as can their place in history. Tiananmen Gate, or Heavenly Peace Gate, was built in the 15th century. Back in the Imperial days, emperors decreed laws from this site. Five centuries later, on October 1, 1949, Mao stood there and officially proclaimed the country the People's Republic of China.

Few visitors leave Beijing without snapping a photo of the portrait of Mao that hangs over the central door to the Gate, giving the eerie impression that Mao still keeps a watchful eye over Tiananmen Square. There's usually a police officer stationed in the area to make sure you don't back into oncoming traffic while trying to frame this shot.

After the requisite picture, you must visit the Forbidden City, aptly named because it was off limits for 500 years. It is perhaps the best-preserved and certainly the largest collection of ancient buildings in China. Home to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, this beautiful Forbidden City was the playground for the aristocracy. The nobility rarely wandered out, and commoners were executed if they wandered in. These days, anyone can visit.

It's well worth renting the audiotape guide at the gate entrance, and not just because the English version is narrated by Roger Moore. The tape guides visitors to the human-size iron cranes that served as incense holders and points out that the dragon trims along the walls are elaborate gutters.

The taped tour takes a tad longer than an hour, but there's no limit to how long visitors can check out the audio equipment. You can easily spend a day in the Forbidden City.

The site perhaps most likely to steal hours and days from a visitor is the Summer Palace, even in the winter. Actually, during the summer months the park tends to overflow with families picnicking. Once an exclusive royal garden, now it's a Nirvana from the noisy city.

As its name indicates, the original palace was used as a summer residence. It was divided into four sections: court reception, homes, temples and parks with pagodas. While the curving red-and-yellow-roofed pagodas are beautiful, the mysticism is in the silence of the woods and the tranquility of Kunming Lake, which occupies three-fourths of the Summer Palace.

During the winter, the lake freezes. You can rent skates or just walk across the thick sheet of white ice. A forbidding, ornate concrete wall borders the lake, but locals help one another over, so just ask for a boost. It's well worth a glide; the best views of the Palace are from the lake itself.

While slip-sliding on the ice, check out the Boat of Purity and Ease, a huge, white marble ship that is moored permanently at the edge of the lake. Empress Dowager Cixi fitted the ship with wall-to-ceiling mirrors and used it as a summer dining hall in the latter part of the 19th century. Now, you can buy hot dogs and tea from one of the nearby vendors and picnic on your own.

The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace are all must-sees, but they are but a very few of Beijing's treasures. Some of the best jewels are scattered throughout the city. Before sunrise in the city's parks, joggers dodge ballroom dancers who sweep past flowing tai chi practitioners. Watching a grandfather willowing in the wind while his grandson gazes from a stroller can offer more insight into old and new China than any tour guide.

Wander the alleys. You'll still find live chickens ready to be beheaded for dinner and feisty produce vendors wearing Chairman Mao suits while standing next to hawkers selling the latest Made in China fashions. These Old World markets with their masala of scents and cacophony of sounds are ubiquitous, but so are McDonald's, Coca-Cola and department stores.

Out in the street, if you can weave your way among the bicyclists and motor vehicles, you've certainly got the Beijing Beat down. The traffic, while slower than in many other Asian countries, is a hodgepodge of horns and brakes, a mad choreography of bikes and cars with no one directing the scene.

That's exactly why you should see it now, before the tourist bandwagon overruns the city.

Former Times reporter Lara Wozniak is now teaching English in Nepal.

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A Chinese boy plays soccer against the wall at the entrance to Beijing's Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was once the palace of China's ruling emperors and was so named because commoners were forbidden to enter the walled complex.

In the Beijing suburb of Badaling, the Great Wall lends a historical perspective.

At a restored section of the Great Wall built in the Ming Dynasty, costumed attendants dressed as warriors of that time give tourists a decidedly capitalistic welcome.