Beijing is not like most places in China. It will show you the direction that China's going, and it will also show you the traditional parts that many people here want to hold onto
. In that way, it is a struggle between tradition and modernity. Although yes, the city at times can be awfully polluted with enough smog descending on it to limit your vision, the city does have pretty days, and those days can be filled visiting some amazing sights that shouldn't be missed. Simply put, there are too many sights to mention here, but some that shouldn't be missed include The Great Wall, The Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square, Temple of Prayer And Good Harvests, Beihai Park (one of the many great parks scattered throughout the city), and Nanluogu Xiang/Gulou. All of these hold elements of traditional Chinese culture, and the new China that is emerging.
If you want to party for cheap, go to Wudaoko (Lush, Red House, Helen's). Some of my favourite memories of Beijing was heading to the Wu after work for the beer/food gardens, and drinking 5 kuai (.75 cent) beers with good company until I felt like going home. Yes that's right! Places here pretty much close when you're ready to go. Quiz at Lush, Wednesday night! If you want high end, go to Sanlitun. If you want a good time in an authentic Chinese setting, go to Guluo. The best places are here (and they're reasonably cheap!).
Over the course of nearly two years here, I came to understand many things about the culture that is a little misconstrued in the West
. Although it is technically a communist government, capitalism thrives here, and is indeed the engine that is driving its growth. You will see McDonalds, KFC, Nike, and the rest of our Western necessties readily available in certain parts of the city, although you may have to learn the Chinese word for 'Big Mac" etc to order them. Oh, and if your over US size 10 show in China, forget about it!!!! The police in China are focused on maintaining the status quo (i.e. of maintaining political stability, more than protecting its people). Therefore you have the Great Firewall of China, which monitors Chinese social networks for any hint of dissent, and completely cuts off foreign ones such as Facebook and Twitter (you can get a VPN to get around this but they are often shut down, although others pop up all the time), However, you can drink in the street, smoke in restaurants, crap on the road, drive whatever way you want (not exaggerating any of this at all!), or do pretty much anything(!) else that tickles your fancy. In this you will also have a degree of freedom that we are not able to do at home, although this is more reflective of anarchy and the abscence of laws, rather than any sort of democratic empowerment the people.
Although Beijing is a modern city by our standards, you can still find parts within the city that are very run down, and not upto the standards that we are used too
. Although we hear alot of China in the news, most citizens in Beijing, like the rest of China, are extremely poor by our Western standards. One of my pictures says it all for me: At like 3-4 in the morning, I would get home from the bar, and head over to the street vendors who parked themselves in front of the McDonald's behind our apartment. They came here because that's where the students go to hang out, but also to seek shelter when it rained, and also to use their bathroom. The stories these people told me are unbelievable, and that they were even there gave testament to the strength of their character. To me, it demonstrated the dichotomy that exists in China between the goal (acquiring and developing companies like McDonald's), and the reality of the poverty that exists in China to such a massive scale that its difficult for a Westerner to grasp because we have fewer people, and make so much more on average than they do. What the picture says is that although China is on a very rapid rise, they have so far to go in terms of providing for the needs of the people.
However, I loved Beijing. Politics, and other crap aside, this is a beautiful city (on a nice day), and has SO MUCH to offer tourists and visitors than any other city in China. Although some of their customs take a little getting used too, the people are whole-heartedly kind and nice, and will often go out of their way to help you. Unlike Shanghai, the struggle between the past and the present is more obvious here, and will give you far more chances to glimpse into that past than any other major city in China.
This was our home for nearly 2 years, while we worked at E-Plus/Beiwai Foreign Studies University. Although living in China was difficult at points, my overall experience of it was very positive. This was undoubtedly helped by the many foriegn and Chinese people who helped us along the way, and without whose help we may not have made it through. The biggest barrier to overcome is the language, but if you can learn the essentials (foods, directions, numbers, etc), or even a few written characters, and come to grips with different customs and traditions like food, driving etquette, etc (a lot of people understandably don't!), then the richness of what China has to offer will shine through.