South African Airways first direct flight to Beijing is scheduled to land in the Chinese capital for the first time today – an indication of the growing bilateral ties between the two countries which has seen exceptional growth in trade and tourism in recent times.


The thrice weekly flights (SA 288) will depart Johannesburg on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 00h20 arriving the following day at Beijing’s Capital International airport at 20h50.


With a quick turnaround time, return flights depart Beijing on the same days at 23h20 arriving back at OR Tambo the following day at 08h10.

The airport code PEK remains a legacy of the name Peking, once attributed by Westerners to the city. Current economy fares start at around R11 758 including taxes.


The route will be served by the Airbus A340-600 aircraft, which has the capacity to operate the route directly all year round with no passenger payload restrictions. Flying time between Johannesburg and Beijing takes on average 15 hours.


SAA’s strategy is to expand its network to Asia, the fastest growing market in the world. The national airline has long been flying to Hong Kong which, it believes, will continue to serve the southern China and Pearl River delta as well as providing important connections to Japan, Korea and the Philippines.


The Beijing route, it reckons, will serve the northern, central and western regions of China.


As the capital the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is an excellent choice appealing to both business travellers as well as those who want to do business with the Chinese government. The city is the country’s political, cultural and educational centre and home to the headquarters for most of China’s largest state-owned companies.


But business apart, Beijing has much to offer the South African tourist and SAA is clearly hoping that it will become a popular tourist destination as well as enabling it to increase flights to a daily basis.


There is, of course, much to attract the South African tourist starting with a visit to the Forbidden City. Built as the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties between 1406 and 1420, it is an absolute must -see, taking up an area of 720 000 square metres and consisting of 980 surviving buildings.


The Forbidden City has been home to a long line of emperors, beginning with Yongle, in 1420, and ending with Puyi (made famous by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor), who was forced out of the complex by a warlord in 1924.


The Forbidden City is the largest palace in the world, as well as the best-preserved and most complete collection of imperial architecture in China.


At the centre of Beijing, and directly south of the Forbidden City, is Tiananmen Square. The square was built by Mao Zedong in reply to the Forbidden City. It is the largest open urban square in the world.


The political “heart” of modern China, the square measures 880 metres by 500 metres and has a total area of 440 000 square metres. It was from the Gate of Heavenly Peace that Mao Zedong pronounced the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Many Westerners think only of the massive student protests here in the 1980s, but it has been the site of protests, rallies, and marches for at least 100 years.


At the northern end of the square, separating it from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen, a gate which the square was named after – the name of the gate translates as ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’.


Then there is the Summer Palace - an area which has extensive ruins and grounds of the palaces of the Qing emperors. It is mainly dominated by Longevity Hill (60 meters high) and the Kunming Lake. It covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three quarters of which is water.


Longevity Hill is about 60 meters (196.9 feet) high and houses many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is rich in the splendid halls and pavilions, while the back hill, in sharp contrast, is quiet with natural beauty.


Another must see is the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan). This is where the emperor used to pray every day, and is surrounded by a huge park which can be a relaxing and peaceful retreat from the noise and pollution in the city. It is the greenest place in Beijing and worth spending a little time to enjoy woods of ancient trees and watching the locals doing tai chi.


To experience Beijing’s traditional architecture, visit an area of Hutongs. This is the name of the ancient city alleyways, dating back to a period between 1266 and 1368.


The majority of the buildings are built in the traditional courtyard style and although some do exist, many are unfortunately being demolished to make space for new, modern developments and roads.


And, of course, there is the Great Wall of China. It can be accessed from many places in China, but is easily accessible from Beijing. Should you wish to catch a bus it takes about 90 minutes, but a better option (if you don’t speak Mandarin), is to take one of the many tours.


There are eight sections of the Great Wall around Beijing including Badaling, Juyongguan, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai. Most of the sections of the Great Wall in Beijing are well-preserved and mainly the remains from the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), an era of huge construction.


A must is the Summer Palace. This garden complex dates back eight centuries, to when the first emperor of the Jin Dynasty built the Gold Mountain Palace on Longevity Hill. Notable sights are the Long Corridor (a covered wooden walkway) and the Hall of Benevolent Longevity. At the west end of the lake is the famous Marble Boat that Cixi built with money intended to create a Chinese navy.


The palace, which served as an imperial retreat from dripping summer heat, was ransacked by British and French soldiers in 1860 and burned in 1900 by Western soldiers seeking revenge for the Boxer Rebellion.