“The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.” - Anthony Bourdain.
A popular saying amongst overseas residents in China imagines the fate of an alien crash landed within the reaches of the country’s vast and varied regions. A touchdown in Shanghai would enrol the unsuspecting visitor within a circus, while arrival in the southern city of Guangzhou would be a trip straight to the menu. A final fate awaits within the metropolis of the nation’s capital, Beijing; immortalisation within it’s museums, thus forming another chapter within the consciousness of a city boasting history stretching back over three millennia.
The world’s most populated capital, Beijing is as enigmatic as it is divisive. For many first time visitors to China, the beauty of the city that most often forms a gateway to the adventure is often not fully realised, and understandably so; as travel weary visitors wrestle with a sometimes overwhelming bustle of humanity.
Amongst a place so vast, though, lies endless paths and possibilities for these first time eyes. While these tips are by no means definitive, and may not always stray too far from the beaten path, they hope to help pave a way that’ll leave you as captivated as I was, and remain, by my time living and working in the city.
Where to Stay?
Location is always key, especially when time is limited - in that sense the central street of Wangfujing and it’s immediate surroundings of the inner Dongcheng District certainly can’t be beaten; putting visitors within a stone’s throw of the Forbidden City and Beijing’s often perceived centre. While in that sense it’s ideal, today Wangfujing is flocked to by domestic and foreign visitors alike as a shopping mecca, albeit one where malls of household western names are found, rather than more traditional markets or vendors. The sheer volume of people, at times, can be overwhelming, and reminiscent of a popular Chinese idiom which translates approximately to ‘people mountain, people sea’.
Arguably, however, like any metropolis of its size, Beijing is the product of dozens of districts all melting into one, with no definitive centre - with such a vast and effective transport system, it’s simple to stay connected.
As an alternative, within just 20-30 minutes walk, or a subway ride from the northern reaches of Wangfujing, lie both traditional and more western style accommodations alike within some of the city’s incredible networks of Hutong. Traditional courtyard, single room family residences lining often narrow alleyways, they’re the iconic image of preserved Beijing life you’ll crave but don’t yet realise exists; at least not quite like this. Getting lost within their reaches is a truly unforgettable experience. That’s not to say, though, that it’s purely a lesson in history. While Beijing wrestles with it’s evolving identity and culture in the 21st Century, generations-old families live in amongst the artist studios, restaurants and businesses of both a younger, entrepreneurial generation and an older one preserving their crafts; none quite so much so as Nanluoguxiang, which stretches directly north from the subway station of the same name.
That’s also not to say that Nanluoguxiang, or it’s surrounding Hutong are free at times of a mass of, mainly domestic, visitors; however an escape along the one of the countless side streets and alleys is a Narnia-like transition into much calmer surroundings, that never fail to lead to unexpected, undiscovered gems.
Where to Eat & Drink?
While feasts in the city’s iconic culinary locations are often high on the agenda, from the Peking Duck restaurants of the Forbidden City’s surrounds to the fusion foods of Sanlitun’s western district; dining in Beijing is another experience in which the greatest treasures are found only once you surrender to becoming truly lost, in every sense of the term.
To truly fulfill this brief, and to experience the place that Beijingers go to eat, a mesmerising wander along Gui Jie Street, often known colloquially in English as ‘Ghost Street’, awaits. Take the subway, or a taxi, to the transport hub of Dongzhimen Station and walk directly west; over 100 restaurants, in almost a mile of aromas, cover the cuisine of a nation truly without rival when it comes to culinary diversity, and there’ll be no mistaking your arrival. Scores of locals await available tables, while sat on seas of stools lining the pavements; waiters scramble to serve beer and bowls of sunflower seeds, to the often near party atmosphere outside.
The adventure doesn’t end there - at the doors of many comes a refreshing end to the comfort zone, as a menu in English is no guarentee; instead, throw caution the wind and try your hand at ordering from the pictorial guides lining the walls, and enjoy everything from traditional Hot Pot, to the hand pulled noodles of Shaanxi and the sizzling spices of Sichuan. After eating, continue west through Beixinqiao and into Beijing’s hipster streets of Gulou, for a post-dinner drink and dessert in a courtyard lined coffee shop.
Where to See and Explore?
For many, time in the country’s capital is short, and understandably so, as so many destinations in China wrestle for position in a most commonly 2-3 week first time visit. With so much of Beijing to see and explore, it’s easy to not know where to begin, or to follow the most overwhelming, bustling paths.
While entering the vast grandeur of the Forbidden City’s former imperial palace walls can be a daunting undertaking of crowds and security checkpoints, take a different angle from which to witness a first beautiful glimpse; visit the neighbouring gardens of Jingshan Park, taking a leisurely climb to a pagoda upon its central hill, and witness the breathtaking sight from above in all its glory. All whilst in the midst of groups of elderly locals dancing, singing and forming haunting choirs, with hymn like songs that celebrate their creative freedom from the country’s so-called Cultural Revolution of the 1970’s.
Take a wander or a subway ride to Shichahai station and explore the lake complex of the same name, and in particular its largest, Houhai Lake. Explore it’s banks, local bars and restaurants with nightly live music, and watch locals who famously take a dip 365 days of the year; particularly impressive in winter, as the lake freezes over and forms the most spectacular winter playground of ice skating and ice biking.
Take full day adventure to a section of The Great Wall of China, of course. While though sections such as Badaling or Mutianyu are popular and accessible, the crowds are astounding, and modern visitor centres, fast food outlets and gift shops are becoming common place; instead, hire a guide and take a 3-4 hour hike from Jinshanling to Gubeikou. In doing so, take a literal walk through history, from the relatively restored and kept wall of the former to the rugged, wild and beautiful unrestored Ming Dynasty watchtowers of Gubeikou.
Finally, draw your time in Beijing to a close on the final evening with a trip to the breathtaking, and often so rawly emotional feats and achievements of the cast of Chaoyang Theatre’s Flying Acrobatics Show. A constantly evolving masterpiece of acrobatics history, the almost unnerving discipline and commitment of its performers are more than just a physical performance; it’s a window into the evolution of a nation, and a bridge from its culture to the outside world.