The first time I arrived in Beijing, I stumbled out of the railway station in the heart of the city after eight gruelling days on the Trans-Manchurian Railway. I’d been primed by the three Beijingers in my compartment – I’d got used to being being laughed at and addressed in frantic Mandarin.
But nothing prepared me for the headrush that was Beijing. I arrived at 9am, peak transit time, and after passing through a turnstile at the station I realised I had no idea where I was going. But after chatting to a policeman I sorted a lift and discovered that the Chinese were – post-Mao, post-population boom, post-1,000 years of haughty isolation – friendly, helpful and kind.
I had only 48 hours, so dashed around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, blown away by the magnificent contrast between these two iconic spaces: one the ornate home of and homage to the Ming emperors; the other the chilling concrete void designed for Mao’s marching masses. Both were vast and bombastic in their own way; both were beguiling.
I visited a gallery and photographed red lanterns, but had little clue about the city. I went home impressed, slightly stunned and anxious to go back. News reports further fired my interest: everyone was saying that the 21st century would belong to China.
Six months later I did return, arriving, less painfully, by plane. On this visit I had more time: I ate like an emperor, stood watching old folk working out in parks, hung out at friendly cafés and, after a trip to the Wall, began to get a fix on the place.
Beijing is often regarded as a cultural obligation, a bustling stopover en route to more edifying experiences in the mystical interior. That’s nonsense. Yes, Beijing is gritty, a bit grey and, as the seat of a repressive government, co nservative in aspect. But it is the capital of an empire and the historical hub of all that made China great. It is genuinely thrilling, up there with Bangkok and Hong Kong.
It is also the fastest-changing city in the world in material terms – it’s a huge construction site, a chaos of flyovers and skyscrapers. So read these top tips and go now – or risk missing it altogether. I have a keen feeling Beijing could become either a world-class megalopolis or a disastrous experiment in redevelopment.
After a cheap and filling streetside breakfast of boiled dumplings, head for the Temple of Heaven. Before you enter the temple proper, stroll through the extensive parklands, where groups of senior citizens do t’ai chi or perform impromptu opera arias in the shadow of the pavilions. Then comes the glorious temple itself, built in 1420 by the Yongle emperor and used by Ming and Qing emperors as a sacrificial site at the winter solstice.
Temple of Heaven, Yongdingmen Donjie, Chongwen; Metro:
In Beijing the car is fast replacing the bike and apartment blocks are replacing the old hutong (medieval alleyways). So use the former to explore the latter by way of a peaceful protest. There are still some hutong in the south – when the Manchurian army invaded in 1644 to found the Qing Dynasty, the Han Chinese residents were forcibly relocated to this area. Start at Nanwei Lu on the west side of the Temple of Heaven and meander north-west through the alleys to see the traditional market stalls, snack bars and small courtyard houses, winding up at the Lao She Teahouse. This fine, old-style 2,600 sq m teahouse is worth popping into for a cuppa and to catch a performance of one of the classic Chinese arts.
Lao She Teahouse, 3 Qianmen Xi Dajie, Qianmen; Metro: Qianmen; bike hire, available from hostels.
Yongle’s grand palace was built between 1406 and 1420, with more than one million skilled labourers working round the clock to construct the 10,000 rooms, ramparts, royal residences and gardens. Head in early through the North Gate and you’ll be going against the tide. Don’t miss: the Hall of Jewellery and Treasure Gallery, home to the most valuable collections; the Imperial Garden, with its fine pavilions; and the Hall of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Union and Peace, used, respectively, for grand banquets and receiving concubines and officials. Tour with either an audio or local guide; you’ll need at least three hours. Afterwards leave via the Hall of Supreme Harmony, passing through the South Gate and on to Tiananmen Square.
Forbidden City, Dongcheng; www.dpm.org.cn; Metro: Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East.
The Bookworm, a wonderfully friendly bookstore with a restaurant and bar, is the place to enjoy some light food and buy (or borrow) English-language books on Chinese culture. There’s a rooftop terrace, should the sun be shining.
The Bookworm, Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang; www.beijingbookworm.com; Metro: Chaoyangmen
The main point of a taxi ride out to the north-west university district of Haidian is not its 68 learning institutions, but to see the Summer Palace. Its draws are obvious: the picturesque setting at the foot of the western hills; expansive Kunming Lake; architecture from the late Qing Dynasty; and, after the city centre’s flat vastness, a bird’s-eye view of greater Beijing from the temples and pagodas dotted across Longevity Hill. Not far away, Yuanming Yuan (site of the Old Summer Palace) offers ruined baroque-style arches, overgrown wilderness and, due to its lack of serious restoration to date, an authenticity lacking in many of Beijing’s sights.
Summer Palace, Yiheyuan Lu, Haidian.
Beijing can be overwhelming so a one-stop shop is a boon. At Yashow Market the stall owners are chatty and used to haggling. Their feistiness is part of the fun – if you’re polite you should walk away with armfuls of bargains.
Afterwards a cuppa is required, so pop into one of the small tea shops around the Drum and Bell towers. These two structures have been marking the time since the Yuan Dynasty. At 7pm every evening the drum and bell would be struck, marking official bedtime; the bell then chimed at two-hour intervals until 5am when both sounded the wake-up call.
Yashow Market, 58 Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang; Metro: Dongsishitiao; no credit cards. Drum and Bell towers, north end of Dianmenwai Dajie, Dongcheng; Metro: Gulou Dajie.
The ‘New China’ hype is all about building sites but the real revolution is in the art world. Take a cab to Chaoyang’s north-eastern corner and explore the 798 Art District. Built in the 1950s by East Germans, it was a top-secret weapons factory; in the late 1990s permission was granted for a workshop. There are now countless galleries, bars and cafés. British-run 798 Red T Space does music as well as art, while Timezone 8 Editions is a combination gallery, restaurant, bookstore and café.
Red T Space, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; www.redt.net; Timezone 8 Editions, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; www.timezone8.com
Ignore all offers to take you to other parts of the Wall and take a taxi to Simatai, 110km north of Beijing. Here you can get in a good trek, have a picnic overlooking the barbarian wilderness to the north and watch the sun set on the undulating ramparts to the west.
Great Wall Simatai, Gubeikou; www.simatai-greatwall.net.
Have a beer at a bar around Houhai Lake, then make your way to Jiumen Xiaochi. Back in pre-Communist times the city was full of laozihaos, centuries-old restaurants; the old lanes were abuzz with the sound of food vendors and the whiff of spices. This courtyard restaurant complex keeps the tradition going, with a range of establishments offering everything from lamb’s head to sheep entrails – as well as all the boring braised beef, dumplings and noodles you won’t want to bother with.
Jiumen Xiaochi, 1 Xiaoyou Hutong, Xicheng; Metro: Jishuitan; no credit cards
Regal has to be seen to be believed. It’s a four-storey fantasy world where huge chandeliers hang from the lofty ceilings and where the walls are made entirely of white feathers – Chinese cheese meets capitalist opulence. It’s the ideal venue for hiring a private karaoke room and letting it all hang out – there are more basic rooms, or you could opt for an enormous, private, mock Qin Dynasty hall with personal waiters and free-flowing booze.
Regal, Building 22, 4 Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang; Metro: Dongsishitao; open: 24 hours
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