China – BeijingBack to Story

China's cultural and political capital

My expectations of China before my trip were largely based on reading some of the popular books on the Cultural Revolution such as Wild Swans.  Obviously those images are both outdated and not a reflection of what travelling to China is like.

So I set of to Beijing where I was lucky enough to have friends who had been living there for nearly four years.  Hence they were familiar with both the location and the language.  Probably the first thing that strikes you is perhaps the low understanding of English.  You can travel around but try to always have the Chinese characters of the place to avoid awkward moments.

Beijing has a lot to offer a traveller and has, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of depth and traditional Chinese culture to experience. It has always been the centre for the government rather than commerce so there is not the colonial history that you see in Shanghai.  The thing that surprised me was the gap in development as everything seems either to be new or very old.

Hutong areas

The most rewarding areas to explore are the old Hutongs where a traditional way of life can be seen.  A good place to start that is around Houhai Lake.  This is a tranquil lake not far from the Forbidden City.  The little alleys offer a lot of boutique shops to look at and you can see a piece of the old Beijing.  If you can take a tour of one of the old courtyard houses and take a Rickshaw.  If you get tired there are lots of restaurants offering food but I would recommend Nuage where you can look out over the lake.

Another great Hutong to explore is Nan Luogu Xiang.  This is a very trendy area with fun and funky boutiques galore and a plentiful supply of cafes and lunch spots.  Come back at night and enjoy the lively bars and atmosphere. In the evening you will probably catch some of the locals out for an evening stroll in their pyjamas – a popular past time just before turning in.

The Forbidden City

Also on your list should be the Forbidden City.  This is opposite Tiananmen Square, but be prepared for crowds of people.  You file through the front gates and feel like you will be walking through in a swarm.  That’s before you comprehend the sheer size of the complex.  All those people quickly disperse over the million square metres of seemingly endless complexes (over 800) and gardens.  You can’t really do this justice in a sitting but if you’re a history nut you can always spread your visit over a few days.

The Donghuamen Night Market

The Donghuamen Night Markets where the food stalls are all lined up seemingly for kilometres is a great opportunity to see a huge range of foods.  Everything is available including delicacies such as starfish, fried grasshoppers, snakes and anything else you can think of. It’s very colourful and the people very friendly.

798 Art District

If you love art then a day out to the 798 Art District is well worth it.  This is an area built in a converted electronic factory, which is actually more like an entire suburb.  It’s very strange to think that it is German designed and Russian funded. The area has moved well beyond one factory and is certainly streets worth.  It’s a trek to get there but the cafes are so good you could easily spend the day, we certainly did.  There are artistic references to the Cultural Revolution everywhere here and stylised Chairman Mao look alike.  There is a huge range of artists from the traditional to the avant-garde and the vibe gives you the feeling this is a fantastic enclave for artists.  My favourite works were those depicting the conflict over the demise of the Hutongs.

Obviously not everyone is pleased to see the traditional way of life disappear.  According to the commentary not everyone needs to agree to pull down a Hutong to make way for apartment buildings.  Once a certain percentage has been reached the progress will go ahead leaving the residents reallocated an apartment.  Much of the art reflects the conflicts that can arise and even the conflict within them as you trade off pros and cons.

Ritan Park

If you want to see what the locals do to relax or where they go take a stroll around Ritan Park.  It’s a beautiful tranquil garden where you see people taking time out to sit reflectively, do their Thai chi or more strangely their exercises.  Equipment that you would expect almost to see in a gym is in the park and it’s all being well used. Once you’ve done your own turn around the park pull up at the Stone Boat Bar for a nice cold drink. There are some nice shops around this area to stroll around if you’re not all shopped out such as Feng Yun Men or Ming Tang.

Day trips from and around Beijing:

The Great Wall, and

Another day trip at least has got to be out to see the Great Wall of China.  It’s a huge shock to me that it is not one long connecting wall but strategically placed along the front to avoid attack. Rather like the shark nets along our beaches.  Well worth the trip out to Mutianyu section of the wall where its well restored and you can take a cable car up the hill.  Weather permitting you can zoom down the slop in a toboggan.  Pick your day carefully for this visit based on visibility as the pollution can destroy an otherwise lovely vista. The School House is a great spot to stop and have lunch while you’re in the neighborhood and you can take a look around the art gallery.

The Summer Palace

Another excellent day out was taken to visit the Summer Palace which was used as an escape from the heat 800 years ago by the imperial court. The extensive palace grounds centre around Kunming Lake and have not only amazing buildings but also beautiful gardens. There are amazing Buddhist buildings overlooking the lake including the Buddhist Fragrance Pavillion and the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. It is well worth the climb up the many corridors and steps to get a commanding view across the lake. The view is pollution permitting of course but we were lucky and had a clear day and could see back to the city. On the way back to the city the Lama Temple (Yonghe gong) which is an active Tibetan Buddhist Center. The buildings themselves are amazing and you can see monks coming to pray and the ornate incense burners.

Antiques Market Pan Jia Yuan

For a museum-like experience go down to the Antiques Market Pan Jia Yuan.  It’s a huge shed and some more permanent shop fronts where you can find everything and anything.  You can buy anything from paper and calligraphy equipment to dangers and swords.  It’s well worth the stroll.  It was here that I first noticed the toddlers with their crutchless pants.  Instead of wearing nappies these toddles just had slit pants so could take a leak on demand.  And they do.

While we are on the topic here is some advice for public toilets in China.  As a general rule avoid at all costs. Always carry tissues, as toilet paper is unreliable and try to keep to hotels and major up-market shopping centres only. Wipes are a good thing to carry to lessen the chance of getting sick so ensure we wipe your hands before eating.

Eating

Nuage

22 Qianhai Dongyan, Houhai, Xicheng

A great casual Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the lake.  A window seat upstairs in the sun is a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Dadong

22 Dongsi Shi Tiao, Dongcheng

You can’t come to Beijing and not have duck.  This is the perfect spot to give it a go.  Not only is it of great quality but you can also sit at the bar with a great view through the glass wall into the kitchen.  See the energy and vibe of the room and marvel over the wood fired ovens.

Dali Courtyard

67 Xiaojjungchang Hutong, Gulou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng

This is a Yuannese restaurant, which is a region in southern china.  The spices they use are an absolute delight and it would be a shame to miss this spot.  If you could possibly need any other reason, another would be the opportunity to sit and eat in the courtyard of the traditional courtyard house.

Travel photographs from around Beijing. 798 Art area, The Great Wall of China, Ritan Park, The Summer Palace, The Forbidden City and visiting the old Hutongs

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