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Fascinating China’s capital

Increasingly westernised yet perennially fascinating, China's capital, from the horse-drawn carts to its glittering host of skyscrapers, has the power to amaze and bewilder in equal measure

Fascinating China’s capital
Image: Daniel Allen

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It was when my mother smuggled cheese into China for me I first realised the extent of her misconceptions about the Middle Kingdom. “Don’t you get sick of eating rice all the time?” she and other members of my family would repeatedly ask when I returned home to London every Christmas. Despite assurances I could obtain such exotica as fig jam or falafel in Beijing — not to mention dairy products — to them, the Chinese diet was still green tea, rice and strange animal parts.

To be fair, no documentary or travelogue can fully prepare visitors for their first trip to Beijing. Thrust into the global spotlight by the 2008 Olympics, the city’s rush to present a modern face to the world has left a slew of impressive buildings across the urban landscape. But dig beneath the capitalist veneer and the legacy of China’s communist and dynastic eras are evident everywhere — from mausolea to markets, temples to teahouses.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of the Chinese capital is its people — and it has quite a few. Whirlwind technological development has left a generation gap that’s more like a yawning chasm. Head down to the Temple of Heaven in the early morning and you’ll see young English-speaking, iPod-toting fashionistas sharing park space with octogenarians in Mao jackets playing the erhu (Chinese violin), practicing tai chi or rehearsing Beijing opera in the cool dawn air. The dichotomy is fascinating.

A foreigner uttering a few basic phrases in Mandarin to anyone — old or young — anywhere in Beijing is guaranteed to be met with smiles all round, regardless of hideous mispronunciation. Language, more than anything else, is the key to unlocking and understanding the Chinese capital, its residents and culture.

And there is a whole lot to unlock — The Great Wall, Chinglish  (the frequently amusing Chinese take on English), 798 Art District, wall-to-wall pavement calligraphy, the Summer Palace, snacks in alleyways, and Beijing opera.

From the bars of Nanluoguxiang to the boutiques of Xidan, cafes of Houhai and the culture of the Forbidden City, it quickly becomes apparent why Beijing is one of the top tourist destinations of the new millennium.

Food Glorious Food

Beijingers love their food and communal eating is a cornerstone of the city’s culture. The question ‘chi fan le ma?’ — literally ‘have you eaten yet?’ — is actually used by locals as a greeting, regardless of time of day (or fullness of stomach).

As the centre of government, Beijing has long held its own special place in China’s northern school of cooking — emperors, after all, expect haute cuisine, and bear’s paws, camel’s humps and bird’s nests are just a few of the gastronomic exotica to have graced the tables of these Sons of Heaven.

While mealtimes in Beijing are nowadays a far less extravagant affair, the capital’s dining scene is undergoing its most creative boom in half a century. Traditional fare is being supplemented by culinary offerings from all over China, and the number of establishments offering high-quality Asian and Western cuisine is growing daily.

As well as a trip to the Great Wall, Beijing visitors are invariably urged to try the city’s signature dish, Beijing Duck, which dates back 600 years to the Ming Dynasty. Chic restaurant Duck de Chine serves up some of the capital’s juiciest birds, with a traditional sweet flour paste and sesame sauce, wafer-thin pancakes and moist sesame buns.

Much of Beijing’s increasingly eclectic cuisine is now centred around its hutongs — alleyways running between imperial-era courtyard homes. Along the Nanluoguxiang hutong, hip cafes and coffee shops jostle for space with an assortment of top-notch restaurants, serving up everything from rogan josh and goat’s cheese gnocchi to kumquat ice cream and Korean kimchee. With an al fresco top floor and diverse menu, the Drum and Gong Restaurant is always popular with locals and expats (try the ‘dry fried’ lamb with coriander and cumin). The nearby Alba café, meanwhile, serves great coffee, smoothies and cocktails.

If Nanluoguxiang is the brave new face of Beijing food, then Beihai Park’s Qionghua Island offers a more retro experience. Here, in the newly renovated Fangshan Restaurant, patrons sample dishes created for the legendary Empress Dowager Cixi. With everything from delicate pastries to deer tendon on the vast menu, there’s no shortage of culinary surprises.

Places mentioned
Duck de Chine: Gongti Beilu, Courtyard 4, 1949 — The Hidden City, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 6501 8881.
Drum & Gong Restaurant:102 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 8402 4729.
Alba: 70 Gulou Dongdajie (just east of Nanluoguxiang’s north exit), Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 6407 3730.
Fangshan Restaurant: 1 Wenjin Jie (inside Beihai Park). T: 00 86 010 6401 1889.

Party people

It’s 2.30am, and in Beijing’s GT Banana nightclub a sea of youth is bouncing and gyrating to the thumping bass of a top DJ. A tall, scantily clad dancer on a podium holds a captive audience as she demonstrates her amazing flexibility, while a slightly inebriated, middle-aged Chinese businessman orders another bottle of iced Veuve Clicquot Champagne for his gaggle of nubile, Versace-clad groupies.

As visitors invariably discover, Beijing nightlife has come a long way since the restrained teahouse culture of yesteryear. The capital may not yet be the buzzing, ‘sleepless’ metropolis that Shanghai was in the 1920s and ’30s, but venues are starting to push the boundaries as they stay open longer, become more refined and, in some cases, far more risqué.

Despite some extensive pre-Olympic face-lifting operations, the area around Sanlitun North and South Street is still jam-packed with a plethora of bars, clubs and live music venues. The nearby Workers’ Stadium and Chaoyang Park play host to a range of bigger, glitzier establishments, sucking up the late-night crowd and disgorging it, in varying states of consciousness, in the hours before sunrise. Decked out like an opium den, Club Suzie Wong regularly attracts big-name DJs and is still the see-and-be-seen-in venue for nouveau-riche Chinese, expats and tourists.

Catering to a slightly older, more bohemian crowd, the numerous cafes and bars encircling the waterfront at Houhai, and along the more recently established Nanluoguxiang hutong, provide the perfect hangout, with reasonably-priced drinks and live gigs galore. The stylish, two-tier Salud bar is a particular Nanluoguxiang favourite, renowned for its fine range of rums and quality tapas.

Live music venues in Beijing aren’t known for their sophistication, but both the M.A.O. Live House and 2 Kolegas attract a cool crowd, and host some of China’s finest and freakiest bands, plus a healthy smattering of international acts.

Places mentioned
GT Banana: 1F, Scitech Hotel, 22 Jianguomen Waidajie, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 6528 3636.
Club Suzie Wong: West Gate of Chaoyang Park, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 6500 3377. www.suziewong.com.cn
Salud: 66 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 6402 5086.
M.A.O. Live House: 111 Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 6402 5080. www.maolive.com
2 Kolegas: 21 Liangmaqiao Lu (inside the drive-in cinema), Chaoyang District.

Pile of style

In terms of style, sophistication and opportunities to indulge in retail therapy, Beijing has come a million miles since the days of the ubiquitous Mao jacket and ‘liberation shoe’ (although the latter, a green canvas shoe with rubber soles and toecaps, is making a massive comeback). Thanks to the pervasive influence of the internet, growing levels of disposable income and rising profile of Chinese models, China’s youth are increasingly obsessed with how they look, where they live and what they drive.

Many of Beijing’s well-heeled denizens prefer to shop at the so-called ‘great malls of China’ — supersized, heavily escalatored temples to retail worship. Oriental Plaza (Dongfang Xintiandi) in Wangfujing is a particular favourite; its boutiques heaving every weekend. Even for visitors with no interest in the latest offerings from French Connection or Swarovski, it still makes a great place to people-watch.

Tourists after traditional Chinese products, souvenirs and gifts (jade, calligraphy, qipao, etc.) should head to Beijing’s multi-floor discount markets such as Yaxiu and Silk Street. Packed to the rafters with out-of-town sellers peddling fake designer clothes and watches, these bazaars are nevertheless a great place to pick up a bargain if you know how to haggle. A rule of thumb is to offer a tenth the asking price and work slowly upwards.

Beijing’s best and newest boutique shopping can be had along the Nanluoguxiang hutong, close to the ever-popular Houhai area. Many of the shops have been opened by local designers and artists — Le Tian sells exquisite pottery, while expat-run Plastered T-shirts offers a range of quirky, humorous clothing featuring Beijing-themed motifs and designs.

For those into contemporary art, Beijing’s buzzing 798 Art District is a must-see. This ever-growing maze of galleries, studios and cafes, in a formerly derelict military factory complex in the north-east of the capital, attracts artists, collectors and tourists from across China and overseas. The relatively new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), funded by Belgian collectors Guy and Miriam Ullens, is 798’s largest space — pick up reasonably priced art and souvenirs in the centre’s store.

Places mentioned
Oriental Plaza: 1 Dongchangan Jie, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 8518 6363. www.orientalplaza.com
Yaxiu Market: 58 Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 6416 8945.
Silk Street Market (Xiushui): 8 Xiushui Dongjie, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 5169 9003/9088.
Le Tian: 23 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 6401 3799.
Plastered 8: 61 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District. T: 00 86 010 6407 8425. www.plasteredtshirts.com
UCCA: 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District. T: 00 86 010 8459 9269. www.ucca.org.cn

Top 10 local tips
01 Sip green tea while watching an evening shadow puppet or kung fu show at the lao She teahouse on Qianman West Street.       T: 00 86 010 6304 6334
02 Cook your own meat or tofu with noodles and veg at one of many Xiabu Xiabu Sichuan-style hotpot outlets.
03 Wake up to awesome views of the world’s longest man-made structure at the Commune by the Great Wall. www.communebythegreatwall.com
04 See the flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square, every morning before sunrise.
05 Have a culinary adventure on Beijing’s ‘Snack Street’ in Wangfujing.
06 Haggle for merchandise at the Yaxiu Market near Sanlitun. Upstairs are quality, handmade suits and shirts.
07 Visit Liulichang Culture Street for antiques, Mao memorabilia, calligraphy equipment and scroll paintings.
08 Never get in a taxi without a meter. Most taxis are yellow or red.
09 Visit the botanical gardens http://www.beijingbg.com/English/index.asp
10 Craving Marmite? Head to a jenny Lou supermarket, they’re packed with Western goods. www.jennylou.com.cn/

More info
Online
www.thebeijinger.com
Blogs/art/fashion
www.beijingboyce.com
Chinese language
www.chinese-tools.com
Classes & tours
http://hutongcuisine.com
www.hiasgourmet.com/hutong-eats.htm
Non-fiction
River Town by Peter Hessler. RRP: £6.
Non-fiction
The Dragon’s Tail by Adam Williams. RRP: £14.

 

Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)