Best of Beijing

Author of the Rough Guide to Beijing, Martin Zatko, gives us some glimpses of life in China’s capital city and provides some tips for a memorable visit

BeijingThe fulcrum of China’s latest renaissance, Beijing, is an ancient capital city in the process of wholesale reinvention. Rarely could past and present have collided in such spectacular fashion. Here, world-famous sights such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven sit almost side-by-side with jaw-dropping examples of contemporary architecture, while the Great Wall zig-zags from mountaintop to mountaintop a short drive to the north.

These stunning monuments to the days of dynasty hint at the sheer majesty of Beijing’s long and storied history. By some accounts the world’s first city to hit a population of one million, it served as the Chinese seat of power for over five unbroken centuries. From 1420 a succession of Ming and Qing emperors ruled from the opulent environs of the Forbidden City, each served by hundreds upon hundreds of eunuchs and concubines, and separated from the general populace by giant walls. The palace was off-limits for hundreds of years, but fast-forward to the present day and everyone is able to enter for the modest price of an admission ticket. Stroll the beautiful passageways awhile and try to channel your inner emperor, before ducking into exhibition galleries that, filled with the relics of ages, constitute some of China’s finest museums.

More imperial riches lie a short cab-ride to the south, at the Temple of Heaven. Surrounded by delightful parkland, it’s regarded by many experts as the very peak of Ming-dynasty design – even more so than the priceless vases. It was intended to be the main meeting point of earth and heaven – something to consider when appreciating the beauty of its main three-storey tower. Another thing to note is that in dynastic times, heaven was considered round and the earth square; look closely and you’ll see that the round temples here stand on square bases.

Contemporary Beijing
Though Beijing boasts an array of historical monuments that would make any city green with envy, these are but ancient parts of an overwhelmingly modern patchwork. When China’s long line of emperors reached its end in 1912, Beijing was still a largely low-lying place; change since then has arrived in several phases. The 1920s saw city walls and gates repositioned, and many roads widened; the 1950s saw the start of a glut of grandiose buildings, such as the hulking structures you’ll see lining Tiananmen Square; and the 1970s saw cookie-cutter multi-storey residences proliferate. Since the turn of the millennium, however, things have taken a dramatic turn for the stylish – Beijing has, since then, functioned as an architect’s playground of sorts, with the city’s sudden prosperity seeing the best in the business hauled in from overseas to transform their wildest dreams into high-rise reality.

One of the most notable examples of modern Pekingese architecture is the CCTV Headquarters, located out east in Chaoyang District; it has already scooped a slew of international awards. Designed by superstar Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the building is often referred to by locals as the ‘Big Trousers’ on account of its outlandish design; with its seemingly gravity-defying upper level, it does, indeed, vaguely resemble the legs of a sitting man. Elsewhere around town, you may spy the spaceship-like National Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Paul Andreu and nicknamed ‘The Giant Egg’; the Soho Sanlitun shopping and business complex, which rises from the ground like a rippling series of massive barcodes; or the zany ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium and ‘Water Cube’ National Aquatics Centre, designed as  focal points of the 2008 Olympics.

Though they may be the most visible examples of the new Beijing, this grand city’s contemporary flourishes are not, of course, confined to the design of its buildings. It has, of late, become one of the world’s largest art markets, with much of the activity taking place in the vaunted 798 Art District. Some way northeast of the centre, you’ll pass this complex on your way into town from the airport. Set in an old factory district, it’s a stunning fusion of modern art and 1950s-era architecture, and one that’s drawing more and more visitors with each passing year. Then, of course, there’s progress in the form of pure commerce – spectacular malls and shopping complexes are popping up all over the city, queuing up to cater to the shopping needs of its burgeoning ranks of affluent young folk.

Hutong life
It would be a shame to visit Beijing without experiencing some of the city’s famous hutong districts. Tucked into labyrinthine, highly picturesque alleyways, these traditional courtyard dwellings are declining in number with each passing year – no real surprise, since their typically poor sanitation and low comfort levels are somewhat at odds with China’s vision of progress. However, with the country increasingly keen to move forward in a manner befitting its past, many of these hutong areas have been gentrified to the nines; a happy marriage between Beijing past and present, the results have proven even more popular with local youth than they have with international visitors. Nowhere is this more evident than on Nanluoguxiang, a once-quiet road now lined with quirky shops, bars and restaurants, and teeming with young couples on sunny weekends. Just to the west, between the ancient Drum and Bell Towers, rickshaw drivers offer hutong tours – the most traditional manner of exploring one of Beijing’s most pleasantly traditional facets.

Eat your way around town
Chinese cuisine is a winner all around the world, though not always at its most authentic outside the motherland, so be sure to try a few local meals during your time in Beijing. The city is, of course, most famed for Peking Duck, and you’ll find this meal served in several high-quality restaurants in the environs of Tiananmen Square. Eating it correctly can be tricky if you don’t know how, since the duck comes served with a few ingredients that should be eaten together with it: first of all, spread some plum sauce onto the pancakes which will have been provided with it, then add morsels of roast duck meat and succulent duck fat, pop a few scallions on top, then roll the whole thing up and munch away.

Rather more downmarket is the typical Beijing breakfast: either a round of greasy dumplings or a couple of fried dough-sticks served with hot soy milk. Both options are cheap as chips, and still served from snack-stands and small restaurants all over town.
Of course, there’s no need to stick to local forms of sustenance in this increasingly cosmopolitan city. You can get all sorts of international food in the Sanlitun or Gulou areas, from delectable French cuisine to Brazilian barbecues, via pizza parlours and an assortment of Indian curries. More tantalising, for some, is the chance to sample different styles of cooking from around this vast land. Mongolian hotpot, from the north, has long been popular in these parts, as have super-spicy Sichuanese dishes. Lamb kebabs, grilled in a haze of smoke at the roadside, are a more recent introduction from the majority-Muslim Xinjiang province way out west, though you’ll now see such stands all over the place. The most recent ‘in’ food in Beijing has been fare from Yunnan province, way down south near the Laos border. An ever-increasing number of restaurants serve these meals, which feature southern ingredients such as pineapple, mushrooms, river fish, and even flowers.

The Great Wall
The most popular day-trip from Beijing is to what the wider world refers to as the “Great Wall of China”, parts of which snake as close as 60km from the city centre. Contrary to popular belief, this architectural marvel is not visible from space – the urban sprawl of Beijing, on the other hand, is clearly apparent to overhead astronauts as night-time passes over the city. In addition, the wall is not a single structure but a series of separate ones – in places there are up to a dozen sections of wall running in close parallel to each other.

The Great Wall (or perhaps Great Walls) stretches from Shanhaiguan, by the Yellow Sea, to Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert. Measurements of its total length vary wildly, but even some of the more conservative estimates suggest more than 8800km. Quite amazingly, this is not far shy of a quarter of the way around the planet. Sections were usually built around seven metres high and seven metres thick, with more than 25,000 battlements in all. Many sections date back to the Ming dynasty, and are therefore hundreds of years old; some have been lovingly restored, others are rather more crumbly, and some sections make for great hiking trails – all in all, visitors to Beijing have a wealth of wall options to choose from.

Where to stay
• Aman@Summer Palace
This top-end hotel forms part of the famed Summer Palace – parts of the complex are, indeed, centuries old. They even have a secret gate into the palace – take a tourist-free stroll after sundown. 1 Gongmenqian Jie | |  Prices from ¥3880 for a double room in high season.

• Bamboo Garden
In Beijing you don’t need to pay top dollar to stay somewhere beautiful or traditional, thanks to a profusion of elegant yet affordable courtyard hotels. This one has historical merit too – it was once the residence of a Qing-dynasty aristocrat. 24 Xiaoshiqiao Hutong | | Prices from ¥680 for a double room in high season.

• The Orchid
Located on hipster-friendly Baochao Hutong, rooms at this boutique hotel are arranged around a delightful courtyard, and their rooftop area offers some of Beijing’s best sunset views – enjoy them with a house cocktail in hand. 65 Baochao Hutong | | Prices from ¥700 for a double room in high season.

• Park Hyatt
Beijing’s luxuriant outpost of the Park Hyatt chain is a prime example of the city’s fantastic contemporary architecture, set atop a toy block-like building that’s illuminated rather beautifully at night. 2 Jianguomenwai Dajie | | Prices from ¥2300 for a double room in high season.

• Opposite House
A modern, adventurously-designed hotel sitting in the city’s main nightlife zone – its lobby is filled with contemporary Chinese art, while the rooms themselves simply scream minimalist chic. Sanlitun Lu | | Prices from ¥2560 for a double room in high season.

What the locals say
“You can’t access the Forbidden City by night, but the banks of a canal wending its way between two of the front buildings are open 24/7… a great place to have an evening stroll, or even drink a beer.”

“It can be hard to find a taxi in certain parts of Beijing, but try asking any local with a smartphone – there are Chinese-language apps which help you book one on the spot for a slight premium.”

“If there’s a particular thing you want to eat, sight you want to see or address you want to get to, ask your hotel staff to write it down in Chinese – that’ll make things so much easier.”