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Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Cool Travel Guide to Beijing

Just in case you're now wishing you were at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games after seeing the spectacular Opening Ceremony, and are inspired to book a flight... check out my Cool Travel Guide to Beijing. By no means exhaustive, it's simply a list of favorite things to do in the smoggy city.
What to do: The main main must-see sights are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall of China (a day trip), and Temple of Heaven. Once over the disappointment of finding out the Forbidden City has a Starbucks inside, and it's almost always smoggy out at the Great Wall too, work your way through this list:
* Kick back at Houhai Lake - stroll around this lovely leafy lake, shop in the stores in renovated old buildings (you'll find everything from 'antiques' to Indian hippy clothes), or simply hang out and do some people-watching at the al fresco lakeside cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. There's no denying it's touristy, but it is fun. Whatever you do, don't join one of those silly rickshaw tours.
* Explore Beijing's last remaining hutongs
- few of the city's hutongs (historic neighbourhoods of narrow alleyways with traditional low-rise courtyard houses) still exist; many were bulldozed as part of a 'urban makeover' for the Olympics. Those that remain are fascinating places to explore, whether gentrified, their renovated buildings turned into hip hotels and private clubs, or remaining authentic, their gritty alleys home to tiny grocery stores and hole-in-the-wall eateries, where kids play in the streets and old folks sit and watch the world go by. Give the organized hutong tours a miss and explore
: see this list here and images here for inspiration.
* Shop for Communist kitsch at Panjiayuan Market
- this fantastic market is one of our world favorites. Not only is this the place to shop for communist-era trinkets and propaganda posters (sure, they're replicas, but who cares), 'antiques' (ditto) and bric-a-brac, as well as Chinese handicrafts, including vibrant tribal textiles, but it's also great for people-watching.
* Browse the galleries at 798 Dashanzi Arts District
This hip neighbourhood of art galleries, artists studios, art supply shops, tea houses and cafes is a delight to explore. Decorative calligraphy brushes and contemporary art make cool souvenirs.

Where to eat:
Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant for a quintessential Beijing experience. Everyone has eaten here, from celebrities to visiting dignitaries (from Fidel Castro to Yasser Arafat!), and after working our way through a whole succulent Peking Duck (pictured) we understood why. The Quanjude family claim to have been serving duck at this location since the Qing Dynasty. A digital clock ticks over each time a duck is served and while I'm know it didn't exist in Emporer Tongzhi's time, the clock records how many ducks they've served since they started in 1864. As our succulent bird was brought to our table to be carved in front of us, it ticked over to 115,081,852.
Other memorable dining experiences
included stunning, contemporary Asian cuisine in a chic and sleek setting at Jing, at the Peninsula Beijing; intriguing dishes that were favorites of Chairman Mao's at the atmospheric Red Capital Club; a fascinating meal at the much-written-about Green T-House where the decor and diners were arguably as interesting as the cuisine; and delicious meals at a dozen other no-name plastic tablecloth eateries that dished up some of the most mouthwatering food we've ever eaten.
Where to stay:
We'd wanted to stay at the much-talked-about Red Capital Residence, but as it was booked up we checked into the charming Lu Song Yuan hotel, listed in all the guidebooks. A warning: while our stay was fine, the hotel attempted to draw upon our credit card months after our trip. A glitch perhaps? The hotel still gets good reviews on hotel booking sites, as does a similar property, the Bamboo Garden Hotel. We stayed at the tranquil Red Capital Ranch not far from the Great Wall one night, where we ate unusual meals made from garden greens, herbs and flowers.
How to get there: Emirates connects cities in Europe and the Middle East with Beijing via Dubai while Cathay Pacific does a good job of getting the rest of the world there via Hong Kong.

2 comments:

- Suzie - said...

Hi Lara,
I think the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City had to go a while ago, around 2006 I think.
And the air at the Great Wall is always better then in and around Beijing.
Anyway, great hints!
And thanks for the mentioning of my blog and my favorite guides.

laradunston said...

Hi Suzie
Thanks!
Yes, we were last there in the summer of 2006. So thank god they removed Starbucks - I can't believe they allowed it to be put there in the first place. But the same goes for the many souvenir shops in the Vatican Museums - it's so tacky. I always wonder why can't they just keep them downstairs near the ticket office and let people focus on the experience and atmosphere, ditto re the Starbucks.