Beijing on a budget: Getting more for your yuan in China’s capital

WITH the Asian markets being among the fastest growing in the world, all eyes seem to be on Beijing. China’s capital, once utterly closed off to the rest of the planet and as far from a capitalist economy as they come, now regularly sees an influx of prominent designers and luxury brands setting up shop in tony shopping complexes and some of the finest chefs in the world opening new eateries. The quality of life and the cost of living in Beijing are on the rise, and are unlikely to head in the other direction any time soon.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Pic: Shutterstock.com

But that doesn’t mean visitors can’t still see Beijing on the cheap. Sure, you could easily drop a few hundred dollars on a night of fine dining and drinks, or pick up some luxury items in the high-end brand shops in the recently opened Sanlitun North Village.

Or you can see Beijing the cheap and dirty way, which, let’s be honest, usually makes for a more memorable trip.

Tiananmen Square

Don't feel like fighting crowds to see Tiananmen Square? Show up bright and early to see the flag raising. Pic: Casey Hynes

Sightseeing

Most of the tourist hot spots, such as the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Great Wall, charge entrance fees but you can see what is arguably one of the most significant sites in China’s capital for free. There is no cost for visiting massive Tiananmen Square, and while you’re likely to be threading your way among tourists and locals hanging out eating their lunch on the square, it’s still well worth seeing. Get up early — or just make it a really late night out — to see the flag raising at Tiananmen.

Wind your way through the hutongs of Gulou, the neighborhood near the Drum and Bell Towers. Here you’ll find traditional Chinese courtyard homes clustered together in a maze of alleyways and shops you could wander for hours. Beware the rickshaw drivers who offer to give you a ride. They will almost certainly rip you off, so save the cash and wander the hutongs by foot. A solo tour of the hutongs won’t cost you a thing, unless you want to drop into one of the many hole in the wall local restaurants that serve dumplings and noodles for the equivalent of about US$2.

Culture

Once you’ve gotten your fill of Chinese historical sites and monuments, glimpse the future of the art world at creative enclaves such as the 798 and Caochangdi art districts. If you’re reading this article for tips on how to keep your trip low-budget, you likely won’t be making any artistic purchases from the galleries, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look. There are also frequent screenings and openings to check out for free, or next to free, that feature the work of Chinese and international photographers, filmmakers, painters and mixed media artists. Visit the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which often hosts film festivals with screenings for only 15 RMB (US$2.35) per ticket.

If you’re more into traditional artwork, check out the National Museum of China, which is conveniently located across the street from Tiananmen Square.  It is unlikely that you’ll find any contemporary works here, but the extensive exhibitions of ancient art are beautiful and fascinating. Be warned that some of the promotional material and background given on various pieces or periods of history may tend toward the propagandistic, but you’re in the National Museum of China, what do you expect?

798

Graffiti art in the 798 district Pic: Casey Hynes

Eating & Drinking

Nothing says Beijing eats like a few skewers of yangrou chuan’r (lamb kebabs) and a cold pijiu (beer). Fortunately, this occasionally dubious-looking but always tasty street meat typically runs about 1 RMB (US$0.15) per stick so order up a handful and grab a large Yanjing for 3.5RMB (US$0.55) and enjoy this authentically Chinese and wallet-friendly snack. Hang out on the Sanlitun bar street late night to sample a plethora of other cheap and delicious street food, including whole roasted chickens, spiced eggplant skewers, barbecued corn on the cob and mystery meat delicacies.

Yangrou chuan'r

Yangrou chuan'r, or lamb kebabs Pic: wayfarernetwork.com

If it’s a tasty brew you’re after, pop in to one of Beijing’s dive bars for a drink on the cheap. Smuggler’s, a notorious Sanlitun establishment, is well-loved for the 10 RMB ($1.60) beers and mixed drinks, though beware the low quality alcohol in your red bull and vodka or gin and tonic. For something a little more above board, head to Brussels Bar, also in Sanlitun, where happy hour means good Belgian beer for between 20–30RMB ($3–4.70USD).