Into the orient: Beijing
AS the capital of up-and-coming economic powerhouse China and one of the most populous cities in the world, Beijing is very much the heart of the republic. Rich in history and culture, don’t let the city’s notorious air quality stop you from checking out some of its best sights and attractions!
Lonely Planet writer Daniel McCrohan has many good things to say about it:
I love the food, the abundance of restaurants, the cheap beer and the lack of table manners. I love the hútòng, the parks and the taichi. I love drinking tea, playing table tennis, flying kites, and being able to cycle everywhere, even to the Great Wall! Most of all, though, I love Běijīng’s capacity to surprise. After a decade of living here, I still find something unexpected almost every day: a phrase I hadn’t heard, a mannerism I hadn’t noticed, a new shop, a new bar, or even, when I’m especially lucky, a long-abandoned temple I never knew existed.
Some effusive praise for the Chinese capital. Now it’s been a couple of years since I visited Beijing, but I’ve been several times and loved it. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things and I’m keen to go back to explore a little more.
Sadly, some of Beijing’s gains have also been its losses. Many of the quaint hútòng districts with the narrow alleys of old where families lived for generations, were lost in the developmental push to prepare the city for the 2008 Olympics, as many residents left in favour of modern apartment buildings and boulevards were created.
Still, there are a number of these left, particularly around the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Shichahai Lake, and many are now protected. If you can find accommodation in some of these districts, you are definitely treated to an experience of the Beijing of old. In these streets, bicycles are often the best way to get around and a fun way to explore – travellers should expect to get lost; it’s all part of the fun. Hútòngs will contain local shops, restaurants, street sellers, barber shops and other small-scale businesses.
The big drawcards like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and Botanical Garden are all excellent, must-visit places. While these places are truly superb, the crowds can be unbelievable and sadly, quite rude and pushy from a Western point of view. Still, if you can handle a bit of argy-bargy, you’ll be blown away by the splendour of the ancient kingdoms of China.
Traditional Chinese theatre is excellent. It combines music, mime, dance and even acrobatics, plus there are elaborate costumes and even more garish makeup. A visit to the opera is par for the course when you go to Beijing, and as they are held in traditional teahouses, you can expect some rather elaborate tea pouring that is just as entertaining as the show on stage.
Shopping was a highlight for me in Beijing, and I’m not the world’s best shopper. There was a great blend of the old style crafts with traditional handcrafts such as jade, lacquer, silk, pictures and ivory, but also plenty of new commercial areas where you could get all the usual Western brands you might like and plenty of replica designer labels as well. I needed a bit of computer equipment in Beijing and headed out to the Zhong Guan Cun area on the recommendation of my hotel. No one spoke much English up here, but they were friendly and helpful and I got some good bargains compared to prices at home in Australia. It certainly was an experience. Beijing also has a number of markets such as the Panjiayuan Antique Market, the Maliandao Tea Market, Sānlǐtún Yashou Clothing Market, the Hongqiao Pearl Market and more. You really can go crazy with the shopping, so take an empty bag (or two) with you to fill when you visit.
A Peking Duck banquet is often on most tourist’s itineraries as well. A lot of restaurants in tourist districts will offer packages including the cuisine and some sort of entertainment – an acrobat troupe, for example. It isn’t always that cheap or authentic and I personally found buying a half duck from a street side seller both satisfying, delicious and a bit of a banquet! Sipping a lot of Chinese tea, or local beer, is also part of the Beijing experience, in addition to wandering around food markets like Donghuamen Night Market in Wangfujing, where you’ll find such delicacies as snakes, seahorses and scorpions.
The Great Wall of China once divided China from the barbarian hordes. It’s another must-see attraction when you visit Beijing and a fantastic, but long, day trip out of the city. It’s also a good opportunity to escape the traffic, concrete and congestion of the city, although sections of the wall can also be pretty crowded. However, most Chinese tourists just venture to the main watchtowers, and if you head out for some of the walking experiences – you can trek a 19km stretch from Sīmǎtái – you’ll soon get away from the modern day hordes.
Shanghai, the republic’s largest city, is just five hours away now by high-speed train, and while a day trip would possibly be a bit brief, it’s now possible to get to places from Beijing in a very short amount of time. Another popular trip from Beijing is the two-day journey to Lhasa, or the winter visit to Harbin in Heilongjian province for the ice festival.
Pollution and crowds
Possibly one of the drawbacks to visiting Beijing is the pollution and the crowds. Public transport is very good, but it can be incredibly crowded at certain times of the day and the streets packed. But one of the great things about Beijing is the number of enormous public spaces. They are used to crowds here and places like Tiananmen Square are simply vast and can handle the flow of movement. This was one aspect of the city that impressed me. While the train system in China is fantastic, getting a ticket can be a bit of a lengthy process in Beijing and going there a bit like departing from an airport – you need to leave plenty of time.
Air pollution is an ongoing problem in Beijing. In December last year, Beijing declared a “red alert” for the first time, with buildings literally disappearing into the haze and children and the elderly being told to stay indoors. In order to keep the tourists coming, however, authorities have been attempting to address the problem, often in creative ways.
Main image via Flickr.