These days, Beijing changes
in the blink of an eye. One night, you're at a fantastic restaurant
on a street jammed with fantastic restaurants. They're rubble
by the next afternoon. That's progress, Chinese style. So go
now-before many of the ancient neighborhoods are destroyed to
make way for the 2008 Olympics, and before the costs of visiting,
already on the rise, start to approach those of Shanghai and
What you must see
Mao's Mausoleum at Tiananmen Square:
Out front, watch the locals buy
silk flowers for 12˘, genuflecting-and even weeping-as they
lay them at the foot of a Mao statue. (Guards gather the flowers
and take them out on carts to resell.) You'll be rushed by the
corpse too fast to know whether it's real or wax, then spit
out the back among hawkers selling Mao watches, pins, and all
manner of doodads. 8:30-11:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 2-4 p.m.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; free.
The Great Wall: As awesome
as advertised-a technological and architectural wonder providing
sensational views. Tours often pair the Badaling section with
a visit to the Ming Tombs, but resist both. Badaling is reconstructed,
overrun, and commercialized, and the tombs waste a half day.
You're better off at Simatai (8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), a more authentic
and unspoiled part that costs $3.75 to get into and has a $7.25
lift for those who can't handle the rugged climb. The round-trip
ride-with your cabbie waiting at the Wall-should cost about
Forbidden City: Wander the
halls and temples where emperors lived for five centuries (8:30
a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, $4.75-$7.25 depending on the season).
The $3.75 audio tour, Roger Moore's finest performance, is more
informative than most of the guides for hire at the entrance.
Pay the extra $1.50 to see the Hall of Clocks, a quirky collection
of ancient timepieces. After you leave the north end of the
Forbidden City, walk to Jingshan Park and climb the hill for
a stunning overview.
Yao or Mao? Basketball hoops out front
of the Lama Temple belie changes afoot in Chinese culture.
Lama Temple: The lamasery-in
recent decades a monastery for Buddhist monks but for centuries
a royal-family residence-is one of the city's most peaceful locations,
with five major prayer halls and lots of chanting and burning
incense. It's also a terrific example of Chinese propaganda; the
museum displays offer an accurate history of Tibetan Buddhism
up until the 1950s, when the Communists rolled into the Tibetan
capital of Lhasa, exiled the Dalai Lama, and hijacked the faith.
Now they call it a "peaceful liberation." Take the subway to the
Yonghegong stop and follow the signs. 12 Yonghegong Dajie, 011-86/10-6404-3769,
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., $3.
What to skip and what to do instead
Skip the tours of the Great Hall of the People
and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. They're
dullsville. Instead: Hop the Line 1 subway west to the Junshibowuguan
stop for the little-visited but more entertaining Military
Museum, which charges $1.25 to enter (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.).
Unfortunately, much of the collection lacks English explanations;
then again, what you see-the history of Chinese artillery and
war machinery-is what you get, and you can fire a sling-bow
gun at an arcade target (24˘ for four shots). Afterward, walk
five minutes west to the free Millennium Monument,
a mammoth rotating sundial propped up on 200-odd steps. Climb
it for something rare in Beijing: a view.
Skip full performances of puppet, acrobat, or Beijing opera
shows. They're often in high school-quality auditoriums, and
most Westerners can't bear the indecipherable screeching of
the opera for long anyway. Instead: Take in a 70-minute sampler
of all three arts, 7:30 p.m. nightly at the Liyuan Theatre,
inside the Jianguo Hotel Qianmen (175 Yongan Lu, 011-86/10-8315-7297).
It will only cost you one evening and $4.75 to $16, depending
on where you sit and whether you order dessert.
Skip the pedicab tours of Beijing's ancient alley neighborhoods,
known as hutong. The tours cost at least $30,
your guide will stick to a script that you could have gotten
off the Internet, and those pedicabs are only romantic until
your butt starts aching from the bumpy ride. Instead, all you
really need to know is that this style of housing-the courtyard
house leading out into narrow alleys-is hundreds of years old,
has no indoor plumbing, and is in danger of disappearing as
bulldozers make way for thoroughfares. Keep walking south
from Tiananmen Square or take the subway to the Qianmen
stop, and then meander in the winding maze until you've shot
enough quaint photos of old women sitting on milk crates and
picking their teeth or diaperless babies chasing chickens.
Hotels: How much will you spend?
The hotels listed below are relatively inexpensive, near subway
stops, and with some staff who can speak English. There are
far cheaper ones, but a non-Chinese-speaking tourist definitely
needs easy subway access and/or reliable concierge help. Prices
are baseline for doubles, and may rise depending upon arrival
and departure dates.
For $58 per night: Hademen Hotel Small, adequate
rooms with hard beds and ugly pink-and-gold bedspreads. But
you do get cable television (for free) and in-room broadband
Internet access (6˘ per minute). The Hademen Hotel is an excellent
value especially for its location, kitty-corner from the Chongwenmen
subway stop. 2A Chongwenmenwai Dajie, 011-86/10-6711-2244, www.hademenhotel.com.
For $60: Novotel Xin Qiao Beijing A standard
chain hotel with clean, basic rooms and excellent light. Two
Western and two Chinese restaurants. Bonus: You can rent a bicycle
for $4.75 per day. At the Chongwenmen subway stop. 2 Dong Jiao
Min Xiang, 011-86/10-6513-3366, www.novotel.com.
For $65: Capital Hotel Rooms have white-and-taupe
bedding and draperies and large windows that let in lots of
light. Seven restaurants, one with a karaoke bar, as per the
Asian obsession with lipsynching to Celine Dion. Near Qianmen
subway stop; within walking distance from Tiananmen Square.
3 Qianmen Dong Dajie, 011-86/10-6512-9988. Reserve via www.beijing-hotels.net.
For $90: Jianguo Hotel The airy lobby is
often a heartwarming scene-the hotel is frequented by Western
parents adopting babies. Rooms are spacious, and you're a block
from a Starbucks and Xiushui Market. At Yonganli subway stop.
5 Jianguomenwai Dajie, 011-86/10-6500-2233. Reserve via www.beijing-hotels.net.
If you need a fork, bring your
Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant: The traditional
Beijing duck restaurant that foreign correspondents once agreed
never to write about. Tough secret to keep, and the owner now
has a big sign outside welcoming foreigners. You're greeted
as you walk through the narrow, dusty entryway into the Chinese
courtyard by a coal hearth and several ducks roasting before
you. From $2 a dish. At $7.75, the duck is an incredible bargain,
since it can feed at least two. 11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Lu,
near Qianmen. It's a bit tricky to find, so taking a taxi may
Xinjiang Red Rose Restaurant: The Red Rose
is charmingly reminiscent of a mosque, which befits a place
serving Uygur cuisine, the Middle Eastern-inspired style from
China's far northwest (where Muslims are a large minority).
Unlike a mosque, the restaurant gets rowdy at night, with live
music and belly dancers. Lamb kebabs, or "string of roast mutton,"
cost 60˘ each; hand-pulled-noodle dishes start at $2.25. 7 Xingfu
Yicun, the alley across the street from the north gate of the
Workers' Stadium, 011-86/10-6415-5741.
FuKu Restaurant: Looking out over Houhai
Lake, FuKu is a typical restaurant with plastic-covered wood
tables. The food is Dongbei, or northeast Chinese. Don't miss
the fried green beans. 4 Binhai Hutong, north bank of Houhai
Lake in Xicheng District, 011-86/10-6403-7311. Walk 10 minutes
north from the footbridge at Houhai, where most taxi drivers
will drop you off.
Gourmet Garden Sichuan Restaurant: A terrific
place for Sichuan, the hyperspicy style from the southwestern
province. Look for mala xia, referred to on the menu as "hot-pepper
lobsterlings," for $2.75. 12-1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, next to
the Yonganli subway stop and across from Xiushui Market, 011-86/10-6568-1607.
Where to buy Red China kitsch
Panjiayuan Market: Known as the "ghost market"
because of the hours-4:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday-and
the "dirt market" because it's China's largest garage sale.
Vendors line up along dusty aisles, spreading their wares on
blankets or hanging them in makeshift galleries. It's a great
place to buy Chinese scrolls, sculptures, ceramics, and Mao
stuff. Hiding among the junk are valuable antiques, especially
the cameras. Take a taxi, after asking your concierge to write
the address in Chinese.
Xiushui Market: Also called the Silk Alley
market, Xiushui is a colossal bazaar of clothes, watches, bags,
and trinkets. Most are knockoffs of famous Western brands, but
that doesn't mean anyone back home will know the difference.
The market is located immediately west of the Yonganli subway
Wanfujing Street: A sprawling shopping street
an easy walk east of Tiananmen Square, Wanfujing Street is abuzz
well into the evening with browsers inside and out of the row
of malls that surround the pedestrian plaza. The area is a fascinating
study in contrasts between the upscale-Nine West to Louis Vuitton-and
a bustling street-food market, where vendors hock everything
from tasty Inner Mongolian cheeses to fried swallows on a stick.
PARTYING WITH THE EXPAT COMMUNITY
- Sanlitun: A longtime expat hangout, which
is actually two separate bar streets branching north and south
from Gongrentiyuchang Beilu. The north end is pricier but better
lit, and home to several handsome cafés. The south-end bars
are so small that folks usually just mill around in the alley.
Walk 15 minutes east from the Dongsishitiao subway stop or grab
- Houhai: Lake Once a quaint
residential area around a picturesque lake-small enough that
folks ice-skate on it during winter-Houhai has burgeoned in
the past year into a bustling mishmash of cafés and bars, up
and down both sides of the lake. Some are expensive, some aren't.
Cheapest drinks: $1.25 beers at No. 2 Café, on the lake's east
side, near the footbridge.
- Bargaining is required, and vendors can be
- Credit cards are rarely accepted in restaurants
or most markets.
- Use Chinese currency, not U.S., for all transactions
or the conversion rate could cost as much as 3 percent more
than at a Chinese exchange counter.
- Pirated DVDs and CDs are everywhere for as
little as $1, but it's illegal to bring them home (and most
street hawkers are selling blank or corrupted discs). If you're
going to do it anyway, make sure to avoid VCDs (an older video-disc
format), which don't work on Western DVD players.
- Don't buy bottled water from street vendors,
since the bottle might be refilled with tap water, which is
suspect. Soda is safer.
- Taxi drivers don't speak useful English or
read the Romanized version of Chinese known as Pinyin. A solid
phrasebook with Chinese characters and a bilingual hotel concierge
willing to write out instructions to cabbies will be your saviors.
There's nothing so humiliating as having locals crowd around
and giggle as you seek assistance.
- Buy a phrasebook and read it before you land.
Two of the best are Fingertip Chinese by Walter Long and The
Pocket Interpreter: Chinese by Lydia Chen and Ying Bian.
- The subway system is easy and cheap- 36 cents
a ride. Use it. Most of the places in this story are accessible
to subways or near obvious landmarks, because getting around
in China is very difficult if you don't speak the language.
- At tourist sites, beware of demure young "students"
who want to practice English. Usually they want to lure you
to an "art show" in a back alley, where you'll feel compelled
to buy ugly paintings just to get away.
- The Chinese Culture Club offers lectures and
activities-from architectural walks to Chinese calligraphy lessons-intended
for expats, but tourists are also welcome. 011-86/10-8462-2081,
- Updated weekly, Xianzai.com
is an excellent site for keeping tabs on upcoming cultural activities
and social events, as well as deals on airfares, hotels, and
meals. Dining Tips ˇ The concept of "nonsmoking" is mostly nonexistent.
- Don't feel pressured when waitresses stand
over you. They don't care how long you take to make a decision.
- Few waitresses speak English, so it's usually
impossible to ask about ingredients. Dishes are cheap enough
that being adventurous won't bust you.
- Don't leave your chopsticks standing up in
rice bowls. The image is similar to that of funerary incense
at a Buddhist altar-and thus, irreverent.