When to go to Beijing
The best time to visit Beijing
Alas, Beijing's best seasons for visitors – spring and autumn - are also its most fleeting. The rest of the year, China's capital endures a climatic tug-of- war between the East Asian monsoon and the giant Siberian anti-cyclone to the north. In other words, it’s freezing in winter and baking in summer. The good news for Brits is that rainfall is generally infrequent all year round.
Spring – a city awakes
From mid to early April, the woolly hats come off, the cherry trees blossom in Yuyuantan Park and Beijing rouses itself from icy slumber. You’ll need to pack a jacket but it's nevertheless a pleasant time to visit, and you can expect to find the sights relatively uncrowded.
In April and May you can bank on T-shirt weather (with the occasional northerly chill), al fresco lunches and growing numbers of domestic tourists. For a week or so in late April, the liuxu, gossamer-like seeds of the willow tree, waft hazily through the atmosphere, settling on pavements like pockets of post-apocalyptic ash. This spectacle isn’t much of a nuisance; more perturbing can be the sandstorms that blow south off the Gobi, turning day into terracotta twilight for a couple of days at a time. May 1-3 is a national holiday, so expect the Forbidden City to be awash with red-capped Chinese tour groups.
Summer – the blast furnace
June is a great month to spend out of doors, hiking the wild Great Wall, tramping round the city’s lakes and parks and sipping evening martinis on Beijing’s many rooftop bars.
In late July, the mercury regularly tops 40C, and all that white tile, concrete and glass seems to suck up the heat, transforming the city into a blast furnace. Hutong dwellers lug their beds outside to sleep in the alleys while white collar workers dart from one air-conditioned building to the next. The heat and humidity tends to aggravate the pollution too – no wonder the Ming Emperors built their Summer Palace 250km north in Chengde.
Temperatures ease towards the end of August, and this is when heavy rainfall is most common, giving the city a well-earned de-dusting.
Autumn – blue sky days
September and October sees Beijing at its nicest, with balmy temperatures, clear skies and fewer visitors at the sights. Note that October 1 to 5 is Golden Week, a national holiday. Try to imagine 10 million happy campers swarming upon Beijing's beauty spots ... makes a British Bank Holiday look like 28 Days Later.
November can still be a pleasant time to visit. A green tide of cabbages invades the hutongs as the locals start battening down for the long winter, and you’ll clock the coal sellers beginning their rounds. Tourist sights are quiet (with many switching to cheaper winter ticket prices), hotel deals are plentiful and it can be good walking weather if you’re suitably attired. Bring gloves, or better yet, wrap your palms around a bag of hot roast chestnuts.
Winter – fireworks and ice
From late November to mid March, Beijing becomes exceedingly cold and dry. January and February sees the mercury plummeting to -10C as the lakes of Houhai and Beihai freeze over and locals get their skates on. Biting winds scythe down from Inner Mongolia - the reason why traditional courtyard homes have their entrances facing south.
Personally, I’m rather fond of January in Beijing. The one just passed saw a full month of unbroken sunshine encouraging regular ski trips to nearby Nanshan, warming hot pot feasts and evenings spent nursing single malts in cosy hutong bars. True, trips out to the Wall will be bitterly cold, but as the only visitors you can take fabulous photos, especially if the battlements are capped with snow. There’s also a congenial buzz in the air as the Chinese anticipate the coming lunar New Year, known as Spring Festival, or chun jie.
Hands down Beijing’s biggest party of the year. City districts become war zones echoing with the boom of fireworks and the machine gun rat-a-tat of firecrackers. This is no organised public display – it’s every man for himself, and a wonder that more people don’t blow themselves up. In 2009 a newly-built skyscraper was burnt to a cinder. Needless to say, it’s quite a spectacle. In 2012, the revelry runs from January 23 to February 6. Restaurants and businesses close as millions of migrant workers leave the capital and return to their provincial homes for some well-deserved R&R. This mass human migration – the world’s largest – makes travelling from Beijing to other parts of China very difficult, but it’s a particularly fun time to be in the city. Aside from the pyrotechnics, streets are relatively quiet and you can hit up traditional temple fairs.
The Lantern Festival (February 6, 2012) is the last hurrah of the New Year celebrations, as the Chinese wolf down yuanxiao (rice dumplings stuffed with sweet fillings) and any remaining explosives get shot into the air in a final volley of noise and colour.