Why go to Beijing? There are six ring roads, four – no wait - FIVE million cars, air pollution off the charts, rampant urban development, an indecipherable language, and ever more KFC branches. Well, that’s one way to look at China’s capital. What about hundreds of miles of ancient hutong alleyways, the steam and sizzle of 40,000 eateries, a world-beating contemporary arts scene, some of Asia’s best hotels, layer upon layer of tumultuous history … not to mention a certain Great Wall and Forbidden City? At the vanguard of China’s breathless charge to super power status, Beijing is staking an indefatigable claim as the new stronghold of global power and influence in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating, infuriating, thrilling place to be, right this very moment. If nothing else, make sure you can look back and say, “I was there”.
Because you can!
The myth persists that the language barrier is an insurmountable hurdle. “Pi!” as the locals would say. (It means “nonsense”– it literally means fart.) With a phrasebook to point at, a smile and a sense of adventure, you’ll have a hugely rewarding trip and discover China’s capital at your own pace. Since the Olympics in 2008, subways and buses have English route-maps and announcements, most restaurants have at least a picture menu, and even basic Chinese-run hotels usually have a member of staff who knows enough English to point you towards the nearest Peking duck.
Right up your alley
Beijing’s major avenues are broad enough to park a column of tanks side-by-side with room left for a bicycle or ten. But veer down any side alley and you’ll find the hutongs: grey-brick, tree shaded lanes where the old boys play chess in their pyjamas, where caged birds out-sing car horns, and fruit hawkers, knife sharpeners and coal merchants still peddle their wares from roving bicycle carts. The beating heart of Beijing, the hutongs are where traditional residential architecture juts up against the demands of a modern urban infrastructure - and frequently comes off worse. The moral? Visit soon. Despite the preservation orders, nothing is sacred.
Have you eaten?
Forget everything your local Peking Palace has taught you. Alas, you won’t find “deep fried chicken balls” in China. You will, however, find infectious delight in a populace so stomach obsessed, the phrase “have you eaten” is simply a way of saying hi. From the mouth-numbing surprise of lamb hot pot to hearty, pork-filled buns eaten on the hoof to Beijing’s centuries-old signature roast quacker, delicious discoveries await. And all the icky stuff you might have heard about – dogs, snakes, bugs – worry not: that’s all down south. Beifangren (northerners) don’t suffer any of that tripe. Although they do love their tripe.
Whether it’s gossiping grannies minding infants trussed-up like arctic explorers (though note the split trousers for drafty toilet relief), or rag-tag rubbish collectors picking up after the man-purse toting nouveau riche, Beijingers in their multitudes are as fascinating a cast as you could wish for. And most of the time, you – the ever intriguing laowai! – (foreigner), will be the star of the show.
A really, really great wall
Full disclosure: you can’t see it from the moon and it’s not one long, unbroken “stone dragon” sprawled the length of the country. But Beijing’s Ming-era Great Wall, snaking across saw-tooth peaks an hour north of the city, is sheer, pant-wetting eye candy. Best of all, it caters to every energy level, with touristy battlements fitted out with cable cars, hand-rails and – yes - even a rollercoaster, to off-the-beaten-track, gravity-defying hikes for the serious enthusiast.
Anything but spineless
Beijing’s compass-perfect layout unfurls chess-board style from the zhong zhou xian, the all-important north-south spine that has for centuries marked the spiritual middle of the Middle Kingdom. Dating back to the rule of Kublai Khan, it takes in the majestic Drum and Bell Towers, hops over serene Jingshan Park and into the Forbidden City, then southwards through vast Tiananmen Square, over the Great Helmsman slumbering in his mausoleum, under Qianmen Gate and on to the incomparable Temple of Heaven. That’s some prime tourist real estate.
State of the art
Chinese contemporary art has gone mega global in recent years, but its spiritual home remains the sprawling 798 Art District on Beijing’s outskirts. Once an East German electronics factory, inside its cavernous warehouses is where superstars like Huang Rui and Ai Weiwei first set up shop in the 90s. Today, though rampantly commercial, it’s a must-visit gaggle of domestic and internationally backed galleries, arty book shops and boho cafés.
Yet to come close to Hong Kong or even Shanghai in the price stakes, you need part with only a little in Beijing to get lots in return. Here’s the price of some everyday essentials, converted to GBP for added wow. Subway ride: 20p. Bowl of delicious Shanxi noodles: 50p. 600ml bottle of Tsingtao beer from local shop: 35p. 10km in a taxi: £2.40. An hour foot massage: £6. Call it a tenner for the lot. Bargain, eh?
What Central Park is to New York, the breezy lakes of Shichahai and Beihai are to Beijing. Surrounded by Taoist temples, royal mansions and neon-festooned beer bars, Shichahai promotes restful wandering by day and boozy fun by night. To the south, Beihai boasts pedal boats, classical Chinese gardens, and perched on an island at its centre, the magnificent Bai Ta, a 40 metre-tall Buddhist shrine of white stone.