Want to go to Beijing but not sure where to start or what to see? Check out this brief lowdown on the cheapest way to see the best that China's capital has to offer
Beijing is the capital of China and home to more than 17 million people. That being said, it more than accommodated two more when I visited with my girlfriend in January 2009.
Things to do
We saw the Forbidden City (admission Y40 per person) and Tiananmen Square on day one. Simply amazing - you could spend a whole day wandering round the old palace grounds and I would heartily recommend watching Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor before you do, just to add to the experience. If you time things right, you can see the Emperor’s collection of ornate European clocks chiming the hour around 2pm (although having to pay an extra Y10 for the privilege was a little cheeky if you ask me).
What else do you think of when you think of China? Pandas of course. So the Beijing Zoo was the next obvious stop. Confounding my expectations, the pandas were animatedly wrestling each other every two seconds and even gracefully balancing on top of tall trees. I don’t know if it was the time of day we saw them (around 4.30pm) or if the keeper had given them a little something extra to pep them up, but for 45 minutes we were treated to a real show! (Admission is Y10 per person in low season, and an extra Y5 for the separate panda enclosure.)
Talking of shows, we were more than happy when our hostel, at our behest, arranged a night out for us to see Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu at Beijing’s Red Theatre and even arranged our free transport to and from the hostel. The show is a breakneck mix of narrative, action and dance, all performed by a troupe of supremely disciplined and agile young men in what is now China’s longest running show. It's possibly not to everyone’s taste (slightly cheesy), but hats off to all concerned for an incredibly entertaining evening. Cost: Y160 per person, including transport and tickets.
After this, we decided to visit another of Beijing’s great modern attractions: the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. This is a beautiful-looking piece of architecture by anyone’s standards but by nighttime it was illuminated to its full grandeur. For around Y55 you can go inside and wander round the main field and have your picture taken next to one of the giant mascots.
The hutongs (old traditional-style alleyways that are free to walk around and unfortunately being "modernised" out of existence) provide a flavour of old Beijing, but walk a little further along the narrow alleyways and you will find that they house many new boutique shops, restaurants and bars. Seemingly, the oldest area of town is fast becoming one of the most vibrant and is now, in my opinion, the best area to get a great dinner and a few beers.
Further, one of Beijing’s best kept secrets (possibly because it is a little out of the way) is an art district of Beijing called Factory 798 that was really bewilderingly brilliant and free to walk around and explore. They have taken a large rundown industrial sector and revamped it so it is now an artists' village with galleries next door to each other and modern art on every corner of the street. Every city should have one!
Finally, we saved the best until last. Our hostel arranged a minibus to take us and a few other guests to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu, a less touristy spot than the famous Badaling section. Leaving early in the morning, it took 90 to 120 mins to travel the 80km or so from Beijing and we must have spent 20-30 mins walking up to the wall and, once up there, another 2-3 hours posing for photographs and walking between its many towers. If all that sounds exhausting then there is a fun way to descend from this section of the wall. You can take a toboggan slide down to the bottom, which twists and turns in a fun but not too dangerous way. For my money, if it had been a little bit faster then it would have been even better. But hey, maybe that’s just me. Cost: Y260 per person, including transport, tickets and breakfast
All this and we didn’t even get round to seeing the famous Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, the Sacred Way, or the Temple of Heaven.
Boozing and eating
- No time to actually visit Tibet? Why not try the “Yak in Highland Barley” at Makye Ame (http://en.makyeame.cn/), a mid-priced Tibetan restaurant in Beijing where you can also witness the waitresses practise their traditional Tibetan singing and dancing. We went early (around 5pm) so they didn’t seem to mind us watching as they were having great fun messing up and falling over.
- No trip to Beijing would be complete without at least sampling the renowned "Peking duck" in a Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant (http://www.quanjude.com.cn/). This is a high-end restaurant so we only ordered half a duck from the menu (Y99) between us and a couple of cheap Yanjing beers, and as a further delicacy I ate "duck's brain". Nothing is wasted it seems.
- The best place to pause while investigating the hutongs has to be the Pass-By Bar (http://www.passbybar.com/). The -18°C temperature outside soon became a distant memory as we sat next to the heaters in the covered courtyard section and sampled a Caesar salad and a reasonably priced bottle of red wine. A great place to meet and to mingle but the costs will rack up if you stay there too long. (Price Y100-Y199 per couple.)
- Not too far away from the Pass-By Bar, you come to one of the best places in Beijing to sample Szechuan cuisine: Baguobuyi (89-3 Dianmen Dongdaije). At super-reasonable prices for many, many dishes, this place reminded me why I love Chinese cuisine. Indeed, it was very probably the best meal we had while we stayed in Beijing, including dishes like fried squid in chili oil and (the local delicacy) jiaozi dumplings.
- But if you just fancy a quick cheap eat, then you can’t beat Wangfujing Snack Street or Donghuamen Night Market for convenience, especially if you’re brave enough to sample skewered scorpion or deep-fried seahorse!
Tips for drinking beer
- The best area we found for a night out drinking was in the hutongs by the side of Houhai lake, where there are too many bars to mention, or remember for that matter. Bar-hop to your heart's content until you find the one you like the best.
- However, delicious though Tsingtao beer is, it is even more delicious when you can find it cheaper. If you are truly on a budget, then the best place to buy beer is in any local shop, where you will find it is three times cheaper than in bars, sometimes more. (Y2 to Y5 per beer.)
Where to stay
We stayed at a hostel called the Happy Dragon Hostel. Located in the centre of Beijing, it was walking distance to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, via the city’s main shopping street of Wangfujing dajie. Or a short taxi journey if you are feeling a little less energetic. It's not top end luxury-wise but the place was clean and well kept for only £10 per person per night in an ensuite double room. The staff were exceedingly helpful arranging activities and giving advice, as well as a local map of the area. Plus, if you need to unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing, you can relax in the hostel’s bar where the guests mingle and swap ideas about where to go the next day in a very friendly, laidback atmosphere.
A word of warning
Beware when you first arrive in Beijing. There is a notorious taxi scam in operation at the airport (including the official airport taxi rank). The taxi drivers will try to charge you up to six times the normal price for driving from the airport to the centre of Beijing and even drive out of the way to make the journey seem longer than it really is (charging you two or three times for unnecessary bridge toll fares in the process). My advice: never get into a cab with two people in it (the person next to the driver is probably the scammer promising the driver a cut of his ill-gotten gains) and always agree a price before you get in the cab.
A final note
China was amazing and I have never known a city with so many things to see that even after a week of frenetic sightseeing there are still things you can do without scratching your head or resorting to the D-list attractions. In the end, we could have stayed so much longer than a week. If you get a chance to go to Beijing, don’t think about it – just go!