A day at the Zoo: the pleasures of shopping in Beijing

by rachplatt

Avoid the stressful haggling of Yashow and the tourist crowds of the Silk Market in Beijing. Instead, follow my advice on where to shop, eat, stay and find a real bargain in the Chinese capital

When it comes to shopping in Beijing, you could be forgiven for thinking it is just more trouble than it's worth. After a few failed attempts at bargaining at Yashow and too many stressful visits to the Silk Market, I was ready to give it all up and head to the expensive malls. With a little local knowledge and a subway map, however, Beijing has more than enough real bargains and hidden treasures to keep even the keenest shoppers happy. After a six month stint living in Beijing earlier this year, I returned as a tourist and embarked on my perfect shopping day - the culmination of my favourite spots during my time as a Beijinger!

My perfect shopping day in Beijing begins in the least Chinese way possible, with a Starbucks. After six months, I am more than won over by the local food – but for me, breakfast will always be Western. From there, I hop on to the subway and head to Xizhimen, home to Beijing's best shopping secrets. Here the adventure begins....

The underground market at Xizhimen (112 Xizhimen Wai Dajie) is a western shopper's paradise. Packed to the rafters with row upon row of stalls selling clothes, shoes and accessories for men, women and children, this is one shopping area that most Beijingers keep secret from ex-pats and tourists.  On more than one occasion, I have been asked by my fellow shoppers how I knew about the mall and why I didn't prefer to stick with the rest of the tourists at the Silk Market.

For anyone curious, the reason is simple. At Xizhimen, there is simply no need for bargaining. The first price quoted is the real price and there is little room for negotiation. In addition, the stalls are full of merchandise from the factories of favourite high-street stores (not just in the US, but in various European countries). Indeed, some have the high-street labels still attached.  Don't be surprised to find dresses for RMB30, good-quality cardigans for RMB50 and shorts, T-shirts and underwear for as little as RMB10.

The only bad thing about this market is that it suddenly makes everywhere else seem over-priced. Why would you want to shop anywhere else? I certainly don't. Open 10am-4pm every day, this market attracts a decent crowd of Chinese shoppers but few westerners. Some sales staff do speak English but it's better to go equipped with a few key phrases and a willingness to talk with hand gestures. Don't forget to bring a few spare plastic bags. You will need them.

After a morning here, it is unlikely there will be anything left on your shopping list – but, if the impossible were to happen, the Zoo market is just a short walk away. Dongwuyuan Wholesale Market (known affectionately as the Zoo due to it's proximity to the popular tourist attraction) takes shopping to a whole new level. Situated above the bus station, its six floors of stalls and a much wider selection of merchandise make it worthy of a visit. The prices here are just as cheap, but the stock is a little different. You will find fewer of your high-street favourites – but in their place, you are almost certain to find everything you've been haggling over at Yashow and the Silk Market at a fraction of the price. Allegedly, this is where the sellers from the other markets come to buy their stock.  (The Beijing Zoo exit station of the newly-opened subway line 4 serves this market perfectly and is just a short walk away from the underground market.)

By now, it is definitely time for a break – so I take a taxi to Jiugulou Dajie for a snack. Despite being absent from city's listings magazines and largely unknown, the Dessert Inn (alternatively known as Bitter and Sweet) is an absolute treat for ex-pats and long-term travellers. It provides a little taste of home and yet still maintains a very Chinese flavour. Far better than any of the western bakeries, it does home-made cakes, smoothies and fruit teas that are delicious and affordably priced. Try the Waltz cake with a pot of honey-and-apple tea. You won't be disappointed.

The café is perfectly situated for a gentle walk to Nanlouguxiang, the hutong shopping street loved by locals and tourists alike. Full of character, it is a lovely place to stock up on some souvenirs. It would be unfair to discount the charm of the street itself, but it is far more interesting to venture off the beaten track down one of the side streets to find cheaper, often un-named shops and cafés alongside the hutong homes of the local residents. 

It is now time to head back home to shower and get ready for dinner. There are many youth hostels spread across this vast city, but I have chosen the Golden Pineapple Youth Hostel at Dongsishitiao. It's no secret that Sanlitun is the centre of the nightlife of Beijing and this hostel is situated perfectly on the edge of the hub of activity. In addition, it's proximity to the Worker's Stadium and the subway make it a good base for exploring the city. The facilities, too, are excellent. Rooms are spotless, light and airy and each dorm room has a bathroom with a good shower.

For those wanting a little luxury after a hard day of bargain-hunting, the Beijing branch of Ciro's Pommodoro (http://pomodoro.co.uk) is the perfect setting. Eat in the beautiful Nali Patio courtyard and sample all the wonderful Italian food on the menu. The gnocchi is highly recommended. Finish off with a Champagne mojito. Pure bliss! For those on a budget, head out a little later and sample the street food on and around Sanlitun BeiLu. The barbecue chicken sticks are particularly good.