Lost in Beijing…Continued

China, City Travel, Dispatches from the Road, Expats Abroad, Fitness & Workouts, Food & Wine, Lost Girls, Shopping & Style, Spa & Beauty, Spiritual Travel, Tours & Attractions, Walking — By on May 21, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Great Wall BeijingI was lucky enough to have an expat to show me around (my friend Jen who worked with me at a magazine in New York before moving to Beijing for a year). Well, two expats actually. A man named Tak, a Singapore-born and Beijing-based entrepreneur, met up with us after finding me through this blog. From exploring ancient palaces to stumbling upon hidden gardens, here’s a sampling of some of my favorite things to do in and around China’s capital.

Peking Duck
Jen insisted that we try the famous duck, which is roasted for hours to crisp its skin a golden brown and then served with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce. She made reservations in advance to reserve our duck at Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant, a shabby-but-cozy, family-run place buried in a hutong (ancient alleyway) neighborhood. You can see the cooks roasting ducks in the fired-fueled ovens as soon as you walk in. As our server artfully sliced the fatty meat in front of us, Jen instructed how to layer it on top of a pancake with spring onions and sweet sauce. My favorite dish, however, wasn’t the famous duck that lured us to the restaurant, but the salty-sweet chicken cashew stir-fry.

Forbidden City In the old days, ordinary people didn’t enter the imperial palaces’ Gate of Heavenly Peace if they weren’t looking to be executed. Today, both Chinese and international tourists flank the gate to wander through some of the 9,999 rooms in the imperial palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties (the number nine is linked with longevity).

Almost as soon as we walked through that gate adorned with a picture of Chairman Mao, “art students” lured us into their shops to buy their silk-screen paintings and calligraphy scrolls. Buyer beware: The touts aren’t really art students, but rather scam artists trying to coax you from your Yuan by pulling at your conscience. Still, the seller we spoke with was good-natured and we had fun bartering with him, so we walked out with a silk painting of three women for my mother, which we’d tell her represented her three daughters. Besides, it’s hard to have any ill will when you’re wandering through the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, and Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies.

Jingshan Park As you exit the north gate of the Forbidden City, walk across the street into this 57-acre sanctuary of pavilions, temples, and peony gardens. Admission is only about US 25 cents, and you’ll get to see the city from above if you climb to the highest point in Beijing at the Wanchun Pavilion (Ten Thousand Spring Pavilion). After our climb, we rested on a bench in clearing to watch groups of elderly Chinese men and women playing some kind of card game that looked like it required three whole decks. Others sipped out of thermoses or strolled by with a grandchild, holding their little hand as they stopped to smell the flowers blooming all around.

Yin Bar Tak emailed us about this rooftop bar that has views of both the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, and later met us there on our first night out. It’s located in the boutique Emperor Hotel and was one of our favorite places both for the views and the fact that you can relax without having to shout at your friends over loud music (a tell-tale sign that I’m getting older). Though it was a little chilly during the night, the waitress brought us wool blankets to wrap around ourselves. I’d recommend ordering the Woo cocktail. I’m not really sure what’s in it, but I’m guessing it’s mixed with the notorious Chinese fire water and will definitely warm you up!

Nanluoguxiang alley Many of the hutong (ancient alleyway) neighborhoods formed by traditional courtyard homes have been bulldozed to make room for wider streets and taller buildings. The preserved, one-kilometer strip known as Nanluoguxiang alley near the Drum Tower has morphed into a hipster/artist/tourist hotspot. More than 800 years old, the alley is now lined with funky boutiques selling fare such as hand-stitched baby booties, restaurants making use of the courtyards to serve guests everything from pizza to the traditional hot pot, and funky bars without names on their doors.

My sister, Kate, insisted on stopping in a music store off the main alley, and haggled for a bongo drum (which helped keep her occupied in the airport on our return trip). Lost Girls tip: If you’re looking to sample the latest Chinese music, much of which can’t be downloaded on iTunes, stop by Music Station on 99-1 Gulou Street East. The guy there opened half a dozen CDs and popped them into his player so I could listen. Once he gauged my taste, he handed me a whole pile to look at and patiently played them until I’d narrowed down my selection. My favorite was an album by Carsick Cars.

If you want to get away from the crowds for a glimpse of daily life, hop on a bike and pedal around. You’ll likely get lost in the maze of alleys and end up riding in circles like we did. You’ll also come across families playing cards in their home’s courtyard or steaming fresh dumplings, and can better imagine what life might have been like for Beijingers when hutongs formed the backbone of the city.

798 Art District This industrial factory area has turned into a major platform for Chinese artists to challenge the government’s limits on freedom of expression. Filled with design studios, galleries, and cafes, you’ll find everything from photography to digital medi to sculptures exploring social taboos as well as kitschy Mao souvenirs. Located on the fringes of the city itself, the avant-garde installations serve as a backdrop for this pedestrian thoroughfare. And don’t be surprised if Chinese tourists ask you for a picture-of yourself with them.

Yashow (Yaxiu) Market Sure, this market near the Worker’s Stadium is filled with tourists and knockoffs, but it’s also one of the cheapest for clothes and shoes in the city. Well, cheap if you’re prepared to barter. Jen has lived here long enough to know that a pair of sunglasses shouldn’t cost more than 30 yuan (or around US $4). When I approached a woman behind a glass case of hundreds of shades, the first price she threw out was 300 yuan. I eventually got her down to 50, which still might have been too much. Still, if you’re prepared to smile and joke while you’re haggling, getting lost in the piles of imposter Northface jackets, Puma shoes, and Juicy Couture purses will turn out to be a little adventure. Just bring along a lot of patience as well as your wallet.

Chinese Massage Also near the Worker’s Stadium is a therapeutic retreat called Bodhi Sense. Jen and I stopped into the spa for a traditional massage, known as Tuina, which utilizes acupressure points to release tension and boost energy flow. I joked that we were getting a couples massage when we were escorted to a single room with two tables side by side, then instructed to change into white pajamas before laying down. Still, an hour long massage cost only 168 yuan, or about US $24. Whether you believe in blocked energy or not, you’ll definitely walk out with your body buzzing thanks to the skilled hands of the masseuses.

Great Wall Hike Ever since I read in social studies class about this stone wall-sprawling for almost 4,000 miles to protect various Chinese dynasties from invaders-I dreamed of walking upon it. A guide named “Richard” approached us in the Forbidden City, and later found us lost (again!) near Tiananmen Square on our way to meet Tak at Yin Bar. So we signed up to do a tour with him that included transportation and an English-speaking guide for a total of 400 yuan (about US $57) for Kate, our friend Cynthia, and myself. (In case you need a guide, his email is 8aa6@sina.com).

Tak told us to steer clear of the well-preserved but tourist-ridden section known as Badaling, and to make the two-hour drive to the less preserved and less crowded Simatai. The four-hour, 10 km hike from Simati to Jingshaling was challenging. And the crumbling stone and solitude was eerily beautiful. The solitude was occasionally broken by farmers-turned-touts trying to sell everything from water to postcards, but they were happy to simply walk beside us for a while and practice their English. We were charged an entrance fee at Simatai, and an exit fee at Jingshanling, as well as a fee to cross a necessary bridge. There was an option to take a zip-line over the river at the end, but the three of us finished the old-fashioned way-on our own two feet.

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  • Mike says:

    China has so much to see I hear. The Peking Duck looks good.

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