Although seeming to have presided over China since time immemorial, Běijīng (Northern Capital) – positioned outside the central
heartland of Chinese civilisation – only emerged as a cultural and political force that would shape the destiny of China with the 13th-century Mongol occupation of China.
Located on a vast plain that extends south as far as the distant Yellow River (Huáng Hé), Běijīng benefits from neither proximity to a major river nor the sea. Without its strategic location on the edge of the North China Plain, it would hardly be an ideal place to locate a major city, let alone a national capital.
Chinese historical sources identify the earliest settlements in these parts from 1045 BC. In later centuries Běijīng was successively occupied by foreign forces: it was established as an auxiliary capital under the Khitan Liao and later as the capital under the Jurchen Jin, when it was enclosed within fortified walls, accessed by eight gates.
In AD 1215 the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan’s army razed Běijīng,an event that was paradoxically to mark Běijīng’s transformation into a powerful national capital. Apart from the first 53 years of the Ming dynasty and 21 years of Nationalist rule in the 20th century, it has enjoyed this status to the present day.
The city came to be called Dàdū (大都; Great Capital), also assuming the Mongol name Khanbalik (the Khan’s town). By 1279, under the rule of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Dàdū was the capital of the largest empire the world has ever known.
The basic grid of present-day Běijīng was laid during the Ming dynasty, and Emperor Yongle (r 1403–24) is credited with being the true architect of the modern city. Much of Běijīng’s grandest architecture, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, date from his reign.
The Manchus, who invaded China in the 17th century to establish the Qing dynasty, essentially preserved Běijīng’s form. In the last 120 years of the Qing dynasty, Běijīng, and subsequently China, was subjected to power struggles and invasions and the ensuing chaos. The list is long: the Anglo-French troops who in 1860 burnt the Old Summer Palace to the ground; the corrupt regime of Empress Dowager Cixi; the catastrophic Boxer Rebellion; General Yuan Shikai; the warlords; the Japanese occupation of 1937; and the Kuomintang. Each and every period left its undeniable mark, although the shape and symmetry of Běijīng was maintained.
Modern Běijīng came of age when, in January 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered the city. On 1 October of that year Mao Zedong proclaimed a ‘People’s Republic’ from the Gate of Heavenly Peace to an audience of some 500,000 citizens.
Like the emperors before them, the communists significantly altered the face of Běijīng. The páilóu (decorative archways) were brought down and whole city blocks were pulverised to widen major boulevards. From 1950 to 1952, the city’s magnificent outer walls were levelled in the interests of traffic circulation. Soviet experts and technicians poured in, bringing their own Stalinesque touches.
The past quarter of a century has transformed Běijīng into a modern city, with skyscrapers, slick shopping malls and heaving flyovers. The once flat skyline is now crenellated with vast apartment blocks and office buildings. Recent years have also seen a convincing beautification of Běijīng: from a toneless and unkempt city to a greener, cleaner and more pleasant place.
The year 2008 was Běijīng’s modern coming-of-age. The city spent three times the amount Athens spent on the 2004 Olympics
to ensure the Běijīng Olympic Games were the most expensive in history.
As Běijīng continues to evolve, it is shredding its increasingly tenuous links with its ancient past one fibre at a time. Even the oldschool
China Daily has observed that 4.43 million sq metres of old courtyards have been demolished in Běijīng since 1990, or 40% of the downtown area. The historic area around the Drum and Bell Towers emerged in 2010 as a strong candidate for a ‘Ye Olde Peking’ remodelling, but at the time of writing the plan had been thankfully shelved.
Beijing is a city in an early transition from the old to the modern. You can see many people talking on their cell phones everywhere even while they’re riding their bikes. You’ll also be able to see people going about their daily life while you’re walking around Wudaokou like a group of old Chinese folk playing mah-jong or parents and grandparents walking around carrying grocery bags or walking around with their kids and dogs.
Traffic in Beijing can get unbelievably congested, especially during national holidays. Bicycles are still one of the most popular and the cheapest modes of transportation. Most motorized vehicles are either buses (electric or gas-powered) or taxis. However, there are few traffic accidents in spite of the congestion.
Taxis are very inexpensive by American standards. Most rides in town will not cost more than US$3. But bus rides cost even less (about 7 US cents) regardless of distance. The subway is also clean and modern, and is very easy to navigate.
There are so many varieties of cuisine to choose from, just by walking around the university area. Many food vendors originating from different parts of China prepare their meals on the open sidewalk. You can have fried dough prepared in five different ways and fresh noodle dishes in ten! These snacks will also cost less than US$1 per serving. You will never run out of good cheap food to eat in Beijing!
The best time to visit Beijing is in May and early October when the weather is neither too cold nor too warm. Expect temperatures in the high 30s F late in the evening or early in the morning, reaching the low 80s F by noon.
Another thing that draws people to Beijing is the excellent shopping. Beijing is a shopping haggler’s paradise! Apart from fixed price items in department stores, everything else is negotiable, from clothes and food to photo copying and parking fees. Flea markets can be found everywhere, offering goods that are not easily available in other countries at unbelievably low prices.
You’ll also be able to see different high-end malls catering to a number of globally known brands. Beijing is definitely not a stranger to the “comfortable life.” Silk and cashmere are some popular products sold in Beijing where you can have tailor-made suits and dresses made for around US$120.
The Beijing Night Life is also something that everyone else enjoys in the city because there is always something to do every night. And there are ladies nights, which offer free drinks for the ladies starting from Wednesday to Friday.
Beijing people are very courteous and helpful. They would normally try to help a tourist who can’t speak Mandarin since this is also a very good way for them to practice their English.
With a total area of 16,800 sq km, Běijīng municipality is roughly the size of Belgium. The city itself is also colossal, but its central
area has a highly ordered design and symmetry. Think of Běijīng as one giant grid, with the Forbidden City at its centre. The historical central areas east and west of the Forbidden City are Dōngchéng and Xīchéng, in what was known as the Tartar City during Manchu rule. South of Tiān’ānmén Sq are the historic districts of Xuānwǔ and Chóngwén in the former Chinese City, while Cháoyáng District occupies much of Běijīng’s east and north. The huge district of Hǎidiàn sprawls to the northwest.
The lion’s share of Běijīng’s sights lie within the city proper. Notable exceptions are the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.
(天安门广场; Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng; mTiānānmén Xī, Tiānānmén Dōng or Qiánmén) Flanked by stern 1950s Sovietstyle buildings and ringed by white perimeter fences, the world’s largest public square (440,000 sq metres) is an immense flatland of paving stones at the heart of Běijīng. Height restrictions have kept surrounding buildings low, allowing largely uninterrupted views of the dome of the sky. Kites flit through the air, children stamp around on the paving slabs and Chinese out-oftowners huddle together for the obligatory photo opportunity with the great helmsman’s portrait. On National Day (1 October), Tiān’ānmén Sq heaves with visitors.
(紫禁城; Zǐjìn Chéng ; www.dpm.org.cn; admission high/low season Y60/40, Clock Exhibition Hall Y10, Hall of Jewellery Y10, audio tour
Y40; h8.30am-4.30pm, last tickets 3.30pm Oct-Mar, 4pm Apr-Sep; mTiānānmén Xī or Tiānānmén Dōng) Ringed by a 52m-wide moat at the very heart of Běijīng, the fantastically named Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved complex of ancient buildings. So called because it was off limits for 500 years, when it was steeped in stultifying ritual and Byzantine regal protocol, the otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule until the Republic demoted the last Qing emperor to has-been.
China Art Gallery
(中国美术馆; Zhōngguó Měishùguǎn; Map p 48 ; 1 Wusi Dajie; admission Y20; h9am-5pm, last entry 4pm; mDōngsī) The China Art Gallery has a range of modern paintings and hosts occasional photographic exhibitions. The subject matter of art on display is frequently anodyne – especially from Chinese artists – so consider a trip to 798 Art District for something more electrifying. There’s no permanent collection so all exhibits are temporary.
(北海公园; Běihǎi Gōngyuán; admission high/ low season Y10/5, through ticket high/low season Y20/15; h6.30am-8pm, buildings until 4pm; mTiānānmén Xī, then bus 5) Běihǎi Park, northwest of the Forbidden City, is largely occupied by the North Sea (běihǎi), a huge
lake that freezes in winter and blooms with lotuses in summer. Old folk dance together outside temple halls and come twilight, young couples cuddle on benches. It’s a restful place to stroll around, rent a rowing boat in summer and watch calligraphers practising characters on paving slabs with fat brushes and water. Some talented calligraphers can fashion characters simultaneously with both hands, with one side in mirror-writing or with characters on their sides!
(北京动物园; Běijīng Dòngwùyuán; 137 Xizhimenwai Dajie; admission summer/winter Y15/10, pandas Y5, automatic guide Y40; h7.30am-6pm summer, to 5pm winter; c;mBěijīng Zoo) The zoo is a pleasant spot for a stroll among the trees, grass and willow-fringed lakes as long as you ignore the animal’s pitiful cages and enclosures. If you want to see fauna, it’s best just to zero in on the pandas (if you are not going to Sìchuān) or the Běijīng Aquarium (adult/child Y120/60; h9am-5pm summer, to 5.30pm winter) in the northeastern corner of the zoo. Boats to the Summer Palace depart from the dock (%8838 4476; single/return Y40/70) every hour from 10am to 4pm, May to October.
Temple of Heaven Park
(天坛公园; Tiāntán Gōngyuán; Tiantan Donglu; admission park/through ticket high season Y15/35, low season Y10/30, audio tour available at each gate Y40; hpark 6am-9pm, sights 8am-6pm; mTiāntándōngmén) A tranquil oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in one of China’s busiest urban landscapes, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is encompassed by a long wall with a gate at each compass point. The temple – the Chinese actually means ‘Altar of Heaven’ so don’t expect burning incense or worshippers – originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the Son of Heaven, who prayed here for good harvests, and sought divine clearance and atonement.
(日坛公园; Ritan Lu; h6am-9pm; c;mJiànguómén or Yonganli) Established as an altar for ritual sacrifice to the sun, this is one of Běijīng’s oldest and most pleasant parks. The square altar, typically surrounded by kite flyers and playing children, is ringed by a circular wall, while the rest of the park is devoted to pines, quietude, the rituals of taichi practitioners and martial arts shīfu. The park is also home to a decent outdoor climbing wall (%8563 5038; per climb Y10; h10am-10pm) if you want to climb off calories acquired from the park’s
gaggle of popular bars and restaurants.
XUĀNWǓ & FĒNGTÁI
(大栅栏; Dàshílán’er; mQianmen) Just west of Qianmen Dajie, this recently restored historic shopping street is a fascinating way to reach the antique shop street of Liulichang to the west. A collection of lǎozihào (shops with history) include Ruifuxiang, Tongrentang, the Neiliansheng Shoe Shop and Liubiju. It’s also an excellent place to snack and find accommodation.
For a proper handle on Chinese food, get the gloves off and sleeves rolled up in Běijīng. Not only is Běijīng cuisine (京菜;jīngcài) one of the major Chinese cooking styles, but chefs from all four corners of the land make the culinary pilgrimage here to serve the faddy masses. Which means you don’t really have to leave town to eat your way around China – whether it’s Uighur food, Sìchuān hotpot, Lánzhōu Lāmiàn or Cantonese, you can leaf your way through an often-dazzling Chinese atlas of cooking. The international food spectrum is also sorted, so some of your best Běijīng memories could well be table-top ones.
Handy branches of this well-stocked supermarket can be found in the basement of Oriental Plaza (Map p 48 ; h8.30am-10.30pm), the China World Shopping Mall as well as the Ginza Mall (basement, 48 Dongzhimenwai Dajie; h10am-10pm) in Dōngzhímén.
(1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie; h8am-9pm) An expat-oriented deli with fine wines and cheeses; three branches in town. Does
(婕妮璐; Jiénílù; 6 Sanlitun Beixiaojie; h8am-10pm) Fresh meat, fish, cheeses, wines and a wide array of deli items; six branches in town.
(大理; Dàlǐ; %8404 1430; 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dongdajie; set menu from Y100; hlunch & dinner) Part of the joy of this restaurant is its lovely courtyard setting; the other essential ingredient is the inventive
Yúnnán cuisine from China’s southwest. It’s necessary to book in advance and, unconventionally, there is no menu.
Dishes are devised on impulse by the chef, so communicate any dietary requirements up front.
(葡萄园; Pútao Yuán; %6402 7961; 31 Wudaoying Hutong; set lunch Y55/60; hlunch & dinner, closed Mon; Ec) Famed for its full-on English breakfasts and excellent pizza, this popular and relaxing hútòng cafe is perfect for lunch after seeing the nearby Lama Temple or as a civilised choice for dinner or drinks.
(便宜坊烤鸭店; 3/F China New World Shopping Mall, 5 Chongwenmenwai Dajie; half/ whole duck Y94/188; hlunch & dinner; E) Claiming a pedigree dating to the reign of Qing emperor Xianfeng, Biànyìfáng roasts its fowl in the menlu style, in a closed oven.
(胡同比萨; Hútóng Bǐsà; 9 Yindingqiao Hutong Hou; meals Y80; h11am-11pm; E) The Chinese accuse Marco Polo of stealing pizza from China, and it’s come back again. This very relaxing spot near the lakes fires up some enormous pizzas (although they are slow in coming). The hútòng house interior is funky and the attic room is handsome, with old painted beams.
(66th fl, Park Hyatt, 2 Jianguomenwai Dajie; hlunch & dinner) For high-altitude views of Běijīng and a menu that will take your taste buds to similar heights.
(书虫; Shūchóng; www.beijingbookworm.com; Bldg 4, Nansanlitun Lu; h8am-1am; W) Venue of the annual Běijīng Literary Festival in March, the Bookworm is a great place for breakfast, dining, a solo coffee or a major reading binge. Join the swooning bibliophiles perusing the massive Englishlanguage book collection and make this
place your home whenever your synapses need energising.
(美洲杉咖啡屋; Měizhōu Shān Kāfēiwū; 44 Guanghua Lu; sandwiches Y25; h8am-8pm) Sequoia has won legions of fans for its cracking coffees and deservedly admired deli-style sandwiches, served on fluffy, delectable bread. There are other branches in Sānlǐťun and the Kerry Mall.
(过客; Guòkè; 108 Nanluogu Xiang; h9am-2am) One of the original bars on the cafe-bar strip Nanluogu Xiang and still one of the best, with travel-oriented bar staff , a winning courtyard ambience, shelves of books and mags, and a funky ethnic feel.
(妃思; Feīsī; Map p 66 ; 26 Dongcaoyuan, Gongrentiyuchang Nanlu; cocktails from Y65; h6pm-late) Sibling of the renowned Shànghǎi French Concession saloon and with the same Southeast Asian accents, Face is elegant if rather pricey (with Tetley’s bitter by the pint) but a great bolthole from Běijīng’s more sordid taverns. At the time of writing, accommodation was soon to be in the offing.
Today’s Běijīng has seen a revolution in leisure activities as the city’s denizens work and play hard. Běijīng opera, acrobatics and kung fu are solid fixtures on the tourist circuit, drawing regular crowds. Classical music concerts and modern theatre reach out to a growing audience of sophisticates, while night owls will find something to hoot about in the live-music and nightclub scene.
Běijīng Opera & Traditional Chinese Music
Chinese opera has probably as many regional variations as there are Chinese dialects, but like Mandarin language, Běijīng opera (京剧; Jīngjù) is by far the most famous, with its colourful blend of singing, speaking, swordsmanship, mime, acrobatics and dancing. Sometimes performances can swallow up an epic six hours, but two hours is more common; at most wellknown Běijīng opera venues, around 90 minutes is the norm.
Húguǎng Guild Hall
(湖广会馆; Húguǎng Huìguǎn; 3 Hufang Lu; tickets Y160-680; hperformances 7.30pm) With a magnificent red, green and gold interior and balconies surrounding the canopied stage, this theatre dates from 1807. There’s also a small opera museum (admission Y10;
h9am to 11am & 3pm to 7.30pm) opposite the theatre.
Acrobatics & Martial Arts
Two thousand years old, Chinese acrobatics is one of the best deals in town. Matinée Shàolín performances are held at the Líyuán Theatre (梨园剧场; Líyuán Jùchǎng;%6301 6688, ext 8860; Qiánmén Jiànguó Hotel, 175 Yongan Lu).
Cháoyáng Culture Center
(Cháoyáng Qū Wénhuàguǎn; 17 Jintaili; tickets Y180-380; hperformances 7.20-8.30pm) Shàolín Warriors perform their punishing
stage show here; watch carefully and pick up some tips for queue barging during rush hour in the Běijīng underground.
Běijīng’s nightclub scene ranges wildly from student dives for the lager crowd to snappy venues and top-end clubs for the preening types, urban poseurs and wellheeled fashionistas.
(梅克斯; Méikèsī; Map p 66 ; h8pm-late) Major hip-hop and R&B club west of Sānlǐtún with regular crowd-pulling foreign DJs, inside the Workers’ Stadium north gate.
(h8.30pm-late) Long-serving Wǔdàokǒu nightclub attracting throngs of liúxuéshēng (students), lured by free entry, cheap booze and wildly popular sounds. It’s 100m north of Huáqīng Jiāyuán east gate.
A growing handful of international pop and rock acts make it to Běijīng, but there’s still a long way to go, although the live music
scene has evolved dynamically in recent years.
East Shore Bar
(东岸; Dōng’àn; %8403 2131; 2nd fl, 2 Shishahai Nanyan; Tsingtao beer Y20; h4pm-3am) With views of Qiánhǎi Lake,
this excellent bar hits all the right notes with its low-light candlelit mood and live jazz sounds from 9.30pm (Thursday to Sunday).
(愚公移山; %6404 2711; 3 Zhangzi Zhonglu; h7pm-2am) Běijīng’s foremost live music venue ensconced within a haunted
Qing-dynasty government building and famed for a host of reliably excellent music acts.
As China’s capital and the nation’s cultural hub, Běijīng has several venues where classical music finds an appreciative audience.
The annual 30-day Běijīng Music Festival (www.bmf.org.cn) is staged between October and November, bringing with it international
and home-grown classical music performances.
Běijīng Concert Hall
(北京音乐厅; Běijīng Yīnyuètīng; 1 Beixinhua Jie; tickets Y60-580; hperformances 7.30pm) The 2000-seat Běijīng Concert Hall showcases
evening performances of classical Chinese music as well as international repertoires of Western classical music.
Only emerging in China in the 20th century, huàjù (话剧; spoken drama) never made a huge impact. As an art, creative drama is still unable to fully express itself and remains sadly sidelined. But if you want to know what’s walking the floorboards in Běijīng, try some of the following. The huge Cháng’ān Grand Theatre largely stages productions of Běijīng opera, with occasional classical Chinese theatre productions.
(首都剧院; Shǒudū Jùchǎng; 22 Wangfujing Dajie; tickets Y80-500; hperformances 7pm Tue-Sun) Right in the heart of the city on Wangfujing Dajie, this theatre has regular performances of contemporary Chinese productions from several theatre companies.