By Sachin Rao
Okay, so you can’t always quite see the horizon, but this megacity of over 20 million gets short shrift, with step-sisterly comparisons to the cosmopolitan powerhouses that are Shanghai and Hong Kong. A weekend in Beijing, however, will reveal a magnetic blend of ancient wonders, modern marvels and quirky charm.
Less is Mao
Begin, naturally, at the beginning: the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, with Chairman Mao’s portrait gazing benevolently down from the massive adjacent wall that separates it from the Forbidden City. It was here that Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and where the famous man-vs-tank scene played out during the 1989 protests. Flanked by Mao’s mausoleum, the national museum, and the imposing Great Hall of the People — one of the ‘ten great buildings’ constructed in 1959 for the PRC’s tenth anniversary — and festooned with statues, flag poles, watchful guards and CCTV camera masts, Tiananmen Square provides not just rich context to understand China’s postwar narrative, but also a fascinating window into its citizens’ patriotic mindset; all around you are families enthusiastically taking photos of their kids holding little Chinese flags. Continue walking north from the square to enter the Forbidden City, the seat of Chinese imperial power for almost five centuries. Some 180 acres of beautifully preserved, ornate palace buildings, prayer halls, statues and gardens, all enclosed by magnificent gated walls, will keep you occupied for hours, refuelled by corn dogs and soft ice cones. Finally, at the north exit, hike up the hill at Jingshan Park for a great plan view from the bell tower.
Max out the culturometer with a stage show — soulful Chinese opera, with performers in colourful masks, makes for great theatre. Try the touristfriendly Peking Opera at Liyuan Theatre in Hufanqiao. Or, if you fancy something with a bit more punch, watch the physics-defying acrobatic antics of a kung fu troupe, such as the acclaimed Legend of Kung Fu at the Red Theatre in Chongwen. The first evening shows begin around 5 PM, and last for 80-90 minutes.
Up Your Alley
Beijing’s breakneck transformation has spared a handful of hutongs (traditional-style neighbourhoods with small courtyard houses and narrow alleys). Head to Nanluoguxiang hutong in Dongcheng — its central alley is packed with mostly young people thronging a variety of shops, bars and street food stalls. It’s perfectly good fun to nurse a bubble tea and nibble on steaming, spicy tripe or an oversized fried squid skewered on a stick as you peer into little shops selling souvenirs, ceramics, tea and t-shirts, topped off with a shot or three of cinnamon rum. But turn off the hutong’s main alley into its network of little side streets for the real reward: the crowd disappears and you get a feel for locals’ daily lives, with electric scooters weaving past you, vegetable sellers hawking their wares, street-cleaners diligently picking up tiny scraps, and children scampering about. The glimpses of labourers cooking noodle soup in their tenements will tempt you into one of the numerous small grill-houses or hot-pot restaurants. If you can resist, try heading further up and east towards Dongzhimen Street, where brightly lit and jam-packed restaurants serve up everything from classic Peking duck to excellent seafood, accompanied by the feni-like local grog, baiju.
Marvel at the Wall
No, not Rahul Dravid playing an exhibition match, but the Great Wall of China, which in its heyday spanned more than 8,000 km and is deservedly one of the wonders of the ancient world. Visit the section of the Wall at Mutianyu, 90km north of Beijing, for a bit more of an authentic, if more physically demanding, experience than the nearer, more popular, and ‘easier’ section at Badaling. It’s about a two-hour cab drive each way, so start early and allot a full morning to this. Take the cable car up to the access point, and then spend a sweaty but exhilarating hour or so traipsing the large stone steps to and from the highest section open to the public, where there is no shame at all in the obligatory selfie. And to get back down to the parking lot, ride a toboggan down a winding steel chute, a la Mark Zuckerberg (though, of course, you can’t check-in on Facebook to say you’re doing so, the site being one of many blocked in China).
Back to the Future
On the way back into the city, ask your cabbie to swing by three iconic buildings: the star of the 2008 Olympics, the latticelike Beijing National (or ‘ Bird’s Nest) Stadium; the unique, angular, Rem Koolhaas-designed China Central Television headquarters; and the swooping, dynamic Galaxy SOHO penned by Zaha Hadid. All launched within a five-year period, they are defining symbols of Beijing’s incredible modernisation story, and its headlong rush into the 21st century.
Alight at Dashanzi’s 798 Art Zone for a peep into the bubbling cauldron of contemporary Beijing creativity. This regenerated 1950s industrial zone now houses art galleries, studios, workshops and shops, as well as a host of cafes and bars. There’s a feast of avant-garde thinking and admirable talent on display, with works ranging from the palm-sized all the way to three-storey-high installations, and you’d be hard pressed to resist buying something for the living room. Cool off with a pint at the latest branch of the iconic London biker café, the Ace Café, next to a hulking Shangyou-class steam locomotive that once ferried industrial goods from the factories.
Finally, back in the city centre, spend your evening on Wangfujing Street. There’s an impressive restored 17th-century church, St Joseph’s, butafter that it’s Mammon all the way. Get past the mahoosive malls piled high with Western-brand luxury goods and check out the smaller stores, selling everything from dried fruit, tea and alcoholic spirits to books, shoes and silks. Then head to the famous night market, where the dozens of food stalls lining the crowded street will quickly have your head spinning: skewers of deep fried scorpions, starfish, sea horses, silkworm, centipedes and locusts; stinky tofu; sea urchins in their spiky shells. Wash it all down with plenty of Tsingtao lager; you’ve certainly earned it. Ganbei!