B E I J I N G : Insider's View
In addition to what we've planned for your visit in the capital city, the following is a selection of some of our favorite things to do while traveling in Beijing, lesser known activities and sightseeing.
Factory 798 (798 工厂 / 大山子艺术区)
Factory 798, also called the Dashanzi Art District, is located far up in Northeastern Chaoyang. Some of the most important galleries here include White Space Gallery specializing in Chinese and contemporary art from abroad and Beijing Commune, devoted to experimental art and run by art-scene bad boy Leng Lin. There are several cafés, bars and restaurants hidden among the galleries. Many of these eateries have stylish interior design.
The Back Lakes
Hou Hai and adjoining lakes Xihai and Qianhai— collectively known as the Back Lakes were dug out in the Yuan Dynasty (14th century) to berth barges from the Grand Canal, bringing goods from around China and beyond to the Emperor in his nearby Forbidden City. The proximity to the palace explains much of Houhai's still-evident charm – the arched stone bridges, intricate animal sculptures on canal walls. At Hou Hai Lake, scores of trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques have sprouted along the shores of this old Imperial Lake, north of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was always so in this bohemian area of the city, but not the lakes are hip and gentrifying emerging as the cities coolest place to be. You'll find everything around these man-made lakes, from historic courtyard homes, to tranquil spots, to amusing entertainment. Speedo-clad elders dive into the lake year-round -- including the chilly winter months -- and ducks congregate on a small man-made island on the western end of the lake. Visit around sunset for a particularly romantic experience, and stroll to the nearby restaurants and bars for dinner and drinks.The area is also great for pedaling, by bike or pedicab, let us set you up some rental bikes for a spin.
Underground City (地下城)
In 1969, Mao commissioned an underground labyrinth where he could provide shelter for the population of Beijing – all five million of them – in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. This underground warren was completed in the style of the Cultural Revolution, by hand, with the finishing touches made in 1979. Combat-clad guides – most with basic English – now give 20-minute tours through the subterranean trenches, guiding you through rooms designated as battlefield hospitals, a cinema, arsenals, and portraits of Mao Zedong
Crisp, Juicy Peking Duck at Made in China
A hotel restaurant it is, but this is the best place to enjoy the capital's most famous dish, and the dining room which is set in the middle of an open kitchen is the best place to see chefs perform their skills. For other dining ideas, make sure to check our Beijing Dining Guide.
The Forbidden City's secret Northeast Corner (紫禁城)
Home to 24 different Chinese emperors, the Forbidden City is the best-preserved collection of ancient architecture in China and was the stage for five centuries of royal intrigue, drama and scandal. With 800 buildings covering 720,000 sq. metres, the palace is so large that a full-time restoration squad is continuously repainting and repairing. To get away from the crowds, from the main north-south axis on which the former palace's grander halls stand, there's a more human scale similar to that of the rapidly disappearing hutong beyond the palace's walls, although with much greater luxury. Venturing far from the main arteries is well worth the effort -- you'll find treasures like the ornate theater building where the Empress Dowager Cixi watched her favorite operas on demand and the well in which she ended the life of her nephew's favorite concubine.
Many of the capital's temples have once again become genuine places of worship, as well as tourist attractions. The Yonghe Gong has an active and approachable community of Tibetan monks (although under careful scrutiny by the authorities), while the leafy Fayuan Si houses amicable Chinese Buddhist monks in Beijing's most venerable temple. Baiyun Guan is the Daoist alternative, where blue-frocked monks wear their hair in the rarely seen traditional manner -- long and tied in a bun at the top of the head.
Called a "once-in-a-lifetime shopping paradise," Beijing's large open-air market at Panjiayuan with over 3,000 stalls featuring Chinese arts, crafts, souvenirs and culture icons all in the heart of the city. Stall owners come from twenty-four provinces around China to sell their wares. The range of goods is excellent, but compare and bargain. Panjiayuan Market is best on weekends and early morning departure required.
Bargaining for Fakes
At Panjiayuan Jiuhuo Shichang, the first asking prices for foreigners are at least 10 to 15 times those asked of Chinese, but don't let that deter you from visiting. This weekend market has the city's best selection of bric-a-brac, including row upon crowded row of calligraphy, jewelry, ceramics, teapots, ethnic clothing, Buddha statues, paper lanterns, Cultural Revolution memorabilia, army belts, little wooden boxes, Ming- and Qing-style furniture, old pipes, opium scales, painted human skulls, and more conventional souvenirs. A whole other genre of fakes can be found at the Ritan Office Building, where samples of Marc Jacobs jackets and Diane von Furstenberg dresses cram the racks.
Haggling for Tea at Malian Dao
If you're serious about tea, this is the only place to go. Malian Dao may not have all the tea in China, but it does have over a mile of shops hawking tea leaves and their paraphernalia. Most shops are run by the extended families of tea growers from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and you might rate this friendly street as the highlight of your visit.
Fragrant Hills Park (香山公园)
Snuggled in the hills, this park is a favorite with hikers and walkers. Stunning temples dot the grounds, with English signs pointing the way. On non-polluted days, the views from Incense-Burner
Beijing Opera at the Zhengyici Xilou
The Zhengyici, last of a handful of theaters that supported Beijing Opera from its beginnings, only occasionally hosts performances and is under constant threat of permanent closure. But the scarcity of performances only makes the experience of watching the colorful operas in this intimate, traditionally decorated space all the more precious. Ask us to call and ask about performance schedules and tickets.
Several quiet teahouses offer you the chance to remove yourself temporarily from the tourist rush. The teahouse in the Sanwei Bookstore offers live traditional music with its bottomless cups of jasmine. For a little extra, The Teahouse of Family Fu in the Back Lakes area brews your oolong (wulong) in the Chinese version of the tea ceremony. Both teahouses are furnished with replica Ming dynasty tables and chairs and make ideal spots for reading, writing, or doing absolutely nothing.
Live Bands at Yugong Yishan
The owners of the now defunct Loup Chante have created what Beijing lacked for years: an atmospheric venue showcasing an eclectic range of musical styles, from Mongolian mouth music to acid jazz. It's stuffy, smoky, difficult to find, and run by serious and talented musicians.
Hiking along the Great Wall at Jiankou
Seeking a serious exploration of the wall? This part of the wall is so untouristed that there isn't even a ticket booth or tacky tour stand in sight. The 5-hour hike meanders along a vertigo-inducing stretch of wall that isn't for the faint of heart -- but it's an unforgettable experience. Closer in, the Badaling or Mutianya section of the wall may be visited by preference, 2 or 4 hours travel round-trip from Beijing, respectively. Early departure for the busy Badaling section is recommended, especially on busy weekends.
Biking the Hutong Neighborhoods
We can't get enough of the hutong. After taking a stroll, hop on a bike for a completely different experience in the capital's old neighborhoods.
Built in the Ming Dynasty, these eight hutongs preserve as sense of history. Very traditional architecture with modern interiors. You'll find DIY stores, fusion cuisine, and stylish bars.
Go Bohemian at Factory 798: We left Factory 798 out of the previous edition, reasoning that an ad hoc gathering of performance artists, painters, and sculptors in a former military complex wasn't something the regime would tolerate. We were wrong. Market rents are now charged, so don't expect to pick up a bargain, but there's no need to make a purchase: The Dashanzi art district makes for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of gallery and cafe hopping.
Pay Your Respects to the Chairman: While Jung Chang's Mao: The Untold Story subjects the Great Helmsman to a Cultural Revolution-style denunciation, you'll find no trace of such disrespect inside Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, set to the south side of Tian'an Men Square. While there are souvenir vendors, this is far from the kitsch experience you may expect.
Exercise with Elders: At the break of dawn each day, retired Beijingers flock to numerous local parks. Aside from taijiquan and ballroom dancing, you may spy master calligraphers practicing their art with oversize sponge-tipped brushes, or amateur troupes performing Beijing Opera or revolutionary airs from the 1950s.
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