Beijing is a hectic mix of old and new. Here’s how to experience the Chinese capital and still get to relax.
The Forbidden City
Years ago, if you tried to enter the Forbidden City without an official invitation, you’d be executed on the spot. These days, a ¥60 (about $A13) fee gives you access to the vast palace complex, formerly home to two dynasties of imperial rulers and off-limits for 500 years. It’s the best place to explore the controversial life of Empress Dowager Cixi, a former concubine who rose to rule China (by pulling the political strings behind a series of emperors) for more than 40 years until 1908.
Get lost in a hutong
Wandering in an ancient hutong is a must-do. These alleys, each with its own character and still home to a huge number of locals, offer a glimpse into Beijing’s past. With modern life rapidly encroaching, see the hutong while you can. Several thousand have been demolished to make way for offices, apartment blocks, bars and restaurants that now sit alongside the traditional courtyard houses in the remaining enclaves. The laneways are the best way to experience the city’s vibrant street life.
See the art of the city
Housed in a massive complex of former military factory buildings, 798 Art District is the place to see contemporary Chinese art. Architecture buffs will love the East German-designed Bauhaus buildings with huge curved ceilings, some still with Maoist slogans. These spaces often have large-scale art installations and multimedia works, and have also hosted controversial works by performance artists such as He Yunchang, who was cemented into a wooden box with two ventilation pipes for 24 hours in 2004.
Thanks in part to hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has rapidly built up its reputation for modern, innovative architecture such as the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube (aka the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Centre, respectively), about 7km north of the city centre. But you don’t have to go far for a wow moment – next to Tiananmen Square is the spaceship-like Giant Egg (actually the National Centre for the Performing Arts), a futuristic titanium-and-glass dome sitting in a man-made lake.
Walk the Great Wall
Various parts of this colossal structure, ranging from rough to restored, can be easily reached on a day trip from Beijing. The easy-to-walk Badaling section, about 70km north of the capital, is the most popular and is often packed. In summer, the heat can be unbearable. Take plenty of water, or visit at a cooler time.
Said to be able to hold one million people, Tiananmen Square is unmissable, and not just because of its vastness. Best known in the West as the site of the tragic 1989 pro-democracy protests, it’s a potent symbol of China’s politics. See the precisely performed flag-raising and lowering ceremonies (at sunrise/sunset, respectively) and check out the square at night, when the Gate of Heavenly Peace (beyond which lies the Forbidden City) is theatrically illuminated.
Just eat it
To say Chinese people love food is an understatement; to them it’s an obsession bordering on religious fervour (and that’s just at breakfast). All of China’s regional cuisines are represented in Beijing, so while it’s tempting to eat nothing but Peking duck, branch out and try Shanghai-style dumplings or spicy Sichuan classics. Not sure where to start? Follow your nose to one of the city’s many street stalls and no-frills eateries and dive in.
Tour the Lama Temple
If you’ve lost your map en route to this richly decorated Tibetan Buddhist temple, fret not; just follow the stream of worshippers and sightseers. This former imperial palace was converted to a temple in 1744 and features gloriously ornate architecture, tantric statues and colourful prayer wheels throughout its five main halls. You’ll be open-mouthed-gawking long before you reach the last hall, which holds the temple’s main attraction: an 18m-high statue of Buddha that’s said to be sculpted from a single piece of sandalwood.
All the tea in China
Whether you’re hungover from too many cheap Yanjing beers or worn out from too much sightseeing, sipping a brew in a traditional teahouse is a great way to re-energise. For a caffeine hit coupled with some retail therapy, head to Maliandao Tea Market, where about 1000 vendors stock tea from all over China. Take a translator if possible as many vendors don’t speak English, although they’ll happily offer you a cuppa. There are tea sets galore here, too, ranging from basic models to beautifully glazed works of art; it’s souvenir shopping to a tea.
Go fly a kite
At times, Beijing can seem like a concrete jungle (or, more accurately, a steel-and-glass jungle). If it’s all a bit much, do as the locals do and go fly a kite – or practise tai chi – in a park. Beihai Park is particularly popular, with a photogenic, lotus-flower-covered lake and various temples within its grounds. A former imperial garden, the park’s design was based on the most scenic spots and architecture in China. As such, it feels like a breath of fresh air that’s steeped in history – much like Beijing itself.