Beijing For Beginners
For many years China was decidedly off limits for mainstream travellers, a shop that was closed to the west for culture, communication and commerce. Over the past two decades, however, the country has reinvented itself, flung open its doors and invited us in to grab a piece of the action. With so much to see and discover it can be hard to know just where to start, so our advice would be to begin with Beijing.
It’s big, it’s brash but Beijing also offers many a glimpse at the ‘real China’ both within its bustling streets and just beyond its city boundaries. Central Beijing is a complex grid of gleaming tower blocks interspersed with hidden architectural treasures dating back hundreds of years to the height of the Yuan dynasty.
Head to the Hutongs to step back into the past, a warren of narrow streets lined by single-storey houses, small courtyards and a motley selection of shops and restaurants. For many years development roared ahead and these old-world streets were flattened to make way for dense high-rise housing projects and commercial space but thankfully the heritage chiefs woke up in time to protect those that remain, retaining a window into the past as Beijing hurtles ahead into the future. Here you can lose yourself for hours wandering through the red-lantern flanked winding streets, bustling with traders pulling carts of fruit and vegetables, cafés grilling traditional snacks in the window and shirtless old men playing board games on upturned crates.
Shopping is a major pastime for Beijingers and travellers alike and the city is bursting with retail bargains. Cloisonné, Jade and lacquer are amongst the city’s best-known traditional handiworks, as is the less politically correct ivory carving. Silk, pearls and confectionary are also found in abundance and make great gifts for friends and family. The Coloured Glaze Factory and Panjiayuan Flea Market are good places to seek these out these traditional wares, as are the commercial areas of Wangfujing Street, Oianmen Street, Xidan Commercial Street, Honggiao Pearl Market and Silk Street, where specialist shops sit alongside gleaming department stores stocked full with high-street names and super brands. With shopping hours lasting from 8.30am to 9.30 pm through the summer and just an hour or so less in the off-season months, you can literally shop from dawn to dusk.
Despite its gleaming modernity, Beijing is just a stone’s throw from some of the most famous sections of the Great Wall of China. Badaling is just an hour away from the city, although it is prone to crowds in high season, while Jinshanling, Smatai and Huanghuachen are a little further afield but make for pleasant destinations in which to admire one of the great Wonders of the World away from the madding crowds.
Eating and drinking in Beijing is as expensive or as easy on the wallet as you wish. By copying the locals and eating as they do, you will find plenty of tasty bargains amongst the myriad street-food stalls, while at the other end of the spectrum there are hundreds of high-end eateries that have sprung up to serve the city’s elite, commercial class and well-heeled visitors.
Accommodation is at the pricey end of the spectrum, but balance this against filling your suitcase with cut-price electronics and price-slashed fashions and your trip to Beijing will save you a fortune on the high street back home.