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10 things we adore about Beijing

May 3, 2012 - Casey Hynes

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TO see Beijing today, the city appears to be in a perpetual state of growth. New shops, bars, restaurants, businesses and social events spring up all the time. It’s hard to believe that only a few decades ago, Beijing was closed off to most of the world and that the high-rises and luxury department stores were nowhere near the Chinese capital’s radar. Beijing’s come a long way and there’s plenty to celebrate here now. Read on for our picks for what makes this a city that is more than just a little bit special.

Di san xian

Di san xian, a tasty Chinese dish of potatoes, eggplant and peppers smothered in garlic and a sweet and tangy sauce Pic: Casey Hynes

Food

With a population of 1.3 billion spread out across a land mass of 9.6 million square metres, the people of China’s diverse provinces and regions spent centuries cultivating distinct culinary dishes that reflect the traditions, resources and now the palates of those who live there. Fortunately, as the capital, Beijing boasts a wide array of regional restaurants. Sichuan eateries serve up the province’s signature mouth-burning, sweat-inducing spices in dishes such as roasted rabbit legs and frog. Yunnanese cuisine gained a foothold in Beijing recently, with restaurants serving up Yunnan cheese squares and black bean jelly. Even far-flung Xingjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the northwest makes a strong showing in the capital, with eateries offering up well-spiced naan, crispy bites of yangrou chuan’r (lamb kebabs) and the thick laghman noodles for which the region is known. Of course, you can also stop by Wangfujing Market to taste some of China’s more bizarre snacks— fried sea horse, anyone?

El Nido Bar, Beijing

El Nido, one of the many great dive bars in Beijing. Pic: Casey Hynes.

Nightlife

To spend an evening stumbling along the Sanlitun Bar Street in Beijing’s most prominent expat neighborhood, one might find it hard to believe that only 10 years ago, the nightlife in China’s capital left much to be desired. Particularly since the city hosted the 2008 Olympics, however, Beijing has seen a boom in foreign interest and investment and with tens of thousands of foreigners flocking to China, the bar scene has gotten a facelift. From high-end wine bars to clubs to outdoor patios to outright dive bars, Beijing’s got lots to offer and especially in the summer months, every night there’s a party somewhere.

Heyrobics!

The Heyrobics! craze has reached locals and expats alike. Pic: Courtesy of Linus Holmsater

Heyrobics!

This non-competitive Swedish sport involving lots of jumping, dancing, club music and laughs took Beijing by storm in recent years, becoming one of the most popular exercise and socializing events in the city. A group of Swedish ex-pats unintentionally stirred interest when they held an impromptu session for friends in a city park and the sport snowballed from there. Classes are cheap (usually around 20RMB, or $3USD) and anyone can drop in for a session. The sport has become so popular that there is now a HeyRunning training camp, and the attractive and energetic instructors have even led mass exercise groups before the Great Wall marathon.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China. Pic: AP.

The Great Wall

Admittedly, the Great Wall seems to go without saying on a list of cool things about Beijing, but it’s still worth a mention. The massive ancient structure draws thousands upon thousands of visitors each year and is truly something to behold. While rip-off tour guides lurk around every corner, there are plenty of ways to see the Wall in an offbeat and interesting way. Expat hiking groups offer tours to small towns along the Wall where you can see the less tourist-overrun sections and get a glimpse of life in China outside of hectic Beijing. Or you can spend a night camping on the wall, which is said to be one incredible experience. After all, how many times in your life will you be able to stargaze from atop the Great Wall of China (provided the smog cooperates, of course)?

China Antiques Market

Shoppers look at the antiques and souvenir items display for sale at Panjiayuan flea market in Beijing. Pic: AP.

Markets

Chaos reigns in the markets of Beijing but if you gird yourself for the crazy, a trip to one of these madhouses will at the very least give you good stories to tell when you get back home. You can’t go very far without running into a market of one variety or another, though the Pearl Market (don’t go there; it’s overcrowded and you’ll likely be ripped off) and Yaxiu in Sanlitun tend to be most popular among tourists. If you have a specific item in mind to purchase, there’s probably a market that specializes in it. Prepare yourself to haggle and don’t be surprised if a put-out vendor starts yelling loudly in Mandarin if you decide the silk pajamas she’s offering aren’t worth her price.

Deals on Everything

One of the nicest things about Beijing is that you can afford to do here what would be exponentially more expensive in most Western countries. From summer Sundays at the Doubletree Hilton where anyone can indulge in an afternoon of all-you-can-eat-drink-and-swim on the luxurious hotel grounds, to champagne brunches and dinners at the best restaurants in the city, there are constant deals and promotions that make the good life accessible to all. Visitors can take advantage of ongoing lunch specials, happy hours and reasonably priced accommodations.

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798 sculpture

This bizarre and somewhat mournful looking sculpture resides in the 798 Art District. Pic: Casey Hynes

Arts

Beijing regularly welcomes innovative international artists to show their work throughout the city, while also being home to talented and insightful native artists. The 798 neighborhood, once a factory district, has been converted to a sprawling complex devoted to galleries that showcase fine photography, painting, sculpture and film. Nearby, Caochangdi is a smaller, but growing, artistic enclave where controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei keeps his studio.

Green Spaces

One glance at the sky on a particularly smoggy day in Beijing may make you raise your eyebrows at the idea that it’s possible to enjoy a picnic or toss a frisbee around here without poisoning your lungs. While there are days when it’s advisable to batten down the hatches and stay inside to avoid the polluted air, Beijing sees its fair share of blue skies as well. And that’s when hanging out in one of the city’s well-maintained parks becomes a joy. Chaoyang Park, site of the 2008 Olympic volleyball matches, is the best-known in the city, but others, such as Ritan and Jingshan, afford visitors lovely views and respite from the maddening crowds.

Cherry blossoms in Chaoyang Park

Chaoyang Park is one of the largest and loveliest green spaces in Beijing. Pic: Casey Hynes

Restaurant Scene

We’ve already covered the plethora of options for native Chinese cuisine. But the Beijing restaurant scene for international food seems constantly to be growing and the selection becomes ever more diverse and appetizing. The enormous and oh-so-tasty sandwiches at Canadian bar Grinders, intercontinental offerings, such as a tandoori chicken wrap, at Element Fresh, and gourmet Korean at Ssam are but a tiny glimpse at the high quality eateries that have sprung up in Beijing in recent years.

Hutong

Beijing's hutongs provide a glimpse into the city's history and into local daily life. Pic: Casey Hynes

History & Culture

While the nightlife, eating, shopping and all-around good times to be had in Beijing are fine points about the place, the history here is what makes it a truly unique city. Wandering through the grounds of the Summer Palace or Forbidden City, it is at times difficult to reconcile the ancient traditions and landmarks here with the ever-present sounds of construction that accompany the city’s rise to a fast-paced international metropolis. Yet you can find old Beijing easily enough, whether wandering the hutongs, the narrow and character-filled alleyways that make up the traditional neighborhoods, or spying the traditional archiecture that still tops many a building and frames doorways here and there.

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