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Into the orient: Beijing

February 1, 2013 - Jo Lane

BEIJING is ranked third in this analysis of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities of 2013. So did they get it right listing Beijing as one of the best places to visit this year? Let’s take a look at what they said.

Běijīng

Capital on cusp of greatness

Best for: Culture, value for money, food

Artist painting in the Forbidden City. Copyright Lonely Planet Images.

Běijīng remains as the cultural and artistic centre of China. While the 2008 Olympics may now seem like a distant memory, their effect is enduring – there are English street signs and a multitude of architectural gems such as the Bird’s Nest studded across the sprawling city. More recently, the Běijīng–Shanghai high-speed rail now connects the two cities in under five hours. Today, Běijīng tentatively balances a multitude of (growing) populations and subcultures. There’s a palpable sense of change in the air, though no-one quite knows what to expect. China is on the cusp of true greatness and one day, people will look back and say it all started here.

Some effusive praise for the Chinese capital. Now it’s been a couple of years since I visited Beijing but I’ve been several times and loved it. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things and I’m keen to go back to explore a little more.

Old Beijing

Sadly, some of Beijing’s gains have also been its losses. Many of the quaint hútòng districts with the narrow alleys of old where families lived for generations, were lost in the developmental push to prepare the city for the 2008 Olympics, as many residents left in favour of modern apartment buildings and boulevards were created.

Hutongs of Beijing. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Still there are a number of these left particularly around the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Shichahai Lake, and many are now protected. If you can find accommodation in some of these districts you are definitely treated to an experience of the Beijing of old. In these streets bicycles are often the best way to get around and a fun way to explore – expect to get lost, it’s all part of the fun. Hútòngs will contain local shops, restaurants, street sellers, barber shops and other industry.

Tourist sights

The big drawcards like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and Botanical Garden are all excellent, must visit places. While these places are truly superb the crowds can be unbelievable and sadly, quite rude and pushy from a Western point of view. Still if you can handle a bit of argy bargy you’ll be blown away by the splendour of the ancient kingdoms of China.

The Summer Palace. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Beijing opera

Traditional Chinese theatre is excellent. It combines music, mime, dance and even acrobatics, plus there are elaborate costumes and even more garish makeup. A visit to the opera is par for the course when you go to Beijing, and as they are held in traditional teahouses you can expect some rather elaborate tea pouring that is just as entertaining as the show on stage.

Tea pouring at the Beijing opera. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Shopping

Shopping was a highlight for me in Beijing, and I’m not the world’s best shopper. There was a great blend of the old style crafts with traditional handcrafts such as jade, lacquer, silk, pictures and ivory, but also plenty of new commercial areas where you could get all the usual western brands you might like and plenty of replica designer labels as well. I needed a bit of computer equipment in Beijing and headed out to the Zhong Guan Cun area on the recommendation of my hotel. No one spoke much English up here but they were friendly and helpful and I got some good bargains compared to prices at home in Australia. It was an experience. Beijing also has a number of markets such as the Panjiayuan Antique Market, the Maliandao Tea Market, Sānlǐtún Yashou Clothing Market, the Hongqiao Pearl Market and more. You really can go crazy with the shopping so take an empty bag with you to fill when you visit.

Find accommodation in Beijing to suit your budget on Agoda.com

Chinese calligraphy while you wait. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Food

A Peking Duck banquet is often on most tourist’s itineraries as well. A lot of restaurants in tourist districts will offer packages to the cuisine and some sort of entertainment – an acrobat troupe for example. It isn’t always that cheap or authentic and I personally found buying a half duck from a street side seller both satisfying, delicious and a bit of a banquet! Sipping a lot of Chinese tea, or local beer, is also part of the Beijing experience and wandering food markets like at Donghuamen Night Market, Wangfujing where you’ll find such delicacies as snakes, seahorses and scorpions.

A streetside duck seller in Beijing. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Day trips

The Great Wall of China once divided China from the barbarian hordes. It’s another must see when you visit Beijing and a fantastic, but long, day trip out of the city. It’s also a good opportunity to escape the traffic, concrete and congestion of Beijing, although sections of the wall can also be pretty crowded. However most Chinese tourists just venture to the main watchtowers, and if you head out for some of the walking experiences–you can trek a 19km stretch from Sīmǎtái–you’ll soon get away from the modern day hordes.

Shanghai is just five hours away now by fast train and while a day trip would be possibly a little short, it’s now possible to get to places from Beijing in a very short amount of time. Another popular trip from Beijing is the two day journey to Lhasa, or the winter visit to Harbin for the ice festival.

Pollution and crowds

Possibly one of the drawbacks to visiting Beijing is the pollution and the crowds. Public transport is very good but it can be incredibly crowded at certain times of the day and the streets packed. But one of the great things about Beijing is the number of enormous public spaces. They are used to crowds here and places like Tiananmen Square are simply enormous and handle the flow of movement. This was one aspect of the city that impressed me. While trains are fantastic in China, getting a ticket can be a bit of a lengthy process in Beijing and going there a bit like departing from an airport – you need to leave plenty of time.

Air pollution is an ongoing problem in Beijing. In January this year it was reported as going off the indexwith buildings literally disappearing into the haze and children and the elderly being told to stay indoors. This is a problem authorities will have to address if they want to keep attracting tourists.

Assessment: Did Lonely Planet get it right? Apart from the pollution and rush hours, yes, absolutely. 9/10

Find accommodation in Beijing to suit your budget on Agoda.com

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