Everyone has their own To Do List in Beijing. It all depends on where you are coming from – if you are single or married, if you have kids or not, if you are looking for art and culture or the hottest new club or bar in town.. because Beijing does cater to all these needs.
Here is a travel tip on 3 of my favourite things to do in Beijing. Food, Culture and Shopping. It’s hard to argue with that combination.
Peking duck. I have had peking duck before in KL and London but there is no Peking duck like the duck in, well, Peking. Some people will tell you otherwise but they are people who like their Peking duck rolled up in eggy crepes. I am sorry, but that is just so wrong.
The pancakes they serve in Beijing are made of flour and water and are sheer, with just the right amount of elasticity. I could eat those pancakes all day.
The duck is usually carved so that the crispy fat-drenched skin is separated from the moist tender meat beneath. The traditional way is to eat the skin with a light coating of sugar. It sounds bad/wrong – because it is – but it tastes surprisingly right!
The meat , and only the best parts are served to you, is then carved into thin slices and piled on a plate, to be first dipped in a lovely sauce (not the usual cloyingly sweet hoisin sauce at Malaysians get locally) and then wrapped in the warm pancake together with slivers of spring onion and cucumber and a smear of suan nee (garlic mud, literally). Heaven with every mouthful. Just try to ignore how fattening and heaty the whole meal is, or how you are still sweating oil from every pore for a few hours after. Believe me, it is worth it.
The fine(ish) peking duck dining experience would be at Da Dong which consistently serves up taut, burnished, lean specimens for China Renminbi (RMB) 198 per duck. Their other dishes are all high quality as well and worth checking out. The ultimate duck experience is apparently at Made In China Restaurant but we’ve never yet found an occasion to spend so much money or put ourselves through the Chang’an Jie jams. For a more local experience, I love Xiang Man Lou Restaurant. Cheap but good quality duck whilst surrounded by loud smoking locals. The other dishes there aren’t bad either. Of course you can’t eat Peking duck everyday, or really, you shouldn’t if you want to make it past your 45th birthday. But for a special occasion, it is hard to beat.
The Great Wall. There’s no getting away from it and you shouldn’t because it truly is a marvel. Having said that however, the part of the wall you visit would determine the impression it makes on you because, go to Badaling and you will come away thinking the wall is a circus and that China should rethink the one child policy in a more restrictive manner. Packed to the gills is not the word!
My favourite part is Mutianyu for several reasons – it is only an hour’s scenic drive from where we live, there’s a decent cable car up to the watch tower, the view up there is pretty amazing – at some points you see 3-4 layers of the wall and finally you can ride a toboggan all the way down – quite an exhilarating, return to childhood kind of experience. Also, it is a manageable part of the wall, even if you are as (un)fit as I am.
Also, round that area, you can find yourself a fine (mainly European) meal at the Schoolhouse which is, astonishingly enough, a restaurant housed in an old converted school house, complete with bright airy courtyard for al fresco dining. Jim Spears, the American man who manages the Schoolhouse with his Chinese wife, also runs the China Countryside Hotels which offer several properties for rent in the area. Most of them are converted farmhouses and worth checking out (though you may balk at the prices…)
If you fancy yourself a bit of a jock and enjoy pain for the heck of it, then by all means go to the Simatai part of the Wall where the gradient of the ascent is at least 45 degrees, but seems more like 75 degrees at times. The reward is that the view is absolutely stunning.
Beijing markets. There’s a lot of them selling all sorts of stuff. Stuff you never think you need till you see them. Below are my favourite ones.
Jiayi Market – just one floor of shops so way more manageable than the 5 floored Silk Market or Yashow Market, which all the tourists get taken to. There are a lot of great kids clothes here with brands like Mexx, Next, Catamini, Okaidi and Zara. The prices are higher than the Silk or Yashow Market and the traders don’t come down that much, but I feel you get better, more one of a kind stuff here. There’s a ton of clothes for adults too, though a lot of it may be fashion no longer consider sporting or cool! Things I never would wear but good for ladies wanting to emulate Sarah Jessica Parker, circa Sex and the City TV series though. I have a go-to-guy who always has Zara coats on him and the last time I looked, Marks and Spencer, Milla, H&M and Next spring/summer blouses.
Toy City behind Hong Qiao Market – OK there is a lot of crap here as well, like plastic toys which fall apart the moment you take them home, but I go there for the sheets and sheets of stickers. Also wrapping paper for RMB1 a piece.. wow! Beautiful wooden toys made for the Japanese market. Bags and boxes of all kinds. Ribbon by the metre. Tons and tons of goodie-bag materials and all for really, really cheap.
And while you are there, pop into Hong Qiao proper (also known as the Pearl Market). I don’t go there for the pearls but for the cheap strands of agate, in all their different forms and permutations (almost any stone you buy in China is a form of agate, or jasper). You can also find shops selling silver and metal findings to make your own jewelery. Or design your own and get the girls there to make it up for you on the spot. Watching those girls string the jewels together is a marvel – they talk, eat, sell – anything but actually look at what they are doing.. yet complete the chain perfectly well and in record time! The ready made stuff on the other hand may be a bit too funky for practical wear.
The Ritan Office Building which is actually a warren of shops in a grey office building can throw up treasures if you look hard through the racks of stuff. It is chock full of designer stuff, a lot of which provenance is rather dodgy but I have gotten a beautiful purple and green Missoni sweater there and also a lovely cotton Tsumori Chisato top, complete with appliquéd octopus, shark and kissing fish. (My daughter loves that top). There’s also a Monsoon outlet on the 2nd floor which looks like it carries the real stuff, as far as I can tell.
Panjiayuan the weekend dirt market where you can buy “antiques”. It is the most fun you can have for free on a Saturday or Sunday morning. You don’t have to buy anything– it is actually an experience in itself to wander the aisles looking at all the plagiarized art (mainly their own – there’s hardly any copies of Rubens or Van Goghs here, thank goodness), rows upon rows of clay teapots, jade bracelets and pendants, tribal crafts, textiles, strings of beads, Yunnan silver, black and white photographs, Mao statues (though you see so much less of these now than 12 years ago) and general Cultural Revolution memorabilia, bits and pieces of porcelain and brass statues…the list goes on.
One of my favourite shops there sells wind up tin toys. They aren’t dirt cheap but they have a fantastic selection of robots, ping pong players, animals (crocodiles, chickens, fish, monkeys, rabbits) boxers in a ring, boat rowers, vehicles.. It is mind boggling. And pocket emptying.
Come to Beijing. Trust me, you won’t be bored.Books you might like:
About this week’s Guest writer:
Ming lives in Beijing.
Being a born and bred banana, she never thought she would ever hear herself saying those words. But when you get married and give up your job and then have a child, you pretty much have to do whatever your other half tells you to. And 3 years ago hers told her to pack up and move with him to the great Northern Capital (which incidentally is what Bei Jing means).