Beijing conjures up an immense range of contrasting connotations. Smog filled crowded city. Culture rich centre of Chinese history. With an incredibly high population density and a low proportion of English speakers, it can seem a daunting place to visit. But it offers one of the best glimpses into Chinese life for the uninitiated and will guarantee to surprise with its tranquility and trendiness, that is, if you know where to look.
Arriving as a China virgin, and having failed numerous times in my attempts to get my China visa (forgetting my passport photo may not have helped), I was somewhat nervous about what would await. The contrasts of Beijing were what immediately stood out to me. Main roads are flanked by large, garish and concrete buildings, creating an impersonal feel enhanced by the eight-lane carriageways bursting with traffic. But enter the Forbidden City and you are transported to a China ruled by emperors and martial arts; then lurking to the North, spiralling out from the beautiful and peaceful lakes, are hundreds of narrow intriguing “hutongs” (alleys).
We were lucky enough to be staying at Opposite House. Perhaps Beijing’s coolest hotel it has also spawned a revival in the area it’s located. The hotel’s owners, the HK owned Swire corporation, invested a lot of money into the surrounding district creating a trendy shopping mecca now known as Sanlitun Village – a pedestrianised area reminiscent of a Californian outdoor shopping mall (filled with distinctly non-local designed shops), with the hotel slap-bang in its centre. With only six floors, Opposite House lacks views but its interior more than makes up for it. The combination of a large room with no interior walls and minimalist design (think pale wood floors, white sheets and lots of open space) created a serene modern space with a Zen feel. However, this does result in a slight lack of privacy; the bathroom runs parallel to the bedroom and is only sectioned by a glass wall with sheer curtain. This is a hotel room for those in relationships or non-shy types! Luckily for me, I was with my husband so the giant dressing gowns, free mini bar, deep bath and gorgeous Chinese toiletries made for the perfect haven to retreat back to after a busy day’s sightseeing.
Sanlitun’s main inconvenience is that it isn’t particularly centrally located for the main sights. However, keen to suss out the arty-hipster vibe we had been promised in the neighbourhood we spent our first night embarking on a mini bar crawl of some of the hippest joints in the area. My favourite district, 1949 – The Hidden City, lay just outside of The Village – this is a renovated factory with each of the warehouses refurbished into bars and restaurants. We had drinks at a cool wine bar then ambled back into Sanlitun village to Nali Patio, an old Spanish building with an inner courtyard and arched balconies. We then headed straight (or perhaps in a mildly tipsy wobbly line) to Apothecary; with a cocktail menu to rival an encyclopaedia. The whole area was filled with cool twenty something’s letting off steam on a Friday night. The vibe was very much on par with any other global city.
The next day our sightseeing started in earnest in Tiananmen Square, from which we walked down to the Forbidden City. Being China, you have t be prepared for immense crowds, inevitable jostling and the famed Chinese disregard for personal space. But the sheer magnitude and beauty of the construction surrounding us shrunk the crowds into insignificance as we were immersed into the world of Emperors and sprawling palaces. Having worked up an appetite we set off to sample some local Yunnan cuisine at the incredibly peaceful Dali Courtyard.
We made the mistake on our journey of trying to ease the navigation of the overly complicated streets by taking rickshaws. At first, these individual bicycle led contraptions had us squeeling in delight until we realised we had been dropped off in completely the wrong place and essentially conned out of our money! That’ll teach us for looking so obviously like tourists! Nonetheless, we found our way to the restaurant, lurking in quiet backstreets and feasted on an exceptional and exquisitely light and tasty meal for just 300RMB each.
Mildly lethargic from our over-sized lunch, we walked off our fatigue by ambling back towards the Forbidden City. I fell in love with the vibe of the hutongs, admittedly they were as crowded as the rest of Beijing but filled with boutique shops, crumbling architecture and hunger inducing food stalls. We first meandered down Nan Luo Guxiang, the longest hutong in Beijing; it was overcrowded but still charming. We ended the day with an ascent up Jingshan Park, which boasted the best views over Beijing, somehow made to look more romantic through the famed Beijing smog casting a yellow shadow over the horizon. Hidden in small sections of the park were various elderly locals either practising tai chi, playing mahjong with their friends, or as we delightfully discovered, practicing their opera singing at full volume in a little world of their own.
Being a foodie at heart but mildly slow when it comes to world history/general knowledge, it took me an embarassily long amount of time to put two and two together and realise the obsession with Peking Duck in Beijing is because Beijing was once called…..Peking. D’uh! Anyway, when I finally grasped this fact it was too late to get a table at the world famous Da Dong who have delighted diners globally with the perfect duck and pancakes. Luckily our hotel came to the rescue and instead suggested a fabulous place called Duck De Chine. Conveniently located in 1949, we had a drink in the hotel’s super trendy Mesh bar before wrapping up warm and heading down to our pre-ordered duck… and it was the best duck I have ever eaten. Fair enough I still haven’t tried Da Dong’s offering so maybe they’re the true winner but suffice to say Duck De Chine’s version put my local Chinese takeaway’s version to shame. Sliced up for us at our table, every element was beautifully presented and melt in the mouth delicious to eat. There was something magical about the hoisin sauce and the dimly lit surroundings provided the perfect backdrop allowing us to focus on our meal and perhaps mull over the fact that as just two of us were sharing a whole duck, perhaps we didn’t need to have ordered starters too…
One of the biggest draws of Beijing is not just the sights within the city, but its proximity to the Great Wall of China – with a number of different stretches within easy reach of the city. Do not miss this out as it’s one of the true wonders of the world and no matter how many pictures you may have seen of it, nothing can prepare you for its immense magnitude and beauty in person. We arranged our excursion through the hotel and had an extremely comfortable 90 minute chauffeur driven ride to Mutianyu. We chose this section, partly due to its proximity to the city, partly due to the famous luge run you can take from the top to the bottom but mainly as it is relatively untouristy and we didn’t want to have to contend with giant crowds.
Despite being a drizzly, cloudy day, the views and scenery, mystically and magically autumnal, took our breath away. The clouds that day brought low mist, clinging to the sides of the hills that dropped dramatically away from the wall. Whilst some people may prefer to visit in warmer months, for me, the autumn colours sprawling away from the Wall in every direction made it seem even more beautiful. We spent hours walking along the wall, up and down the stairs and taking an impossible number of photos before reluctantly heading back to the city and flying back to Hong Kong.
Despite only being away for two nights, we felt we had travelled to another world. The hotel was perfectly modern, accommodating and trendy, the food was faultlessly delicious and the sightseeing trumped everything else I had seen that year. Any preconceived ideas I had had about China were dispelled and with the new 72 hour visa free stopover for transit tourists, it’s easier to go than ever.
The Opposite House, The Village, Building 1, Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China, +8610 6417 6688