Beijing isn’t China’s oldest city, nor is it the richest, or even the biggest. Beijing knows itself to be something infinitely more important—the heart, hope, and future of this vast nation. A tiny touch of melodrama aside, everything here happens on a grand scale, with boulevards more sprawling, monuments more magnificent, and energy more intoxicating. The city has taken center stage for more than 700 years, and today it’s more than accustomed to the limelight and fiercely proud of its illustrious past. Perhaps because Beijing is confident enough to carry off any and all contradictions with a flair and a swagger, the bright red walls and white marble obelisks of imperial palaces and pagodas fit in perfectly with the constantly evolving cityscape of steel and cement. A recent storm of construction has raised up dozens of new buildings and torn down tiny alleys and old neighborhoods, but the core of Beijing refuses to change. Like their city, the people of Beijing are always on the move, slowing down only in the evenings to play chess on street corners and stroll in the city’s parks, where children play badminton and old men exercise in the former haunts of emperors. Taxis lurch down Chang’an Jie past eager crowds by day and a swathe of glittering plazas and neon by night.
Beijing is huge. Sprawling. Immense. Really, really big. But for all its size, Beijing is surprisingly symmetrical, with five ring roads radiating out from the city’s geo-graphic center of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Knowing these ringroads is integral to navigating Beijing—almost everything is oriented around them.
The first ring road, around the Forbidden City, does not exist for all practical purposes. The second ring road, Erhuan, is more often called by its variouscomponent names, which change many times according to its gates as you follow the loop. The third ring road goes by Sanhuan, the fourth by Sihuan. Most other roads are named in relation to landmarks and former city gates; bêi (north), nán (south), xï (west), dõng (east), nèi (inner), wài (outer), qián (front), and hòu (back) are added to names to indicate their relative locations. Ingeneral, address numbers increase as you go west and south; even numbers are on east and north sides, odd on west and south.
The most important thoroughfare is Chang’an Jie, which bisects thecity horizontally, running east-west between the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square. It changes names continually: moving from east to west, it becomes Jian-guo Lu, Jianguomen Wai Dajie, Jianguomen Nei Dajie, Dong Chang’anJie, Xi Chang’an Jie, Fuxingmen Nei Dajie, Fuxingmen Wai Dajie, and finally Fux-ing Lu. Driving down its wide length is an eye-opening experience, espe-cially at night, when skyscrapers and towers funded by big money from Hong Kong all light up in glittery splendor.
Even though the gates themselves no longer exist, Beijing’s neighborhoods andaddresses are still determined in relation to their nearest city gate, or mén. Some of the most important gates on the second ring road are: Qianmen, directly south of Tian’anmen, anchored by its busy traffic circle; Xuanwumen; Fuxingmen, on the west, at the intersection with Fuxing Lu/Fuxing-men Wai Dajie; Xizhimen, where the second ring road turns to form the north edge; Dongzhimen, directly opposite Xizhimen, where the secondring road turns to form the east edge; Chaoyangmen, the western borderof Sanlitun; and Jianguomen, at the intersection with Jianguo Lu/Jian-guomen Wai Dajie.
The metropolitan crux centers around the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square, on either side of Chang’an Dajie. From the south side of the square, at the traffic circle, Qianmen Dajie (runs south through the crowded business districtand markets of Dazhalan to Tiantan Park before connecting travelers tobudget hotels in the southern district of Fengtai. Directly east of the Forbidden City, busy Wangfujing and Dongdan are full of the latest fashions and prime shopping; their counterpart, Xidan ( 西单 ), lies west of the Forbidden City and Beihai Park.
North of these humming districts, neighborhoodsof gray-bricked hútòng and courtyards make up the best-preserved example of “Old Beijing,” near Houhai, bounded in by Erhuan. North of the Forbidden City and parallel to Chang’an Dajie, Chaoyangmen Dajie and Gongren Tiyuchang Bei Lu help define the embassy and expat districts of Chaoyang and Sanlitun, east between the second and third ring roads. Beijing and Qinghua Universities, the Summer Palace, and the Old Summer Palace form a cluster in the far north-west, just beyond the fourth ring road in the northern district of Haidian.
Heading to Beijing? This city has plenty of sights for every kind of traveler, whether you’re a history buff, an art aficionado, or a gourmand. You could spend hours wandering through the noteworthy spots in this seemingly endless metropolis, but do yourself a favor and save time with our list of recommended top attractions.
Beijing is full of can’t-miss culinary experiences. The two nightmarkets off Wangfujing Dajie are filled with delicacies and all the bubble tea you can drink. Red-and-white carts line Dong’anmen, off the north end of Wangfujing Dajie, tempting passersby with sugared fried bananas and more exotic fare. Near the south end of Dong’anmen is the Wang-fujing Snack Street, where excited ven-dors grill lamb, chicken, and every kind of meat imaginable, stab a stick throughit, and cover it with mouth-watering spices. Grab a seat and devour sizzling platesof rice and noodles while singers perform on the outdoor balcony.
To satisfy late-night cravings, take the subway to Dongzhimen. Popular 24hr. restaurants, decorated by glowing red lanterns, line Dongzhimen Dajie, known amonglocals as Ghost Street. Help yourself to a mug of beer, heaps of crayfish, and platefuls of sumptuous food (practice your haggling skills).
A delicacy fit for a king at a price budget-conscious travelers can stomach, Beijing duck is as dear to Beijing hearts as the Forbidden City. Roasted until a crispy golden brown, the duck is sliced into delectably thin pieces and served with paper-thin crepes (often lotus-leaf cakes or just plain pancakes), seasonings, slivers of cucumber or scallion, and a dish of sweet brownsauce. Wrap several slices of duck in a pancake, along with a few pieces of cucum-ber or scallions and several daubs of sauce, and savor what Beijing does best.
Another dish close to the heart (or stomach) of every Beijing local is jiãnbîng, a grilled pancake wrapped around fried, crispy dough—the mother of all snack foods. Look for the ubiquitous white carts with black round frying skillets and feast on these delicious concoctions, made with globs of batter, an egg, tastybrown sauce, a pinch of scallions, and—if you’re lucky—sesame seeds.
With vats of bubbling soup, vials of sauces, and heaps of rawmeat, hotpot is like fondue on steroids. Vegetarians need notdespair—veggie broths and non-meat ingredients are available. Eating hotpot is a simple, personalized affair—you can go as spicy and as well-done as you like. The soup (savory clear or spicy red) is kept boiling, whileyou drop in raw meat and veggies. Wait impatiently for the rare stuff to cook and then use chopsticks (or even smarter, a sieve-like ladle) to scoop out the goods.
Beijing is blessed with many Uighur neighborhoods, though sadly, high-rises have replaced the largest one, which was near the zoo. Typical Muslim fare includes noodles (miàn), flatbread (nang), sumptuous kebabs, and Uighur tea. Find Muslim restaurants on the street by looking for “qïngzhën” or Arabic writing.
There are as many types of Chinese opera as there are Chinese dialects, but Beijing opera is by far the most well-known. Performers in elaborate costumes and colorful facial makeup (configurations for different personalities and characters) act, sing, and dance out dramatic accounts of Chinese history andclassical tales to a flurry of music and acrobatics. An orchestra of wind, string, and percussion instruments accompanies the performances. As a concession to themodern era, the traditional all-night affair has been toned down to 2hr. versions, with translations flashing on electronic screens.
Typical Beijing tea houses not only serve tea and traditional snacks like sunflowerand watermelon seeds, but also feature Beijing opera, acrobatic performances,magic tricks, traditional music, and more. Tea ceremonies take place at several venues.
The decadent embassy district of Sanlitun in northeast Beijing should be called “lâowài central”—every bar and street is bursting at the seams with foreigners and yuppie businessmen. There are two main barstreets in Sanlitun: Sanlitun Lu, frequented mainly by local night owls, and Nan Sanlitun Lu, packed with expat bars and expats. The south gate of Chaoyang Park is a veritable mini-Las Vegas, but the new favorite place is a few minutes away by foot, near the west gate of Chaoyang Park. There, in the shadows of sky-scraping apartment towers (appropriately nicknamed the “international compound” due to the overwhelming number of foreign residents), restaurants andbars wrestle for space and the spotlight.
Just don’t expect to find the “real China” here. For a much more intimate, relaxed feel, go to the streets that line the north and south sides of Houhai Lake, near the Bell and Drum Towers behind Beihai Park. Unpretentious yet elegant, the bars and teahouses in this relatively secluded neighborhood are becoming known as the place to go for a quieter night out, filled more with good company than trendy dance moves. Bars have an organic feel—less government planning and more small-time entrepreneurship. Plenty of roof-top terrace bars open onto the night air, hosting a clientele of more locals than expats.
Culture shock can’t be measured in volts, but the jolt sent through Westerners the first time they see and a Chinese toilet is roughly equivalent to sticking a fork in a socket. Most Chinese toilets are squat toilets: basically,a hole in the ground. Some toilets are recessed porcelain basins, with running water; some are noxious, stagnant pits. Many stall partitions are at knee-height,few have doors, and none have toilet paper. As the final insult, some toilets charge admission. Public toilets are marked with signs, usually in Chinese (gõngyòng cèsuô), but sometimes as “WC” as well. Sometimes, the facilities are separated by gender: male (nán) and female (næ). In prep-aration for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is “beautifying” its bathrooms and building“three-starred toilets.”
Polluted cities and poor sanitation mean that respiratory flus are common for anyone living through a Chinese winter, and the Chinese tend to be fairlyup front about how they take care of their phlegm. No one is shy about hawking back and letting it fly on streets, sidewalks, trains, buses, and even restaurantf loors. Increasingly more cities are enacting anti-spitting regulations and hanging“No Spitting” signs, but all of this has had little actual effect. It’s best to get used tothe characteristic hawking sound and get out of the way.
Staring is not quite the social faux pas in China that it is in the West, to put it mildly. Be prepared for intense, prolonged scrutiny, especially if you’re obvi-ously a foreigner and in a rural area that sees few Westerners. There is little that you can do to ward off the spectators. Take solace in the fact that you have achieved a special place in the pantheon of Chinese tourist sights. Unobtrusive clothing is recommended; body piercing and brightly dyed hair will make you stand out more. Yelling (in any language) or showing obvious annoyance will just make people stare more. If you speak Chinese, talking to onlookers is often the best way to deal with unwanted attention. Remember that staring usually represents friendly curiosity, nothing more.
China and Taiwan have—how should we say—strained relations. In order to avoid an embarrassing or even hostile situation, take care how you refer to Taiwan. When on the mainland, avoid mentioning Taiwan at all if possible. Never explicitly refer to it as a separate country, as it will likely offend the Chinese.