Beijing, thought by emperors to be the center of the universe, is again staking its claim. China's capital is currently a massive construction site, overhauling itself to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The changes aren't all physical; China's entry into the WTO sees economic liberalization continuing and a growing middle class shopping for homes, cars, and leisure pursuits. Cell phones and lattes outnumber Red Books and Mao suits, though you will still see the latter donned by old men—often checking their voice mail at Starbucks.
Take time to wander the narrow lanes called hutong, being razed at an unprecedented clip to make way for improved housing and high rises. Here you'll see one side of the city, where grandfathers stroll with babies and chess players debate moves in the thick r-laden dialect. Experience another side of life in an unprecedented flowering of fine restaurants, galleries, and museums, as well as international-standard golf courses and equestrian clubs in the lush surrounding countryside. Of course no visit to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall, a monument meant to keep foreigners out, and now attracting them in droves.
ORIENTATION The Forbidden City is at the heart of Beijing, with the modern city radiating in rings around it. Think of the palace's moat as the First Ring Road, with the Second running along the route of the former city wall. The Third Ring Road separates downtown and the suburbs, though development has pushed beyond the Fourth to Rings Five and Six, now under construction. Most hotels and sights are between the Second and Third Ring Roads, which are bisected by Chang'an (Avenue of Eternal Peace), running east-west between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Wangfujing, the shopping district, is a main north-south street that begins a few blocks east of the Forbidden City. The limited metro service runs in a loop beneath the Second Ring Road. A new line runs beneath Chang'an Avenue. Beijing is as flat as a Peking-duck pancake, so walking or cycling isn't strenuous.
BEST TIME TO VISIT Two six-week periods beginning in mid-April, when willow trees bloom, spring's massive dust storms end, and summer's unbearable heat, humidity, and crowds have not yet arrived; and mid-September, before the onslaught of winter's chill and snow.
GETTING THERE Daily direct flights between Beijing and the U.S. West Coast (11 hours) or New York (15 hours). Northwest flies from Detroit and the West Coast with Tokyo stopovers. United flies from Chicago nonstop, from New York and San Francisco with Tokyo stopovers.
FROM THE AIRPORT/CAR RENTAL At the Hertz opposite the airport taxi stand, the staff speaks no English and can rent you a car only if you have a Chinese driver's license. However, cars with driver/guides are available through Hertz's 800 number (800-654-3001); through the more helpful Beijing Contemporary New Concept auto club in the terminal (6457-5566); and at most hotels. Or wait in line for a taxi (be sure to have your hotel's written Chinese name or a phonetic rendering with you). Also, most top hotels offer airport shuttles—no language barriers, no hassles.
TAXIS are easy to hail on the street. Avoid the small Xiali sedans; a ride within town in the new Citroëns or Volkswagens is usually less than $3.
GUIDES/TOURS Guides average $10 per hour/$80 per day, plus any entry tickets they require; book through hotel concierges or Panda Tours (6525-8372; firstname.lastname@example.org), which also does group tours for the best hotels. Wild China (6528-7781; www.wildchina.com) arranges cultural trips along the Silk Road, to Tibet, and to other off-road destinations.
TRANSLATORS Available through concierges at guide rates. The International Association of Conference Interpreters ($600-$700 a day; www.aiic.net) works with businesses and the UN; especially recommended is Andrew Dawrant (139-10219736; email@example.com).
MONEY The currency is the renminbi, referred to as yuan or kuai. The current conversion rate is 8.3 per $1.
LOCAL TIME Twelve hours ahead of EST in daylight savings time, 13 in winter.
MEDICAL Several hospitals have an international staff and accept major plans. Most central: Vista Clinic, in the Kerry Center (8529-6618).
TOURIST INFORMATION China National Tourist Office, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 6413, New York; 212-760-9700; fax 212-760-8809; www.cnto.org.
VISAS Easy to get through Chinese consular offices in major U.S. cities. Passport must be valid for six months beyond visa issuance date. Bring or send it with a passport photo, completed application (www.china-embassy.org), and fee ($30-$50); it takes four working days for 30- or 60-day visas. Extending in Beijing is straightforward. Call 202-338-6688; fax 202-588-9760.
IMMUNIZATIONS None are required to enter China; long-term residents are commonly inoculated against hepatitis A and/or B.
READING MATTER For a glimpse of the old city, begin with Hedda Morrison's A Photographer in Old Peking and the novels and plays of Lao She, including China's most famous modern novel, Camel Xiangzi. For contemporary works, see Liu Heng's novel Black Snow, by the writer of the film Judou. The travel tales Red Dust by Ma Jian and Soul Mountain by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian begin in 1980s Beijing. Peter Hessler's River Town, set on the Yangtze, shows how the rest of the country lives as it undergoes massive economic and social change. For event listings, consult the monthly That's Beijing or the biweekly City Weekend.
PRICES In U.S. dollars.
RATES High-season double occupancy, from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite, exclusive of 15 percent service charge.
RESTAURANT TABS Based on a dinner for two without drinks or tip.
TELEPHONE NUMBERS Country code: 86; city code: 10 (010 within China). Numbers starting with 130 to 139 are cell-phone numbers. Here, only the local number is given.
ST. REGIS Crowning the Embassy District, this is Beijing's—and probably China's—most luxurious lodging. Only here does check-in include an introduction to your butler. The tie-and-tails aide unpacks your bags, presses your shirts, delivers the morning newspapers and coffee, and is on standby 24 hours. The service is unparalleled in the capital. Rooms are plush and airy, with windows that open and humidifiers that take the sting out of Beijing's dry air. Choose a room above the fifth floor; even-numbered rooms two through 16 overlook the leafy diplomatic quarter. President Bush called the Presidential Suite home during his recent visit. The new spa features hot tubs fed by the hotel's natural spring and a glass-enclosed Romanesque 25-meter pool; best of all, it's always open (perfect for working off jet lag). Also here: a driving and putting range and the Astor Grill, Beijing's premier steakhouse and cigar bar. Rooms, $300-$5,000. At 21 Jianguomenwai Dajie; 6460-6688; fax 6460-3299; www.stregis.com.
GRAND HYATT The spacious rooms of Beijing's newest five-star combine international standards with elegant Chinese accents, reminders of the city outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Anchoring the massive Oriental Plaza complex, the Hyatt borders Wangfujing and is a short walk from Tiananmen Square; the prime location unfortunately means traffic (getting around by foot or metro from here is often more efficient than taxis). The Grand Club is a hotel within a hotel, managed by Sandra Ann Lingham, who knows guests by name and keeps books of clippings on the latest restaurants and tours; even-numbered rooms on club floors have views of the Forbidden City—ask for #1708, and avoid rooms with a southern exposure as these overlook a drab modern section of town. The complimentary breakfast and dinner buffet and cocktails are the best of their kind in Beijing. The shallow pool is an Olympic-size lagoon complete with palms, a waterfall, and recorded birdsong. Rooms, $300-$3,850. At 1 East Chang'an Ave.; 8518-1234; fax 8518-6288; www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com.
PALACE HOTEL A perennial award-winner, especially for its business-traveler services, the 13-year-old Peninsula Group Palace is a landmark in the center of town, a block off Wangfujing. The plain facade masks a warren of more than 500 rooms, most renovated last year complete with marble baths, plus the capital's toniest shopping arcade. The home-comfortable rooms on the executive-class Palace Club floors provide exceptional service, though the only views are of highrises. The best room is #1442, a split-level suite. Concierge Echo Zhu is incredibly helpful at arranging just about anything. Rooms, $320-$3,600. At 8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing; 6559-2888; fax 6512-9050; www.peninsula.com.
RED CAPITAL RESIDENCE This converted courtyard home couches Qing architecture and Communist memorabilia in boutique-hotel service. Owner Laurence Brahm, an American lawyer, hired craftsmen from the Forbidden City and Summer Palace renovations to preserve the structure, which sits behind red doors on a hutong. The five antiques-laden rooms face a sunny courtyard whose rock garden masks the entrance to a subterranean wine bar, which was originally built as a bomb shelter. Visitors watch Cultural Revolution-era operas while sipping house-brand Bordeaux. Everything at the Red Capital Residence is Communist-themed, from the Concubine Suites (bordering Mao's Chrysanthemum Suite) to the "Stalin Is Our Friend" caviar. You can tour Beijing by night in the hotel's Red Flag limousine, which used to belong to Mao's purged wife, Jiang Qing. A bicycle rickshaw will take you to the hotel's restaurant (see below). Next for Brahm: a boutique hotel near the Great Wall. Rooms, $100-$148. At 9 Dongsi Jiu Tiao; 8403-5308; fax 8403-5303; www.redcapitalclub.com.cn.
In "Hunting for Duck and Dim Sum in the New Beijing," Mimi Sheraton covers the city's best restaurants. The following are dining experiences that reveal unique aspects of the former imperial capital.
RED CAPITAL CLUB Mao-tai, anyone? Sip away at this courtyard-home restaurant specializing in Communist kitsch. The dishes (venison rolled in sesame and toasted on a stick; cold eggplant shaped like the paw of the Monkey King) are chosen from the favorites of leaders who occupied seats in China's government—seats you actually sit on: The 1950s furniture comes from Politburo offices. Pick up the phone in the corner to hear the Chairman himself. An experience not to be missed. Dinner, $60. At 66 Dongsi Jiu Tiao; 6402-7150; fax 6402-7153.
CHINA CLUB The club's palatial grounds west of Tiananmen Square were home to a prince five centuries ago. Now diners sit in resplendent, vermilion-accented halls bordering four courtyards and choose from a menu featuring Cuban cigars and contemporary Chinese cuisine good enough for China's new elite to shell out $15,000 for membership (only $7,000 for foreigners). Check with the club's office or your concierge about arranging an invitation to dine. Dinner, $60. At 51 Xi Rong Xian Lane, Xidan; 6603-8855; fax 6603-9594.
FOOD STREETS Beijing is famous for its "small eats" (xiaochi), sold at many street stalls around town. Though the most convenient place to find them is the unnamed snack street (across from Xinhua Book Store) off Wangfujing, it is a loud warren of catcalling sellers and camcorder-toting tourists. A better alternative with the same selection of noodles and kebabs (try the locust-grasshopper-silkworm combo) sets up at dusk opposite Sun Dong'an Shopping Plaza, on Dong'anmen Dajie, the avenue running west off Wangfujing to the Forbidden City's eastern gate. It's a pleasure to walk amid the swirling steam wafting from the stalls into a canopy of locust trees. At the pedestrians-only Longfusi, an alley of bookshops, boutiques, and hipper-than-thou cinemas running east from the National Art Gallery (closed for renovations), the stalls' noodles, corn on the cob, and dumplings take a backseat to the many permutations of octopus and squid.
FORBIDDEN CITY Beijing was founded in the 13th century by Kublai Khan. Twenty-four emperors lived in what today is the Palace Museum. Its treasures were carted off to Taiwan by retreating Nationalists in 1949, so what you see is mostly a shell, but an astounding one, an awe-inspiring landscape of vermilion walls and ochre roofs that is undergoing a full-scale renovation. The audio guide, with narration by Roger Moore, offers good anecdotes and an evocative score and sound effects; toward the end, turn right and pay the extra fee to visit the collection of antique clocks (presented as a tribute by Western nations) in the Hall of Jewelry.
TIANANMEN SQUARE In 1949 Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the entrance to the Forbidden City, and founded the People's Republic of China. His portrait hangs there today. The flagstones were replaced in 1999, erasing all physical traces of 1989's crackdown in this square synonymous with protest. Cross to the west side of Mao's hulking sarcophagus, the "Maosoleum" (where you can view his discolored body), and you will enter, irony of ironies, the China Numismatic Museum, an exhibit on cold, hard cash. The best thing to do in the square is to watch the Chinese tourists, who come to fly kites and view the soldiers marching from Tiananmen Gate for the elaborate flag raisings and lowerings at sunrise and sunset.
MUSEUM OF CHINESE HISTORY The large Stalinesque building at the east side of the square houses two museums—one to the revolution and the other to Chinese history. The latter is a greatest hits of 5,000 years of civilization, from Paleolithic pottery through Shang bronzes, Qin terra-cotta warriors, Tang ceramics, and Qing cloisonné. Closed Monday. Information: 6512-8321.
SUMMER PALACE This playground of the emperors, in the northwest district of Haidian, is a lovely, cool escape in summer and a wonderland in winter, when the man-made Kunming Lake becomes Beijing's biggest skating rink. The sights are many, including a marble boat built by the Empress Dowager Cixi, but the thing to do in this "Garden of Nourishing Harmony" is relax. Locals watch the sunset from the eastern shore, tend their caged birds, and rent boats. One of Beijing's best-kept secrets is the new water taxis that run between the north end of the lake and downtown from 9 to 5 daily: Exit the palace's south gate, cross the bridge, and board one of two lines plying the river. The northern route uses ornate dragon boats and is more scenic; it ends at the Beijing Zoo, where you can catch a cab onward. A video program with English subtitles narrates the trip. Boats: Capital Water Tours, 6823-2179; $5, or $9 round-trip.
LAKE DISTRICT Trying to transform itself into the city's Left Bank, and off to a good start, the Lake District is a warren of hutong with courtyard homes, temples, and small clubs and teahouses conducive to conversation and willow-gazing. In the evening, the sidewalks are filled with locals dancing, playing chess, or fishing as the lake glitters from the moon or floating tea candles. Enter at the north gate of Beihai Park or midway at Silver Ingot Bridge. You can rent a bike from a stand on the south side of the bridge, or tour by bicycle rickshaw—including a visit to a courtyard home and tea ceremony in the garden of Prince Gong's Mansion—through the Beijing Hutong Tour Company (book at your hotel, or 6615-9097; www.hutongtour.com; narration in English). The company also offers its version of a dinner cruise: As a small, canopied boat winds through Beijing's prettiest district, a musician straddles the bow, a straw-hatted oarsman strokes the water, and you barbecue strips of marinated mutton on a hibachi ($20; River Romance Dock, south bank of Shichahai Lake; taxi access via Ping'an Da Dao; stop by the back gate of Beihai Park; call 6612-5717). At the lakeside Fu Family Teahouse (Houhai Nanyuan; 6616-0725), modeled after a Qing-era home, with antique furniture and live classical music, the tea ceremony ($10-$125) is performed at your table. On the north side of the bridge, in an unmarked building, is Beijing's nicest bar, which draws an art crowd: Bai Feng's (22 Qianhai Dongyuan; 6401-8541), complete with lake views, incense, soft Tibetan music, candles, and a bamboo-and-wood interior (upstairs is a new Vietnamese restaurant, Nuage).
LAO SHE MEMORIAL MUSEUM At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, China's greatest modern writer was severely beaten by Red Guards. The next day he drowned himself in a nearby lake. His widow fought for decades to have his lovely courtyard house opened as a museum, and now it is. Captions are in Chinese, save for letters written by Lao She during his years in London and New York. Walk north on Wangfujing and turn left at the intersection past the cathedral (Dengshikou Xi) onto Fengfu Hutong (second right); the house (#19) bears a wooden plaque. Closed Monday. Call 6559-9218.
Elegant shops are multiplying, but except at places like the Palace Hotel's arcade (see Hotels, above), with 50 or so boutiques like Burberry, Chanel, and Hermès, they have not reached the level of service and selection found in Shanghai or Hong Kong. The largest size available may be a 38 coat, say, or a 2 dress.
BING BING and FRAGRANT LADIES are favorites of diplomats and local glitterati for custom clothing. Bing Bing (139 World Trade Center, North Building; 6505-8768) does qipao (cheongsams) and other custom and finished pieces for women. Fragrant Ladies(213B Full Link Plaza, Chaoyang; 6588-2062), Fang Xiang's label of silk dresses and men's jackets, has become so popular it's moved from an alley to a glitzy new shopping center.
DAVE'S CUSTOM TAILORING At this new branch of K.C. Shiung's Shanghai shop, you can choose from more than 1,000 fabrics for men's shirts ($35-$80) and suits ($250-$500), made in one to seven days. At 104 Kerry Center, Chaoyang; 8529-9433.
BEIJING SILK SHOP Opened in 1840, this cramped store is the biggest silk market in Beijing, with endless bolts you can have made into qipao as well as a selection of finished clothing from lingerie to children's wear. The staff speak enough English to take an order. At 5 Zhubaoshi, Qianmen, southwest corner from ancient gate tower; 6301-6658.
ZHANG'S TEXTILES A museum-quality selection of Ming and Qing dynasty textiles, framed and certified authentic. The embroidered antiques include pillows, shoes, and the intricate robes of mandarins. At 140 World Trade Center, North Building; 6505-6201.
BEIJING CURIO CITY Despite the name, this five-floor antiques mart on the Third Ring Road at Huawei Bridge is for serious buyers, with excellent Tibetan carpets, pearls, teapots, jade, scrolls, and cloisonné. Reputable dealers (beware some of the others) include English-speaking Lu Chunxia's Zhi Jin Ge carpet store (third floor, #20; mobile 138-01180657). At 21 Dongsanhuan Nan Lu.
PANJIAYUAN FOLK CULTURE MARKET Originally a flea market, this Beijing institution is the largest antiques and crafts market in China, with more than 3,000 vendors and, on weekends, 50,000 visitors. Some of the best stops, listed by row number, then stall, are numbers 24-16 (antique wedding boxes); 24-10 (clocks); 16-21 (Cultural Revolution ceramic figurines); 12-06 (teapots); 10-10 (shadow puppets); 6-20 (books and photos). Along the back to the right is Du Shun Tang furniture, which (unlike many vendors) packages and ships; next door are black-and-white photographs of Chinese scenery and street life by English-speaker Jack Wen (firstname.lastname@example.org). Open daily, but weekends are best. Inside the Third Ring Road, between Panjiayuan and Huawei bridges, Chaoyang district.
WANGFUJING This shopping street presents the capital as it wants to be seen: clean, gleaming, and, with its many new malls, in line with the rest of the consumer world. Since being refurbished and closed to cars, the avenue has lost all of its ancient charm, but come to people-watch and visit the Foreign Language Bookstore, at #235. For an only-in-developing-China experience, stop in at the Oriental Plaza's Hengxin Diamond Palace, where a gowned pianist plays and women in qipao pour tea for customers perusing the top-quality jade and diamond jewelry. For $1.25, a new yellow tram that leaves from the Xinhua Bookstore at the south end of the street takes you on a five-mile, 45-minute loop.
LIULICHANG/DASHALAN Beijing's oldest shopping district begins at Dashalan on Qianmen Dajie, just south of Tiananmen Square. Visit the pedestrian-only street for its antiques stores and three small museums. At #14 is the Songtangzhai Museum, exhibiting architectural bits rescued from destroyed buildings. At #29, you can see the artisans of the Beijing Shadow Puppet Troupe work and, for $6, enjoy a private performance of an art form begun in the city five centuries ago. Past the marble bridge, on West Liulichang at #57 is the Cultural Heritage Bookstore, which showcases the fruits of the civilization that invented paper and printing: scrolls and texts, some nearly a thousand years old. The area's most reputable antiques shop is at #22: Guanfu Zhai (6303-0023), run by noted antiques expert Ma Weidu.
BEIJING OPERA Performances at 380-year-old Zhengyici Theatre strike the perfect balance between preserving the ancient art and interpreting it for modern foreign audiences. Arrive early to wander upstairs and behind the lantern-lit stage. Three scenes from classic operas (fight scene, high-pitched solo, acrobatic dance) are performed nightly, with orchestra; introduction in English. Admission, $20. At 220 Xiheyuan Ave., Xuanwu; 8315-3150. The Liyuan Theater, in the Qianmen Hotel, is the haunt of tour buses, but the troupe puts on a surprisingly entertaining show. Admission, $25. At 175 Yong'an Lu, Xuanwu; 6301-6688, ext. 8860.
TEAHOUSE THEATER The Lao She Teahouse, named for the humorist's famous play, retains its charm in the face of increasing crowds—mostly Chinese tour groups, despite photos of visits by the likes of Henry Kissinger and George Bush Sr. It preserves Beijing's otherwise vanished tradition of sipping tea and eating snacks while watching a variety show mixing opera, acrobats, magic, comedy, and mask-changers. Refuse seating in the restaurant (small stage, no English subtitling). Evening shows ($15) and matinees ($7). At 3 Qianmen Xi Dajie, Qianmen; 6303-6830.
CINEMA On Friday nights, at Cherry Lane Movies, American Michael Primont shows a modern Chinese film subtitled in English, often preceded by a talk by one of the production's principals. Admission, $6. Sino-Japanese Youth Exchange Center, International Conference Hall; 6461-5318.
ACROBATS China's acrobats are world-renowned, and the best make their home in Beijing. The troupe at the Tiandi Theatre, a tattered auditorium with blaring recorded music, is young and at the top of its art, making plate-spinning and umbrella-juggling look graceful. Its soloists twirl from ropes or balance dinnerware on their noses. (Tiandi veterans are put out to pasture at the less-interesting Chaoyang Theatre.) Admission, $15. At 10 Dongzhimen Nan Dajie, just north of Poly Plaza; 6416-9893.
Doing the Great Wall
Most tour groups head for the restored section at Badaling for the marvel of seeing the wall snake like a dragon over mountaintops. If you can do without the gaggle of vendors, costumed Manchus, and KFCs of this rather charmless reconstructed section, visit Mutianyu, two hours north of Beijing. The first of two cable cars brings you to a restored section that soon peters out; 15 minutes along the (safe) crumbling portion, and you'll be alone with the views. Huanghuacheng, above a reservoir and dam, is the least-visited section of intact wall near Beijing (two hours north)—no ticket window, no souvenir sellers, just you and the wall. The best way to visit these sections is by renting a car and guide ($120-$150) or joining a Panda Tours group (see Beijing Basics). At Shanhaiguan, four hours from Beijing by train, you can walk the Ming portion of the Great Wall from where it spills into the sea to where it ascends the mountains. The town's low-key considering it's next door to Beidaihe, the Communist beach retreat, now filled with bikinis of the masses.
Mike Meyer has reported on China for five years for publications like Time and the Asian Wall Street Journal. He is now at work on a travel memoir.
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Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in September 2002, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.