Planning a trip to Beijing? The city's temples are beautiful. The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven are preserved as symbols of China's past greatness and are amazing links to its dynastic past. The city also maintains strong links to its more modern communist history. The Military Museum in the capital is a grand five story statement of the Chinese Communist Party. It is also a shopaholics paradise: The Hoziadiao Pearl Market is the place for electronics, clothes and of course pearls, or Sanlitun village is a shiny new mall complex full of designer names and youthful, fashionable Beijingers and foreigners. What if you get 'templed out' or the flourescent lights of the malls start giving you a head ache? Get in a taxi and say, 'Seven, Nine, Eight'.
The 798 district encapsulates a cosmopolitan and artistic face of the city that is hard to find anywhere else. Sat in one of the gallery come cafe's in old construction warehouses, as young Beijingers strut past with designer handbags hanging from their arms, it is easy to mistake this stretch of the city as somewhere in Paris, or London.
It presents a refreshing break from the tourist bedlam surrounding other famous sites, it also has a classy, modern air which a lot of Beijing lacks. Modernisation in China often takes an obscure form, trying to westernise is hard when you have such little exposure to the West. 798 on the other hand has created is own identity. Young Chinese artists have come together to create a small haven in their capital away from political conformity.
Another surprising fact is the subtle mockery of the Communist party line which is followed across Beijing and China. One sculpture on a side street has a bronze bust of the peasant jacket, which Chairman Mao was always pictured wearing. Yet over the top of the bust is a Chinese porcelein bra and bunny ears.
One gallery had Mao's infamous figure strolling along in traditional peasant garb - yet this time his head had been replaced by a cow, another sculpture had a dog's head. Surely the Chairman would be turning in his grave, or mausloeum to be more precise.
A photo gallery off one of 798's many side streets had several symbolic pictures from the Cultural Revolution. This time the Great Leader was not Mao but Barack Obama. Calling on the people to join his revolution! Uh oh! Mao's mausoleum glass might have just shattered!!
The majority of people walking around or enjoying 798 cafes and restaurants were Western or wealthy Chinese sporting designer this and that. Maybe authorities are blase about the influence of art, or cannot understand its symbolism themselves. Regardless, 798 is not only a refreshing break from the chaos of Beijing, but a refreshing place for young Chinese to have a voice, through art they can stand up to the rigid and conformist Chinese system.
Many guidebooks will focus on the beautiful temples, parks or the shopping spots in Beijing. However few places are able to show you a different face to the Chinese capital. I am not suggesting you do not visit Beijing's beautiful temples and impressive museums. 798 though is a change, you will not find it anywhere else. Even if there is still a touristic air to the place - this appears impossible to escape in Beijing. So pay a visit, be refreshed, then dive back into the malls.
No. 4 Jiuxian Bridge Road / 酒仙桥路4号 (在大山子) in Dashanzi District, north east of city centre.
Transport: Subway to Dongzhi men then No. 401 bus OR 20 Minute Taxi journey from CBD.
Google map: bit.ly/rBSHQF
I was living in Beijing when the Gallery started, and it is for me the fondest memory I keep of the Dashanzi contemporary art district.
Founded by a French couple, it was one of the first galleries to expose exclusively photography - young Chinese photographers and the work of international artists on China. Over the last four years, it has slowly expanded, opened in Paris, and gained a bit of a reputation, eventually showing Martin Parr's first exhibition in China.
You will find there a good collection, every time, and great helpful staff. And good wines at openings! A must do when passing in Dashanzi.
Pure Lotus is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in central Beijing serving all sorts of delicious tofu dishes - including a vegetarian sausage called the "Buddha's Finger". There is a sense of occasion from the minute you arrive in the candle lit entrance area and the food is presented exquisitely. We had dumplings and chilli tofu, washed down with jasmine tea. The only bad thing about Pure Lotus is that it's on the other side of the world!
12号 Nongzhanguan South Road
Chaoyang, Beijing, China, 100026
Google map: bit.ly/h7CAD7
Beijing is the political and culture center of China. It has many universities and great places to visit. Such as the bird nest, water cube, and many other theaters and museums. It is a very attractive city. And it is safe and easy to go there. If you are a traveler and willing to explore some new sights, pack up you stuff and don't waste another day.
Very interesting bar... quite expensive (for China) but worth it. I don't know quite how to describe the set-up, but there are water features running along the alleyways and under some of the seats. Each seating area is sectioned off nicely by decorative drapes. Cocktails are good too!
San Li Tun
Google map: tinyurl.com/37lhlna
If you have kids, head to the park outside the temple of heaven. I went here with my sons to see the beautiful temple of heaven. We had lots of fun at the park. There is lots going on – very cool play structures, people dancing, doing taichi etc. My kids joined in and loved it. We also went to the nearby Toy Museum which was also a big hit. The flying helicopters were a favourite.
If you don't fancy the crowds at Badaling or the slopes at Simitai, why not try Huanghua. Lovely, a bit run down, I went on a foggy day in 2009 and it was deserted. Pay the cafe owner to let you onto the wall.
You can get a taxi all the way from Beijing, if you haggle, otherwise take a bus to Huairou and get a bus or taxi from there.
Google map: tinyurl.com/37gcezz
Fun alternative music venue in an old (-looking?) building in the centre of Beijing.
Watch the beautiful people smoke and pretend to ignore each other upstairs, in the cool bar and terrace.
I would like to share my best tips for train journeys for people who don't plan ahead. These were shaped from my travel experience riding seat-less in China with three friends as we criss-crossed our way down through the country using the busy train network. We travelled on a shoestring budget, and with no fixed agenda we often arrived at stations with only a loose idea of where we were heading. However, demand for seats and beds on these trains is huge and when there are literally millions of citizens using the network at anyone time, these spaces are booked days in advance... Surprisingly, my tip isn't to plan ahead, be sensible and book in advance - but top tips for surviving and enjoying an overnight train journey with no seat or bed to speak off. Following these tips allows you to get closer to the fascinating Chinese character and fully involve yourself to feel like a true and accepted local which is lost in 1st and 2nd class travel.
My first tip is to play the Chinese at their own game in order to get the best floor positions for your overnight journey. Your competing 3rd class companions will be travelling with half their kitchen larders strapped to their backs, which can include two or three 'cash and carry' style bags of rice or even sacks of chicken feet! So i would advise teaming up with a friend or fellow westerner, which combined with your likely height advantage and 20kg backpacks, you'll find yourselves with some kind of purchase on the crowds of surging travellers to get to your carriage first.
The second tip is on boarding and locating your floor space. With competition fierce, and the odds stacking against you, you will need to prepare for your mini sprint. Try and establish from platform gates, which end of the train your carriage is in; you don't want to find your self running in the opposite direction as you are then likely to be stood beside the toilet for the next 15 to 20 hours. So, once at the carriage doors, I would recommend boarding at the same time as your friend, guarding yourselves from the beating crowds to give you the opportunity to seek the best position, ideally not near the toilet or wash basin, but next to a guards door, which is likely to leave you some good leg room and uninterrupted sleep from people getting on and off through the night.
The third and final tip is spread yourself out, as selfish as it might sound, conceding early on or showing weakness will leave you sharing your pillow another guy who likes to chain smoke and cough up loosening flem from his lungs. This early initiative also gives you the flexibility of lying down and sitting up to read throughout your journey, as fidgeting to get comfortable will become your new best friend. Once you have your little enclave, you can pick and choose who you share your space with, and observe the fascinating culture and characters on board your train as people pass through and squat to chat to the unlikely westerners slumming it on floor.
These light-hearted tips are really just great memories and a product of clashing national psyches, for which I believe brings so much colour, character and adventure to a train journey and gets you right under the skin of a nation which is quite literally on the move.
Many thanks for reading my top tips for character rich 3rd class train travel in China.
An Asian restaurant that serves great food at a reasonable 'Western' price.
Situated on the top floor of a shopping complex in the embassy district of Beijing this was a real find. The aubergine curry was sublime, the chicken in the balti was tasty if not immediately recognisable. Friendly service and a welcome change from the local cuisine.
This is a chain which has a range of restaurants across the far East. In a city where you can get cheap and plentiful food this is a restaurant that produces quality food in smaller quantities. More pricey but worth it. An eight-course sampler of signature dishes is 228 yuan.
Wangfujing shopping mall
If you want to see a quiet and impressive part of the Great Wall, take a taxi to Simuatai (about two hours). Once you entered the Wall area, just before you about to climb on to the wall, walk through the wall and carry on the track for about 300 metres - you will come to the Dongpo Restaurant. It looks from the outside more like a shed but the owner is lovely and the Chinese food fantastic. An English menu is available, the owner will try her best to improve her English while talking to you.
This is a lovely hotel in the ‘Old Beijing’ district hutong. It is somehow very modern and chic while being traditional. The dozen rooms or so all face into a courtyard where there is a little pond to relax around and, after a day sightseeing in Beijing, you will welcome how peaceful this place is. Showers, beds, everything is just so.
By the way, a good coffee isn’t the easiest thing to come by in Beijing unless you like Starbucks (yep, ’fraid so) but Shauna Liu, the owner, knows a mean brew.
Room 101 is a bar and restaurant in Dong Cheng district. It is one of the only foreign-managed places in Beijing which is open 24/7. They also have 24-hour delivery which is a godsend - their paninis are delicious! They also have lots of live music events, free wi-fi and a terrace with BBQ.
+86 (10) 6402 7532
Located 3 mins walk south of Andingmen subway station at 199 Andingmen Nei Dajie.
An American-style pizza restaurant with beer on tap.
They serve the best pizza in Beijing and it's perfect for when you get tired of gloopy soup and fatty Chinese pork. If you're only in town for a short stay you should, of course, try local dishes (especially duck) but after a few days you'll probably want to try Kro's Nest.
It's not easy to find though. Apparently there are a couple of branches but I've only been to the one at Workers' Stadium.
I read about it in Beijing for Beginners: An Irishman in the People's Republic and it has been a life-saver since.
Take the subway to Dongsishitao and walk east. When you get to Workers Stadium, walk inside the gates to the car park. The restaurant is on the left but the entrance is around the corner down a gravelly walkway. Not a very attractive entrance but inside makes up for it.
The bomb shelter bar near the Red Capital Residence is one of the more interesting drinking holes (in the ground) of Beijing. Getting there is half the adventure as you climb into a manhole-sized opening and down steep stairs under a low ceiling: awkward for all but the most agile.
It was built as a bomb shelter during the cold war between China and Russia to protect party officials but the the mobile signals show the quality of construction. 50s propaganda movies and memorabilia set the scene. Serves Gold Star Yanjing beer!
A great place to see the locals - especially the more senior citizens - enjoy themselves at the weekend exercising, dancing, doing taiqi and doing calligraphy with water-filled brushes on the paving stones near the east entrance.
North 3rd Ring Road neat intersection with Chaoyang Bei Lu
At the Nanxincang branch of Da Dong Roast Duck they have 22 private rooms, making it a great restaurant to do business – it is also the best Peking duck in Beijing. You have to reserve, though, because it is a popular place and the queues can be horrendous.
Most other countries wouldn’t dream of mixing business with karaoke, but in China it is almost de rigeur to spend at least one night with the microphone – it will up your kudos if you are seen to be a sport. Partyworld is a massive chain, and will give you the full-on karaoke experience, including free food – they also have private rooms, if you’re feeling a bit shy.
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