Beijing is a city every traveller should experience
Phenomenal architecture, fascinating food and, er, some serious smog - Beijing’s urban sprawl will leave you breathless, in more ways than one
- By Laura Miller -
First things first: Beijing is big. Mind-bogglingly big. Nearly 22 million people live here, and, while fragrant singer Katie Melua once warbled that there were nine million bicycles in Beijing, now there are approximately ninety-nine million cars* [*this figure may be a slight exaggeration]. Despite the centre of the city being composed of six, concentric, 12-lane ring-roads, getting anywhere fast by motorized vehicle is, shall we say, tricky. So, there’s that; and then there’s also the pollution (not helped by the exhaust fumes from, well, all the cars). One of the most unfortunate side-effects of China’s relentlessly rapid industrialisation, it can blanket the entire city in an eerie grey miasma for days.
But don’t let that spoil your enjoyment! There are, after all, face masks which will protect you (most hotels dole them out wordlessly to stricken tourists), and in the right setting, the murkiness can almost act like a cool Instagram filter. Because you’ll want to be taking multiple photographs here; Beijing is home to some of the world’s most jaw-dropping sights, from the vast Forbidden Palace, which housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties, to Tiananmen Square, best known for the image of a lone man standing up to the tanks of the Chinese Army in 1989. It’s also the gateway to the best-preserved sections of the Great Wall, has some surprisingly rocking night-life, and rather fabulous shopping. Take a deep breath, and dive in…
What should I do?
If it’s bucket list stuff you want to tick off first, make a beeline, like Jon Snow, for the Wall. Book a day or half-day tour with a reliable operator (such as Viator.com) and stick to the quieter sections a bit further out of the city, such as Jinshanling or Mutianyu (which comes with the added joy of a toboggan track to whizz down to ground level afterwards); avoid Badaling, which is basically like Oxford Street on Boxing Day. Sure, at only eight metres high, it may be dwarfed by the one in Game of Thrones, but this wall is over 2,000 years old, and originally stood over 13,000 miles long. Dotted with watchtowers and holes for shooting arrows through, it’s a bit of a workout to walk along – a lot of what’s left is, well, crumbling, and composed of rather steep steps, but if it was good enough to keep the Mongolian hordes out, it’s good enough for you to pose on while pretending you’re a really cool ancient Chinese warrior doing kung fu moves (or was that just us?).
The other biggie is the Forbidden Palace in Dongcheng. Its somewhat unwelcoming name stems from the fact that the Emperors who lived there wouldn’t let in anyone who wasn’t related to them, or who didn’t work for them. We’re not really sure why, as it’s absolutely massive – it covers over 180 acres, and the collection of buildings inside comprise of nearly 10,000 rooms - so there would have been plenty of space. As a result, it takes a while to see (bring water. Lots of water). There are nine massive, wooden gates separating various elaborately-named wooden structures (such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony or the Palace of Heavenly Purity) dotted throughout huge courtyards. Most of the Palace’s artefacts were shipped off to Taiwan in the 1950s so the Japanese wouldn’t get their hands on them, but you can still see various thrones, eccentric diplomatic gifts from foreign leaders (hand-carved marble peach tree, anyone?), and plenty of symbolic statues of animals, particularly lions, which, in China, represent power. Don’t tell Trump.
The main way in to the Palace is through Tiananmen Square, home to former leader Chairman Mao’s mausoleum (throngs of adoring Chinese still line up to see his shrunken, embalmed form every day). Dating from the 17th century, the square was enlarged in the 1950s to hold nearly a million people, for those military parades it’s still so fond of. Fancy seeing something a bit more down-to-earth? Take a tuk-tuk tour of a hutong, part of Beijing’s historic neighbourhoods, composed of somewhat ripe-smelling narrow alleys behind which surprisingly capacious houses, with courtyards, lurk. With space at such a premium in the city, these often ramshackle dwellings, which have been in families for generations, can sell for millions. When you’ve tired of history, turn to the shops. You’ll find designer stores in the smart commercial district of Wanfujing, from Chanel to Gucci, Prada and Cartier. They may be a Communist country, but, boy, do the new consumer classes love their bling…
Where should I eat?
China is a country obsessed with food; people still greet each other with the phrase ‘chi le ma’, which means ‘have you eaten yet?’ (which dates back to the days when food was scarce). Happily, there’s no such scarcity now. You’ve not truly immersed yourself in Beijing until you’ve eaten hotpot: a kind of DIY experience where you choose from a vast array of uncooked ingredients, from squid, offal and beef (mutton is a traditional speciality) to handmade noodles and vegetables, and cook them yourself in a boiling vat of flavoured broth. Get down and dirty with the locals on atmospheric Ghost, or Guijie, Street, a red-lanterned strip of over two hundred, 24-hour stalls and restaurants to the west of the city. Try your hotpot with fresh bullfrog at WaWa Jiao (tastes like chicken. Keep telling yourself that), or sample the famous crispy Peking Duck at Hua Jia Yi Yuan – though for duck which stands, er neck and feathers above the rest, it’s got to be Duck de Chine in Chaoyang or Dongcheng; stuff your pancakes with plum sauce and soak up the buzzy atmosphere. Looking for a more sophisticated experience? Then head for the Temple Restaurant in Dongcheng, near the Forbidden City, housed, as you might have guessed from the name, in a 600-year old temple compound. The menu covers Western favourites from foie gras to caviar and lobster; five courses from around £80. Or try the stylish Capital M for crispy suckling pig with impressive views across to Tiananmen Square.
Where’s best for a drink?
Get your kicks in the Soho-like district of Sanlitun, a warren-like blend of Blade Runner and Bond Street, lined with designer stores and dive bars. In one window you might see dancers dangling off poles, in another, Miu Miu’s latest collection. Q Bar, on the top floor of the unprepossessing Eastern Inn Hotel, has an open rooftop with a view of the stars (on a smogless night, of course) and makes a mean Appletini. The hip crowd heads to Migas, a Mediterranean restaurant with a decked terrace, egg-shaped private pods to cosy up in (very Sketch) and obligatory European DJ. Nearby - if you can find it - Hidden House on Xindong Lu is a speakeasy-style bar accessed through an art store’s antique bookcase. Craving a scotch? Frank by Ala House on Chaowai Avenue has hundreds of ‘em.
Where should I stay?
The Central Business District (or CBD) is Beijing’s mini-Manhattan, home to the finance and media industries and full of thrusting, impressive architecture. You can’t miss the CCTV building (HQ of China’s Central Television station); nicknamed the Big Trousers by locals, it’s a glittering, convoluted, steel and glass structure. Which doesn’t really look like trousers, if we’re being honest. Across the road is the fabulously elegant, five-star Rosewood Beijing, its entrance guarded by two towering bronze lion statues.
This is a hotel that’s dressed to impress. Opened in 2014, and designed by modernist Australian outfit Bar Studio, it’s as if it was built to be instantly soothing from the constant traffic honking and chaos outside. Its bespoke fragrance (peony, green tea and cherry) instantly soothes smog-riddled nasal passages, as it wafts throughout the airy, five-storey-high lobby. Impressive works by contemporary Chinese artists are skillfully curated throughout the building, including the 283 sizeable rooms and suites (if you’re staying in a suite, you’ll have access to the Manor Club lounge, with in room check in, free laundry, and 24-hour butler). Here, thoughtful touches like placing the desk facing the window, easy-to-work lighting, Nespresso machines (with the water topped up daily) and beautiful coffee table books make your room somewhere you’ll never want to leave.
However, we suggest you do, as you’ll fall in love with the pool, 830sq metres of shimmering, emerald-green water lined with trees and bamboo screens to make you feel like you’re in a rather posh jungle. Waiting staff silently glide up to your lounger while you’re splashing about/doing the 100m butterfly (delete as applicable) to leave refreshing fruit juices and virtuous snacks.
There’s also an indulgent spa, a couple of low-lit, atmospheric bars, and four good restaurants, including Country Kitchen, which is a destination for locals and out-of-towners in its own right. Expect northern Chinese cuisine, which means hand-pulled noodles, shiny, crispy Peking duck and moreish potstickers. When a hotel has so many bases covered, there’s an argument for just holing up and checking out the sights on your laptop instead – but, smog or not, you won’t regret going outside...
BA regularly flies from London to Beijing; book at ba.com. If you’re staying as part of a stopover for less than 72 hours, you don’t need a visa for China.
Double rooms at the Rosewood Beijing start at £240. For more info, rosewoodhotels.com