Welcome back to the weekly Shakedown, the STA Travel Blog feature that rattles a destination until it gives up its inside story; including hints and tips on making the most of your time in the area, plus some diamond insights into the ways of life that make a place so unique.
This week, we’re taking a look at one of the world’s busiest cities, as famous for its clucking side streets as its iconic and historical landscape. If you have no idea about where we’re headed (you haven’t read the title) then buckle up, as we take Beijing through the Shakedown.
Choice is something you'll never be stuck for in Beijing | Photo by ernop
You’ll discover more about the Chinese capital’s history-chomping sites, and discover how you can follow in the footsteps of dynasties gone by, while rubbing shoulders with the locals that make up the world’s fifth largest city by population.
Weather in Beijing
The weather in Beijing is typically seasonal, with average highs reaching into the early thirties in July, before winter’s icy grip drags them down to subzero between November and early March. Subzero not good enough for you? Try -10°C and beyond. Nevertheless, autumn and the closing months of the year are a great time to visit Beijing, as the skies are usually clear and the air is at its purest.
I’m mentioning the air, because another worthwhile consideration in Beijing, is the famous smog that regularly rolls into town, which even has its own Twitter following, powered by the U.S. Embassy.
I won’t go into the politics surrounding it right now, I’ll just acknowledge that it could be a consideration for you. (I last visited Beijing in July 2007, when it was choking in smog; I left, and returned two weeks later to be greeted by bright blue skies.)
The other peculiarity tainting Beijing’s skies are the annual sandstorms which swirl into the city between March and May, which contact lens wearers should be aware of. The last couple of paragraphs might explain the seemingly large number of facemasks being sported throughout the city.
Moving swiftly on, let’s take a look at the city landscape.
Beijing’s City Layout
Beijing’s districts are roughly laid out in a grid system, kept in tact by a series of ring roads, with the former walled-city of Beijing at its thriving centre, which is where you’ll still find many of the major city sights today.
Beijing's ring roads and lack of road names will send you round in glorious circles! | Map by Google
It’s useful to pick up a map when you arrive, but don’t start relying on it too much — modern Beijing is changing at such a phenomenal rate, that maps are often obsolete before they roll off the printing press.
Getting Around Beijing
Getting around Beijing is relatively simple. In theory, the biggest hurdle you’re likely to encounter is language. A common complaint of travellers are the terminal’s huge departure boards flickering with neatly tiled Mandarin.
In fact, this is a time to pause a moment in the Shakedown, and acknowledge this fact: if you don’t speak Mandarin, (and let’s assume most people in Beijing don’t speak English) then you really should carry a pen and notepad complete with neatly scribed Mandarin characters for useful phrase.
Back to the business of getting around; Beijing’s neat subway system snakes through the main centre, with stops every few blocks or so. Taxis are safe, inexpensive and relatively stress-free (if you can communicate with your driver), fares start at ¥10, and rise at ¥2/km after the first 3 km.
If you’re sitting in a taxi wondering if the driver has turned the metre on, don’t be shy in giving him a gentle gesture; and get in the habit of asking for receipts, this way you can check the price with your hostel or hotel reception, and it should contain the taxi number in case you accidentally leave something in the car.
One of our Twitter followers, @xcroker got in touch to say, “Walk. You’ll get lost but stumble upon the best bits of the city.” A worthwhile tip. While you’re out and about, it’s also worth carrying a card from your hostel or hotel, just in case you find yourself a little too lost.
What to see in Beijing
I’ll now attempt to give you a run-down of Beijing’s attractions, which reminds me a little of the moment when Atreyu approached the Sphinx Gates in The Neverending Story.
First up, the formidable Forbidden City, which enjoys 180-acres of prime real estate in central Beijing. The former domain of concubines and shuffling Emperors, the impressive collection of 9,999 rooms appeases the Chinese belief in their lucky number nine. Without a doubt, the Forbidden City is an absolute must. @xcroker tweeted to recommend, “After you’ve been through the Forbidden City, climb the hill in the park opposite for an excellent view back over it.”
The cornerstone of Beijing's attractions, the Forbidden City | Photo by West Zest
Leading up to the city’s impressive Gate of Heavenly Peace, is Tiananmen Square, arguably more famous for the 1989 protests than its collection of patriotic monuments but nevertheless a great place to absorb the frenetic pace of Chinese and international tourists collecting their daily dose of photographs. It’s also a common place for low-fi scam artists to tempt you to a tea ceremony. @BenjoEllis tweeted to warn, “Avoid being taken to restaurants by locals who then ‘disappear’.”
One way to escape the crowds, is to delve into the ‘hutongs‘ (narrow alleys) that network the city, linking up the shaded courtyards that dapple Beijing’s backstreets. The presence of Beijing’s characterful hutongs is slowly fading to make way for modernity — accelerated by a small sports tournament called the Olympics, which the city hosted in 2008 — but you can still find a slice of the old-world hidden among the tower blocks.
The Summer Palace along the northern shores of Kunming Lake is well worth the effort, and make sure you have someone on hand for that classic Jade Belt Bridge photo while you’re there. The 15th century Temple of Heaven is a treat to the eyes, its circular altar and surrounding park are full of the types of symbolism that only a local guide or a decent stint of research could decipher, which is a worthwhile consideration for your visit to Beijing.
I’ve visited alone, and it is the kind of city that can swallow you up in an instant, surrounding you with curious confusion that can lead to discoveries of delight, or unadulterated confusion.
Beihai Park‘s imperial gardens make for a pleasant retreat; running along the western walls of the Forbidden City, they provide a quite brilliant place to people-watch, and perhaps sit for a while, scribbling notes about your time in the city. Another green and refreshing retreat is the Qinglong Watertop Paradise — also known as Green Dragon — located 23 miles out of the city, it provides a pseudo beach environment amid thick green landscape.
The 798 Space in the Dashanzi Art District, north-east of central Beijing, is growing in popularity; formerly an electronics factory, this surreal complex now offers an industrious canvas for Beijing’s resident artists to showcase their creative side. Expect a wide variety of galleries, and look out for events in the area.
There’s one more site I was going to mention in Beijing? What was it called? The wall thing? Supposedly viewable from space?
The wotsit called. | Photo by topgold
Originally constructed to keep the Mongolian ‘barbarians’ away from the Chinese empire, the Great Wall of China flicks bricks for almost 3000km to the west of the mountain ridges north of Beijing. It has several access points, but my pick is the north-east spot of Mutianyu. It’s slightly less crowded than neighbouring gateways, and offers a large undulating stretch of wall, draped between 22 watchtowers. If your knees are trembling at the thought of a steep climb up, jump in the cable car, and once you’re done, why not take the toboggan all the way back dowwwwwwwwwwwwwn…
Food & Accommodation in Beijing
Understandably, there’s a fantastic choice of accommodation in Beijing, from budget beds to luxurious pads fit for an Emperor. Most budget accommodation in Beijing can be found within walking distance of a main site or two. Prices start from just £8 a night, and our pick would probably be the Jade International Youth Hostel, although there are plenty of great options, depending on what you’re looking for.
Food for Beijingers and visitors alike, is a right of passage, and is hard to escape anywhere in the city. And why would you want to? Whether you’re grabbing yourself some street-side snacks, such as the ubiquitous baozi (steamed dumplings) or their fried cousins, jiaozi, or heading out for some fine dining with new found friends, Beijing is a foodie’s dream. Ask around for the best spots to get your fill of jian bing (savoury pancakes) and rally your way through a row of lip-smacking Chuanr, lamb-fat-lamb skewered kebabs seasoned with cumin and chilli.
Da Dong Roast Duck is one of the most famous eateries in the city (in fact, there are now two), with a reputation for serving consistently excellent Peking Duck in a lively environment. It is recommended (some would say vital) that you gather a crew together to tackle this culinary delight; needless to say, a roast duck dinner for one, in the heart of Beijing, is a somewhat lacklustre affair.
The Donghuamen Night Market is famous within travel circles for offering myriad treats, especially the sticky scorpion on sticks (which taste mildly like black treacle covered bootlaces). However, for every nugget of gruesome grub, there are a dozen straight-laced and delicious alternatives.
And what do you wash it all down with? Tsingtao beer (pronounced “ching dow”) is a worthy mention; introduced by the German settlers in 1903 (you can even visit the brewery) this is a light and drinkable lager. Prices vary a surprising amount, but you can bet your bottom Yuan that your hostel has a small shop nearby that will sling you one for a couple of Yuan, and if my memory serves me correctly, you can also return your glass bottles for a small refund (or wait until you have enough and trade them in for another Tsingtao).
Travelling to and from Beijing
I hate to say this; but getting away from Beijing can be as exciting as the city itself! Why? Well, for a start, one of the world’s greatest rail routes journeys right from the city centre. The Trans-Manchurian leg of the grand Trans-Siberian railway takes you up into Siberia via Harbin and Manchuria (northeastern Asia); alternatively jump on the Trans-Mongolian train which joins the Trans-Siberian after a journey through Mongolia.
What could make this better? Vodka. What do you get when you cross a bottle of vodka with a train? The Vodkatrain. Journeying from Beijing all the way to St. Petersburg via some of the world’s most remote towns and no less than seven time zones. All aboard the Vodkatrain! And if that’s attracted your interest; how about this — we have five outstanding alternatives.
All aboard the Vodkatrain!
In fact, Beijing West Train Station is astoundingly massive, as is the new South Station, and @BenjoEllis got in touch to warn you to, “Give plenty of time to get to your train at the station. It’s not the easiest task or the smallest station!” he also tapped into the great Mandarin-English hurdle, recommending that you “Learn how to ask in Mandarin for the right bus at the airport on arrival.”
Another excellent option is to tag into Beijing into a trip around the Orient, such as the Ancient Empires, which will flip you between Beijing and Tokyo in 18 mesmeric days, while giving you an audience with Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors before shaving their chopsticks in the culinary capital of Japan, Osaka. Roam China zigzags down to Hong Kong in 18 days, via the dizzying heights of Shanghai and the mellow flow of the Yangtze River.
Or, take the opposite direction, and jump aboard the Beijing-Qinghai Tibet railway, as you journey onto the Tibetan plateau with the Tibet Adventure, before snaking down into Kathmandu. The Dragon Experience is also worth chatting to one of our consultants about; in a nutshell, it’s a journey of experiences, taking you from Beijing to Xi’an or Shanghai, and on to Hong Kong with the opportunity to visit China’s largest brewery, do some volunteering or train at a Kung Fu academy in Shaolin for five days.
Beijing is a real treat for travellers who are prepared to give it the time it deserves. You could easily lose a couple of weeks exploring the details, but allow for at least a few days to blend the best of the city together. It’s possible to rock up and follow your instincts, but as I’ve touched on it can feel like an extremely large and unforgiving city so it is worth considering the benefits of group travel while you’re in town.
If you’re looking for more information about visiting Beijing, venture into any one of our 47 stores across the UK and speak to one of our travel experts! They’re well-versed in the highlights of northern China, and can help you plan a worthwhile stay in the capital.
Have you considered travelling to Beijing, or perhaps you’ve already been? Consider adding your inside tips on visiting the city, via the comment thread below. The STA Travel Blog is a great place to learn new things about interesting places around the world; take a second to add to the conversation!