Wanderings in Beijing
China's capitol city is also it's hardest to define. In parts, Beijing is towering grey, chock-a-block high rise apartments that all look the same- like a grim set for 1984 that never went to film. Then, you round a corner and find parks, fountains, shopping complexes that would make Manhattan blush, with restaurants spilling international music and cuisine into the street.
Travel some more and you're in the Hutongs, the traditional area of the city. Winding alleyways and squat houses with red wooden doors, often open to show slivers of inner courtyards, surround men sitting on crates drinking Baijiu (rice liquor) and playing cards.
Just when I feel like I know Beijing, its face changes in front of me. You'll never know all there is to know about Beijing, or hear all its stories. But you can have a lot of fun in the process, seeing neighborhoods that differ from each other like summer and winter. The only constant will be the feeling of surprise that rounds each corner with you.
I started my adventures in Beijing in a neighbourhood called 'the Village'. Filled with open-air malls home to luxury boutiques, and upscale restaurants filled with foreign cuisine, it's like walking in a high-fashion magazine. It's a shopping destination, to be sure- maybe even Beijing's answer to Shanghai's Nanjing Road. But, it also feels like a representation of the 'new' China that's rapidly emerging as the country becomes more of an international power.
[Above: 1) Street signs found in The Village, 2) Craft Beer is a new addition to the Beijing foodie scene, and many delicious options can be had in The Village's restaurants.]
I recommend visiting the area on a Saturday or Sunday morning, rather than cramming into tourist attractions that will be too overflowing to handle. Do brunch. (We went to The Rug, which is near this neighbourhood, and loved it!) Shop. People-watch from a bench with a coffee in hand.
I remember sitting with my sister-in-law, sipping lattes. I was watching women walk by in floor-length, jewel-toned gowns. They travelled alone through the Village, with shoulders as sharp as the angled buildings behind them, shimmering in the daylight.
'Why are some of these women so dressed up?' I asked her.
'Because we can now.' she shrugged.
I don't pretend to know much about Chinese history or the country's government, but that's a moment I'll never forget.
My favourite part? I was the only one who gave these women's outfits a second glance.
Some people say this new China is the effect of the West. Others say it's the changing face of communism. All I know is that you can watch changes in the country's identity in this corner of Beijing in what feels like real time. And it's intoxicating.
But, you'd be remiss to not take the chance to see historic China, too. And, it's a short subway ride from the Village, in an area called the Hutongs.
Mostly a residential area, the Hutongs are preserved, traditional housing complexes, punctuated with corner stores, tea shops and mom-n-pop eateries. Red doors, stone walls, the smell of tea brewing- it doesn't get more authentic than this. Explore and take photos. Try some street food. I'll guarantee you'll leave with a better sense of what Beijing is really like.
We were fortunate enough to go to an event at The Hutong cultural exchange centre while in Beijing, and I recommend visiting there either as an introduction to the Hutongs or as a way to cap off your exploring. I'm hoping to try one of their cooking classes on my next trip!
It's worth noting however, that it can be really easy to get lost in the Hutongs. The streets are narrow and unmarked, and the high stone walls make it easy to get turned around. Bring your phone or GPS so you're not too overwhelmed.
When a weekday arrives and the crowds thin to a manageable level, take the time to see some of Beijing's tourist attractions. The list of sites in this city is a big one, but, for me, the top must-sees are as follows...
While the Tiananmen Square massacre is something not acknowledged openly by Beijing's government, the square is still worth a visit. Rules are strict on what is allowed in the square (no cameras, no dancing, no outside food) so it probably won't be one of those places you remember as 'fun', but there are certain things we must bear witness to.
[From top: 1) The entrance gate into the Forbidden City, 2) Stone steps to one of the many receiving rooms where the Empresses would have gathered, 3) A famous wall carving of 2 dragons- an important symbol in Chinese culture, 4) The details of the ceilings and wall mounts are almost too beautiful, 5) Children outside the Forbidden City wearing tiaras like the Empresses wore]
This grand palace, once reserved for royalty only, takes hours to get through- but the grandeur of the space is otherworldly. It's located near Tiananmen Square, so I'd recommend doing them in the same day. You can hire a guide or rent headsets that'll narrate your journey through the historic site.
I loved lingering around some of the royal waiting rooms and soaking it all in. Also, about halfway through the Forbidden City, there's a courtyard where you can buy ice cream bars and sit on the same stone benches where the Emperor's wives would have sat. As I was licking some Mongolian ice cream, I was thinking about how different this site was to all the princess fairy tales I know.
I spent the whole time dreaming about the princesses that would've lived there. What were they like? What were their secrets? Did they long to escape the palace, which was essentially a gilded cage? Why do we idolize princesses so much, anyway?
The headset in my ear told the story of a young Empress who was taken to the palace as a teen. The Emperor loved her so much that his first wife drowned her in one of the palace's wells, fearing the competition between them. Apparently the Emperor never recovered from the loss.
It was like walking through a dark fairy tale. I could see the well's silhouette from the courtyard's doorway, and couldn't bring myself to go near it.
When looking for souvenirs, you owe it to yourself to go to a pearl or silk market. These bazaars are often multi-level cement structures that sprawl a block or two and are crammed with vendors. You can buy anything from traditional silk scarves to strings of pearls to knock-off handbags and jerseys. Haggling with shop owners and picking up some kitschy treasures feels a lot more unique than hitting the chain stores, and it means you're shopping like a local. These areas are starting to disappear as online shopping booms in China, so scoop up this authentic experience while you can.
Beijing is a city that loves to eat- and it's appetite for the foreign and exotic knows no bounds. Here you can find restaurants dedicated to American Midwest food, Greek cuisine, sushi- anything you can dream up a craving for.
We were lucky enough to spend a leisurely day over tapas at the amazing Puerto 20, an unfussy-yet-fancy Spanish restaurant.
Puerto 20 is hiding in the base of Beijing's soccer stadium, serving what many say is the best Spanish food in the city in an inexplicable location. It's totally surprising and unexpected- a move that feels very Beijing. While away the afternoon with a bottle of white and some small plates in their lush space. The food is so good you'll forget about the weird location and lack of a view.
[Above: An outdoor view of Puerto 20 and my vegan lunch from the restaurant]
Beijing is a city full of surprises. You can eat like a queen. You can dress like royalty. You can walk the halls of Empresses and even wear the same tiaras they did. You can take a subway from the present to an entirely unfamiliar past. You can wander for hours and still be lost.
But what you'll find will be amazing.