Beijing – smoggy, golden, timeless city that it is – boasts a truly baffling array of historical sightseeing gems, from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace to the Great Wall, each one iconic in its familiarity. Of course, no trip to this heaving cosmopolis is complete without visiting its most famous attractions – but don’t stop there. The Bird’s Nest Stadium and Ming Dynasty Tombs may be spectacular, but Beijing is a city of many faces – old and new, earthly and divine – so why not get to know them all?
1. Dinner and drinks by Houhai Lake
Houhai, one of the three lakes which make up the Shichahai scenic area in Beijing’s centre, is beautiful at any time of day, reflecting the soothing greens of willow trees and stark whites of marble bridges on its vast silver surface. But when darkness falls, the bar and restaurant-packed banks of Houhai Lake truly come into their own and, if it’s something special you’re after, this is the place to be.
Neon-swathed bars, restaurants, cafés and noodle joints jostle for the attention of a string of humanity, which surges – locals, tourists and ex-pats alike – around the lake’s shore, nibbling candy floss and shouting over the tangled din of over-miked singers and acoustic guitarists in every bar. With light of every colour spilling out onto the black water and the air electrified with sound, Houhai Lake is the perfect place to stroll, chat and bar hop until the wee small hours of the morning.
2. An afternoon stroll through the hutongs
Although in recent years many of Beijing’s hutongs – its famed bustling alleyway neighbourhoods – have been demolished in favour of modern builds, or preserved and ‘renovated’ (read: Disneyfied for tourists), there is still no better way to worm your way into traditional, residential Beijing than to explore those authentic ones which remain.
Dotted all over the centre of the city (though in my opinion the best lie to the north of the Temple of Heaven and around Houhai and Qianhai lakes), these charming, gritty little backstreets offer an unrivalled glimpse of the real Beijing and its people – snaking like endless warrens through a muddle of shabby grey brick houses, along cobbled passages lined with market stalls, bicycles, stray dogs and pensive elderly women on front steps. Access to most hutongs is totally unrestricted and the local residents rarely mind an inquisitive foreigner passing through, so put aside an afternoon to get yourself well and truly lost in the timeless alleys of Old Beijing – you won’t regret it.
3. Tarantula and scorpion (or jaozi and lamb skewers) at Wangfujing snack street
Chinese food does have its bizarre predilections (think chicken feet, snails and fish eyes), though none so strange as this truly dazzling selection of still-wiggling and deep-fried bugs. The street itself, a narrow faux-traditional alley connected at one end to Beijing’s answer to Nanjing Road, Wangfujing Pedestrian Street, is lined with stalls and small restaurants selling every imaginable Chinese snack – with a heavy emphasis on the creepy, crawly kind. Sandwiched between steaming boazi (bread buns), jaozi (fried dumplings) and chuanr (meat kebabs), lie row upon row of tiny scorpions and seahorses on skewers (the more recently pierced ones still wriggling wildly), fried sparrow, iguana tails, silk worms, star fish and deep fried tarantula. This might seem a peculiar spread to visiting westerners, but the Chinese are firm fans, and it’s almost worth braving the bustle just to see the crowds swarm around a fresh batch of scorpion brochettes. And if that’s not enough to tempt you, the perfectly crispy dumplings, excellent noodles and tang hu lu (candied fruits) ought to do the trick.
4. The Lama Temple
Beijing has more than its fair share of temples, be they Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian, and they are all, despite often having been heavily restored, spectacular in their own way. Nevertheless, if it’s more of a mystical, other-worldly experience you’re after, one stands out above all the rest.
The Yonghe Temple, otherwise known as the Lama Temple (a lama is a Tibetan Buddhist monk and the temple is a working lamasery), is over three-hundred years old and lies, swathed in bright Tibetan prayer flags, billowing incense and sweeping eaves, in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, beside the Yonghegong subway station. One of the world’s most important Buddhist monasteries and holder of that much coveted accolade, Lonely Planet’s ‘Top Temple in China’, the Lama Temple was fortunate enough to have survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed and is now lovingly cared for by the resident monks, visited each year by thousands of awestruck tourists. Amongst its many highlights is the 26m-high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, impressively carved from one enormous piece of sandalwood (complete with somewhat incongruous Guinness Book of Records plaque) – though it’s the sense of incredible peace which settles over you as you emerge back onto the street, dizzy from smoke and colour, that really gives this temple the edge.
5. An early morning trip to Mao’s Mausoleum
I’ll admit, this one can’t claim to be off the beaten track. Nevertheless, a trip to Mao’s mausoleum can easily be a unique and bizarre highlight which so often slips below the radar of foreign visitors, overshadowed by the inevitable parade of temples and tours.
But the intriguing sight of China’s revered Chairman Mao, yearly re-embalmed (like Lenin and Ho Chi Minh), glowing waxy-orange through the walls of his crystal coffin, is only half the appeal. If it’s an understanding of the Chinese psyche that you’re after, you’d be hard pressed to find a more illuminating portrait than the thousands of eager pilgrims snaking across Tiananmen Square in their Sunday best, pouring into the atrium of the mausoleum to lay hundreds of white chrysanthemums and kow-tow to a huge marble statue of the man responsible for the Cultural Revolution.
As an added bonus, the rumours of eight-hour queues are rarely true – you’re likely to wait for half an hour at most, as the line is always kept moving – and, of course, admission is free.
About the Author: Gemma Knight
I started travelling when I was seventeen – following in my mother’s footsteps, navigating the fjords and frikadeller of Scandinavia. I was lucky enough to have been well-travelled from an early age (again, thanks to my mother’s adventurous and nomadic tendencies), but was utterly intoxicated by my first experience of independent travelling – being lost in Norwegian backwaters at 2am, singing Dolly Parton on an overnight train with Swedish fishermen, accidentally meeting the Queen of Denmark – what more could you ask?
I’ve spent the six years since determinedly working my way round the globe, exploring Europe, South America and Asia, studying in California and, currently, teaching in Eastern China. Next I’m hoping to tackle Tibet, Nepal and India on a trip that, I’m told, will push me to my limits but be one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ll ever have. Luckily, like any traveller worth their salt, I love a challenge.