City breaks by the BBC: Beijing

Wang Xiqing

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In the latest of our travel series, Beijing producer Wang Xiqing suggests ice-skating on frozen lakes and a healthy portion of roast duck.

Where's the Beijing bureau and what's the view?

The bureau is located on the Yabao Road, famously but unofficially known as Beijing's Russian Town. There are big commercial malls and small shops bearing advertisements in Russian language along a narrow street.

The road is almost always jumbled by vehicles parked without any regard to basic traffic rules. Rickshaws and bicycles are often the most convenient ways to get around in this particular district. Caucasians are universally greeted by vendors in Russian, mistaken as traders from Siberia on a bargaining tour for cheap clothes.

What should I see in Beijing?

Forbidden City A view of the Forbidden City, one of the national treasures to survive the Cultural Revolution

For first-timers, the number one recommendation is undoubtedly the centre of the city and the most important landmark, the Tiananmen Square. Every year hundreds of thousands come here before dawn just to witness the flag raising ceremony. To its north is the Forbidden City, the only major palace that survived the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution. It was home to China's emperors, queens and concubines. Visitors can easily spend an entire day around the square, wandering in the nearby museums, temples and parks.

Great Wall of China "You are no hero if you don't climb the wall"

It should come with no surprise that the next recommendation is the Great Wall. Cliché has it that you are no hero if you don't climb the wall. Badaling section is the most famous but also the most crowded. For a better view away from tourists, Huanghuancheng and Mutianyu are better choices. Each is about an hour and a half away from the city centre.

Someone looking at some avant-garde in a museum

For something a bit more modern, 798 Art District near the Beijing International Airport lures hordes of Chinese and foreign admirers with its galleries, design studios and tailor shops. Popularity of this art community only rose about ten years ago. In the past, avant-garde art in Beijing was frowned upon by the government and only existed on the fringes of the city.

What should I do in Beijing?

Two people on a frozen lake In an age of globalisation it's surely a crime that these are not readily available everywhere

Go to Houhai lake and explore the winding Hutongs by renting a bike or rickshaw. In the winter, when the lake is frozen, join the locals ice-skating. It could be great fun even just to watch the Chinese sliding on the improvised ice-chairs and ice-bicycles. During summer, hire a boat and sail around the picturesque Houhai.

A man on the ice of a frozen lake As cold as an ice-cycle...

The nearby Nanluoguxiang hutong is a popular destination with many bars, souvenir stores, teapot shops and galleries. For more extensive antique buying and collecting, Panjiayuan is Beijing's biggest market for crafts and antiques, but be prepared for fierce price negotiation and beware of fakes. Liulichang is another district which also sells craftwork, but it is more famous for Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

For football fans, why not experience Beijingers' zealous support for their local club, the Beijing Guo'an, if there happens to be a football match in the Workers' Stadium. Atmosphere is guaranteed to be hot.

Where should I stay?

There are big international chains as well as chic courtyard hostels. There is nearly no ceiling for top luxury. Raffles Beijing, just next to the Tiananmen Square, has had nearly a century of service. Its guests have included heads of states and VIPs of all industries. The Aman, attached to the Summer Palace, is designed as a miniature Forbidden City. This is the capital's priciest hotel and offers absolute imperial luxury.

In the shadow of the Great Wall, in Mutianyu village, boutique retreat The Brickyard offers old-style brick houses with colourfully tiled rooftops. All rooms are at ground level with floor-to-ceiling windows. Do not stay there if you don't like to rise with the sun, as no curtain is draped.

Most visitors coming to the bureau stay at the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel next to the U-Town shopping mall. But for a good location for Beijing's best nightlife, Holiday Inn Express near Dongzhimen, or the slick Hotel G, are possibly the most tempting options.

What local delicacies should I eat or drink while I'm there?

Three roasted ducks

Beijing is famed for its roast duck, and Duck de Chine is the supreme roast duck restaurant of Beijing. Wrap slices of the finely roasted bird into a paper-thin pancake, with cucumbers and sauce, and simply enjoy the mouth-watering crunchiness and the rich flavours of the duck. Ironically, the founder of the restaurant is from Hong Kong and many of the best side-dishes are Cantonese style.

The irony continues as the next vote for gastronomic pleasure goes to the Taiwanese chain, Din Tai Fung. Its signature dish is juicy soup dumplings wrapped by hand and steamed in bamboo containers. The content inside can be pork, prawn, crab or mushrooms. Watch out for the splash of hot soup before taking a bite.

As for drinking, the most famous Chinese wine is Maotai. The liquor is distilled from fermented sorghum and can taste really strong depending on the alcohol content. One bottle of high-quality Maotai sells at a hefty price. When Chinese hosts serve their guests with genuine Maotai, they are showing uttermost respect to the visitors.

What would be the best night out?

A waitress pours a pint at a bar

The most obvious attraction is to catch a local performance. As the nation's cultural centre, Beijing is well-equipped with such venues.

The egg-shaped National Theatre is China's highest-level artistic hall. Its opera house is the most magnificent part of the building, often staging internationally renowned shows.

The nearby Laoshe Teahouse gives a taste of old Beijingers' favourite pastime - watching traditional plays including Peking Opera, acrobatics, kung fu or cross-talk, while sipping tea and chewing snacks.

But the symbol of Beijing's ultimate nightlife is Sanlitun. This is a fashion centre for shopping and food, and also the city's first street of bars. The most popular include the Q bar and the Tree bar. They serve arguably the finest and most innovative cocktails and the best pizza in town.

What's the best local secret?

Depending on the perspective, everything could be a secret. This is, after all, the political centre of the Chinese Communist Party. Is Zhangnanhai imperial garden really the headquarters for China's top leaders? Is Chairman Mao Zedong's body really resting in the crystal coffin in the mausoleum? For cynical minds, all this is mystery.

For pleasure-seeking travellers, the city expands and transforms on an astronomical scale. So rapid that every week and every month new entertaining venues emerge or relocate or disappear. The secret is ever-changing.

For the bureau at least, our recent secret is going to the rooftop of a Chinese restaurant, seated in a quiet public park a few minutes' walk away from the office. Under the shades of green trees, it is golden quality time to enjoy a cold drink and some delicious noodles, while cooling the mind and the body from work and the scorching sun. The only problem - we don't do it often enough.

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