Lo­cal’s Guide: Bei­jing

Aus­tralian creative and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Time Out Bei­jing Frank Sweet un­cov­ers the se­crets of this enig­matic mega­lopo­lis.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - OCTOBER - Pho­tog­ra­phy LEIGH GRIF­FITHS

Aussie creative Frank Sweet shares an in­sider’s view of China’s dy­namic cap­i­tal.

PROUDLY MOD­ERN YET steered by a very deep re­spect for its past, ‘The Jing’ to me is an end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing su­per-city lo­cated in the dead cen­tre of an emerg­ing world or­der. It is huge, its speed of life break­neck and, to un­trained eyes (and un­tuned ears), the prospect of nav­i­gat­ing its 16,000 square kilo­me­tres and 23 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants is daunt­ing; when you’re not at peak vi­tal­ity in the belly of a su­per­power, you only wither.

But if you like your ad­ven­tures bold and you are will­ing to scrap for them, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more com­pelling des­ti­na­tion.

Just like the pol­lu­tion, op­por­tu­nity also hangs thick in the air through­out Bei­jing, at­tract­ing a vi­va­cious set from around the na­tion and across the globe who feed off the cap­i­tal city’s en­ergy — a by-prod­uct of China’s eco­nomic growth spurt. Bei­jingers can be as much a rea­son to visit as the Wall, the Square and the duck; and lend it a de­light­fully un­hinged qual­ity that you just don’t get with the more so­phis­ti­cated cities of the south. I was lucky enough to be one for a few years, and this is what’s good here.

Let’s start in the Gu­lou area. De­spite a jar­ring spate of clo­sures through­out the youth­ful area over the past decade or so, the star of Dongcheng District makes for a hot­bed of young creatives and their con­sump­tion habits, and fea­tures a bril­liantly gritty col­lec­tion of pokey cock­tail bars, res­tau­rants and gal­leries.

Per­haps the pok­i­est of all, Sichuanese restau­rant Zhang Mama is as good as it gets for home­style chuan cai (Sichuanese cui­sine) in Bei­jing, not to men­tion one of the cheap­est feeds in the district. Even af­ter an­nex­ing its next-door neigh­bour and dou­bling in ca­pac­ity, wait times at this hu­tong (al­ley­way) in­sti­tu­tion re­main glacial; its 30-odd seats are some of Bei­jing’s most cov­eted — es­pe­cially dur­ing sum­mer — but com­pletely worth wait­ing for­ever for. The hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork belly) here is all kinds of umami-unc­tu­ous while the mala ou­pian (mouth-numb­ing lo­tus root) is a torch­ing re­minder of what the Sichuan pep­per­corn is ca­pa­ble of. Zhang Mama’s menu ap­pears in Chi­nese only, with pa­trons re­quired to scrib­ble down their or­ders in char­ac­ters. Bei­jingers are friendly and will no doubt pro­vide a help­ing hand if they catch you floun­der­ing.

In the same district and hail­ing from a sim­i­lar part of the coun­try (and school of cook­ing), Pang­mei Mianzhuang (‘Fat Sis­ter’s Noo­dle House’) spe­cialises in Chongqing noo­dles; again ru­inously spicy and oily, again out­ra­geously flavour­ful. An­other hu­tong hit, a meal from Pang­mei Mianzhuang is faster than at Zhang Mama, and this restau­rant is a tickle more ca­pa­cious, mean­ing wait times here are usu­ally sub-10 min­utes. The wan­za­mian (noo­dles with mince and split cow­peas) and the xi­ao­mian (‘lit­tle’ noo­dles), both are es­sen­tial — go with a friend and share or go solo twice. Pair that feast with a glass of suan­mei­tang (sour plum juice) or a tin­nie from a nearby shop (you can do that in Bei­jing), and get to slurp­ing away.

Hid­den away not far from Fat Sis­ter’s Noo­dle House, and in a tra­di­tional hu­tong court­yard, you’ll find Florid­ian trans­plant David Put­ney’s world-first spe­cial­ity bai­jiu bar Cap­i­tal Spir­its Bai­jiu Bar and Dis­tillery. It knocks out some of the city’s more clev­erly as­sem­bled li­ba­tions, putting the di­vi­sive sorghum

spirit at the cen­tre of a grungy cock­tail pro­gram. He also has some cool snake-in-a-jar liquor. Over on Gu­lou Dong Da­jie, is Tem­ple Bar: spir­i­tual home to Bei­jing’s thriv­ing punk and metal scenes. Booked by a Chicagoan provo­ca­teur who calls him­self Chair­man WOW, shows here are con­sis­tently wild and in­vari­ably free. Down­stairs is Dada, far and away the cap­i­tal’s best al­ter­na­tive club. You might be feel­ing wob­blier now, so bed­time in this neck of the woods is a no-brainer. Bou­tique court­yard ho­tel The Or­chid is un­beat­able for charm (while fea­tur­ing one mean East-Mediter­ranean brunch at in-house restau­rant Toast) and is one of my favourite ho­tels in China, as well as be­ing a launch­ing spot for his­tory-laden sites such as the Bell and Drum Tow­ers, the Lama Tem­ple, Con­fu­cius Tem­ple and Houhai Lake, the lat­ter of which heaves and glows with tourist trap­pings and lake­side karaoke: it’s un­de­ni­ably fun, in a gross way. For top-shelf at­mos­phere, though, book one of The Or­chid’s be­guil­ing satel­lite prop­er­ties; all a cou­ple of min­utes walk from re­cep­tion (and the afore­men­tioned brunch).

Just be­yond the line of the for­mer city walls, the San­l­i­tun area of­fers pre­cisely none of the his­tor­i­cal ap­peal that de­fines Greater Gu­lou, op­er­at­ing more as a nou­veau play­ground for the cap­i­tal city’s wealth­ier set: it is the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of China’s 21st-cen­tury fis­cal mir­a­cle. The high-fash­ion

shop­ping precinct is the yin to Gu­lou’s yang, home to Bei­jing’s bou­jee bars, clubs, res­tau­rants and ho­tels, and is de­cid­edly more ‘ in­ter­na­tional’ in feel. In the thick of it all, bou­tique ho­tel The Op­po­site House — de­signed by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Kengo Kuma — is a ter­rific launch­ing point from which to get luxe down­town. You won’t find bet­ter dim sum than at the prop­erty’s brood­ingly debonair Can­tonese restau­rant Jing Yaa Tang, a sunken for­mer night­club helmed by chef Li Dong, whose Pek­ing duck is ex­em­plary. For a post­duck drink, Yongli In­ter­na­tional Ser­vice Apart­ment’s Botany is the apart­ment bar to end all apart­ment bars; Frankie Zou’s cock­tail skills means a drink here can be the best of the night.

South of here, near the For­bid­den City (and you should see the For­bid­den City, but you can Google that — out­side China, that is) and a cer­tain pick­led Chair­man, lies the labyrinthine neigh­bour­hood of Dashilan, an­other war­ren-like net­work of hu­tongs, though with a markedly dif­fer­ent feel to those found in and around Gu­lou. There’s a good week’s worth of ex­plor­ing to be done here, but as an ini­tial point of call, do make a bee­line for the su­perb mu­seum Bei­jing Post­cards and ask af­ter Lars Ul­rik Thom, a su­per-chatty Dan­ish Bei­jing his­to­rian with about 20 years of ex­pe­ri­ence cat­a­logu­ing the past sto­ries of what is one of Bei­jing’s oldest and quirki­est neigh­bour­hoods. Ask him about the for­mer broth­els and the Ming dy­nasty phar­ma­cy­cum-cafe that used to make dog skin ‘Band-Aids’.

For those do­ing the For­bid­den City-Dashilan dou­ble in one run, you’re most likely go­ing to be weak and primed to spend big on wild ac­com­mo­da­tion. If that’s the case and you’re cool with it, haul your frag­ile pos­te­rior to the Rose­wood Bei­jing and en­robe your­self in sheer ex­trav­a­gance and a rare ech­e­lon of ser­vice (each suite comes with a ded­i­cated but­ler). Coun­try Kitchen is a Dong­bei cai (North­east­ern cui­sine) restau­rant with su­perb high­home­style cook­ing. Un­like most eater­ies you’ll find in Bei­jing, it should be booked in ad­vance, while down­stairs ex­ec­u­tive chef Jar­rod Ver­biak’s Bistrot B is truly the de­fin­i­tive French of­fer­ing in the cap­i­tal, and does an in­com­pa­ra­ble steak tartare. The Rose­wood Bei­jing can also take good care of your Great Wall of China plans, too — just stay away from the soul­less re­builds at Badal­ing and Mu­tianyu. I like the wilder sec­tions.

For prime weather, visit in April or late Septem­ber — these are what we re­fer to as the ‘mum months’ — the time when the city re­ceives the most vis­it­ing mums, and mums know best. Bei­jing is ut­terly be­guil­ing. Un­rav­el­ling its nu­mer­ous so­cial puz­zles will con­sume you, if you let it — and you should.

OPENER The Lama Tem­ple, a Ti­betan Bud­dhist tem­ple. 1. Cy­clists pedal past the CMG Head­quar­ters build­ing in Bei­jing’sCBD. 2. Down­town Gu­lou. 3. Chef carv­ing duck at Coun­try Kitchen. 4. Pic­turesque Houhai Park. 5. Se­lec­tion of Coun­try Kitchen dishes. 6. A tr­ishaw rides through Dashilan. 7. The Bei­jing city sky­line.

8. The lobby of The Op­po­site House, de­signed by ac­claimed Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Kengo Kuma. 9. Din­ers at pop­u­lar restau­rant Pang­mei Mianzhuang.10. In­te­rior of one of the el­e­gant suites at Rose­wood Bei­jing.

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