TRAVEL

Bei­jing is a vast, in­tim­i­dat­ing mega­lopo­lis, but reg­u­lar vis­i­tor Ellen Himel­farb can get you in­side the city, up close and per­sonal

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

China’s cap­i­tal city Bei­jing can be quite over­whelm­ing. Here’s a sur­vivor’s guide.

Right out of the air­port the high-rises start fly­ing past, a thou­sand Jenga tow­ers of hang­ing laun­dry, hoist­ing the hori­zon up 30 storeys. As you splut­ter off the high­way into morn­ing traf­fic, lanes mul­ti­ply, tail-lights pierce the in­fa­mous ‘fog’, and you’re part of a giant pix­e­lated red dragon inch­ing to­wards the cen­tre. The iden­tikit tow­ers yield to glossy sky­scrapers, one like an egg, an­other a fun­nel. Then the driver fires a com­mand, ush­er­ing you out. You’re on your own.

As a bucket-list trip, Bei­jing lacks the wel­come of, say, Venice. Bei­jingers don’t smile, nor move out of the way of your suit­case. But take it on the chin – it means you’re be­ing treated like any­one else. And the key to Bei­jing is to go for it. If a door’s open, creep in. If it’s on the menu, point. You’ll find this fore­bod­ing mega­lopo­lis sur­pris­ingly in­clu­sive. Give Bei­jing a few days. You can see the ves­tiges of im­pe­rial China, dine like an old hand and ex­plore the hip back­streets.

THE IM­PE­RIAL

The city’s ancient im­pe­rial heart, built by the de­cree of Ming em­per­ors six cen­turies ago, will test your feet – but you can get to grips with it in a day. First, a taxi – cheap (Dh16 max), ubiq­ui­tous – to to­day’s start­ing point, up north in Gu­lou, within the evoca­tively named 2nd Ring Road. Flag one by stick­ing out your arm, and flut­ter your hand as if you’re shoo­ing it away.

The Drum and Bell Tow­ers (guloutsx.com) are twin 15th-cen­tury bas­tions with as­cend­ing pat­terns of pagoda roof a few storeys apiece. Their role in dy­nas­tic Bei­jing was plain. Be­fore clocks, mu­si­cians sounded beats and bells through­out the day, breaking time into two-hour por­tions. Stand in the sur­round­ing pi­az­zas, edged by trees and res­i­den­tial streets, and you’re in the age of silk hanfu robes and Fu Manchu mous­taches.

Upon a thigh-test­ing climb, the Bell Tower re­veals its 7m cloche. But the real spec­ta­cle? Views over the clay rooftops

of old Bei­jing, to the tow­ers of the new. Out west are the bulb and nee­dle of the Ra­dio & TV Tower. East, the three moun­tain­ous humps of the sur­real Wangjing SOHO com­plex by the late Zaha Ha­did. The sprawl is end­less. And the Drum Tower? Just be sure to be here for the top of the hour, when cer­e­mo­nial drum­mers at­tack the drums – the ur­gency is like a call to war.

Thus be­gins your pil­grim­age south. The tow­ers exit into Di’an­men Outer Street, lead­ing to a bridge built dur­ing the reign of Kublai Khan, the war-mon­ger­ing Mon­gol em­peror who ruled China in the 13th cen­tury. Con­tinue on to er­satz tem­ples hous­ing depart­ment stores and ban­quet halls. The road splits to em­brace im­pe­rial Jing­shan Park, a scenic high ground built of soil ex­ca­vated while dig­ging the For­bid­den City moat. It has leafy sycamores, a sound­track of bird­song, and a swirl of se­cluded paths, lead­ing you to the top of Prospect Hill. Here grey­ing men dip giant brushes in wa­ter, and paint char­ac­ters on the pave­ment that dis­ap­pear in the breeze. Take in this, the Bei­jing view, over the For­bid­den City, your next stop.

Six cen­turies ago the Ming em­per­ors hired a mil­lion labour­ers to build their heroic HQ. The For­bid­den City has more se­cu­rity checks than an air­port. You emerge from the cav­ernous gates into a fore­court so colos­sal tour groups merely speckle the brick­work. The largest palaces line up for a kilo­me­tre, lac­quered red, gar­goyles peer­ing down, gilt lions stand­ing sen­try. Queues form to climb the mar­ble steps to peek in at dragon re­liefs coiled around chan­de­liers. Fan­ning out­ward are nearly 1,000 lesser vil­las, roofs up­turned at the cor­ners, like smiles. The head­set guides you around the his­toric av­enues to each one, telling tales of burned-down throne rooms; harems of kid­napped women with feet bound to pre­vent es­cape; ban­quets of mon­key brain and camel hump, tested by un­der­lings for po­ten­tial poi­son; eu­nuchs smug­gling out jew­els dur­ing the Ja­panese in­va­sion of 1933.

A stream me­an­ders within the walls, reach­ing the deep­est fringes. Fol­low it to the Palace of Benev­o­lent Tran­quil­lity, where many an em­peror spent his wed­ding night, then con­tinue deeper. The red con­cu­bine vil­las around the west­ern flank were fre­netic with women in im­pe­rial time. To­day, they’re the least-vis­ited houses – by af­ter­noon most

Six cen­turies ago the Ming em­per­ors hired a MIL­LION labour­ers to build the FOR­BID­DEN CITY. The palaces line up for a kilo­me­tre, lac­quered red, gar­goyles peer­ing down, GILT LIONS stand­ing sen­try

tourists will have drifted to­ward the ex­its, leav­ing you alone, with ghosts of the past.

The ed­i­ble Bei­jing’s nights are al­most brighter than its days, thanks to the glare of neon. It sig­nals the shift from work to play – along with clouds of steam from a mil­lion pots.

In ev­ery other win­dow, roasted ducks hang like Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions. Served to no­bil­ity since the 1200s, Pek­ing duck re­mains a Bei­jing sta­ple. Yet at the fine-din­ing halls, the cer­e­mony can be cringe-wor­thy: din­ner be­gins with a struck gong at Duck de Chine (elite-con­cepts.com/ddc), in San­l­i­tun, a quar­ter of lux­ury-brand flag­ships. Slightly more folksy is Da Dong (dadong­dadong. com), west to­wards the cen­tre, where the bird is carved del­i­cately, but with­out cer­e­mony.

BE­YOND DUCK

New to Bei­jing, Un­tour (un­tour­food­tours. com) sum­mons you to the fringes of Gu­lou for a three-hour din­ner ex­trav­a­ganza with all the un­recog­nis­able meats and condi­ments you can han­dle.

It be­gins in Ghost Street, named for the spec­tre of lanterns said to have lit the old night-mar­ket in the last cen­turies of dy­nas­tic Bei­jing. On balmy nights, se­niors in sin­glets sit out­side Qing-era fa­cades siz­zling with neon, as fry­ing lamb and steam­ing jian­bing (chilli-rubbed crêpes) wait to be de­voured.

Ac­cord­ing to Un­tour, chefs them­selves eat in the close lanes of cor­ru­gated-roof cot­tages called hu­tongs. Shoe­box res­tau­rants around Beix­in­qiao Sta­tion host rau­cous din­ers. At flu­oro-lit Lao Liu Hot­pot (73 Beix­in­qiao), tureens of bub­bling broth ar­rive, with pa­per-thin lamb, root veg and tofu to pop in. Bei­jingers claim hot­pot as their own – it was here that Mon­go­lian in­vaders de­vel­oped the dish as they be­sieged the city walls. But Beix­in­qiao be­longs to a United Na­tions of Chi­nese.

At a cor­ner bar­be­cue with a hairdryer to fan the flames, Uighurs from the Xin­jiang province serve Ha­lal mut­ton skew­ers dusted with cumin at plas­tic gar­den ta­bles – the au­then­tic­ity is in the chunks of fat in­ter­spersed with the meat.

On the next block, Fifth Brother (5 Nan­ban­qiao Hu­tong) is vir­tu­ally un-Googleable, yet it’s busier than McDon­ald’s as fans (here with their ex­tended fam­i­lies) de­vour chicken wings rolled in Sichuan pep­per­corns.

Ev­ery neigh­bour­hood here has a place for no-frills, no-non­sense, no-way-you-could for­get-it meals. Lunch is the per­fect time to seek one out. Flut­ter your hand for a taxi, or dip into the war­rens of the Metro (tinyurl.com/hej5l87) to get closer.

Mean­while, Chaoyang Park, on the east­ern edge of the city, is an al­most primeval land­scape of lakes and pago­das. And amid a com­plex of moun­tain-shaped tow­ers is the best dumpling house for miles.

At meal­times, masses mi­grate to Baoyuan (6 Maizid­ian Jie), for plat­ters of steamed dumplings loosely pinched around crunchy kung pao (spicy) chicken, sweet yams and salt-and-pep­per shrimp. Heads down, they sit in si­lence, dip­ping the dumplings in sweet vine­gar and slurp­ing them whole.

Be­hind ev­ery mon­u­ment is a clus­ter of smaller hu­tongs, and you don’t have to aban­don the com­fort zone of your guide­book to find them. Tourists swarm to Houhai, west of Gu­lou, for­merly the em­peror’s plea­sure gar­dens – but a few min­utes’ am­ble west is Luo’er Hu­tong, a street mar­ket where ven­dors squat over blan­kets heaped with spring onions.

The mar­ket leads to Hugu­osi, a lane where curly-eaved shops as dec­o­ra­tive as pago­das each sell a ver­sion of Bei­jing’s clas­sic ‘snacks’ (just try leav­ing un-full). Huguo Tem­ple Snack Bar (68 Hugu­osi Street) is the most over­wrought, with a bak­ery counter stocked to the ceil­ing and queues three deep.

Dis­tin­guish the glossy, sug­ared desserts from the stuffed savouries, train your eye on a cashier and point at what you want, hand­ing the equiv­a­lent of Dh5 (more than enough). Then, in the mess hall up­stairs, de­vour your sweet-bean dough­nuts, flaky mac­a­roons and se­same buns stuffed with

Hugu­osi is a LANE where curly eaved shops as dec­o­ra­tive as pago­das each sell a ver­sion of Bei­jing’s clas­sic ‘snacks’. Huguo Tem­ple Snack Bar has a bak­ery counter STOCKED to the ceil­ing and queues three deep

co­rian­der and beef shav­ings: amaz­ingly ten­der for a cul­ture whose pop­u­lar pastime re­ally is chew­ing the fat.

THE HIP

If the big boule­vards are the ar­ter­ies of Bei­jing, the hu­tongs are the veins, reach­ing deep to ac­cess its most pri­vate mo­ments. Of the 3,000 or so re­main­ing, some are un­paved and un­plumbed – and many are in dan­ger of de­vel­op­ment, which makes them liv­ing arte­facts. Zero­ing in on the coolest cor­ners is a daunt­ing prospect; elim­i­nate the guess­work and start back in Gu­lou, where multi­gen­er­a­tional house­holds mix with hip­sters.

At break­fast time in Gu­lou’s Che­nian­dian Hu­tong, grand­mas shuf­fle in slip­pers to open-air kitchens for scal­lion omelettes and youtiao – twisted lengths of deep-fried

dough. Ped­dlers make their first rounds un­der lo­cust-tree canopies. Young pro­fes­sion­als grab java to go. Quiet de­scends as you pass the colour­ful carved arch ap­proach­ing the Tem­ple of Con­fu­cius (15 Guoz­i­jian Street), a vast sprawl of lac­querred halls and court­yards serene with schol­arly con­tem­pla­tion. You hear the echo of your foot­steps as you trace 700 years of his­tory around ancient stand­ing stones.

Savour it – cir­cling back to the cen­tre of Gu­lou, things hot up. Along Wu­daoy­ing Hu­tong, low, in­ti­mate homes func­tion as hand­bag bou­tiques and mas­sage spas. Zig-zag through the Gu­lou hu­tongs, past the Drum and Bell Tow­ers to Houhai. Its ser­pen­tine lake has a clas­sic oil-paint­ing al­lure in the morn­ing, all doz­ing an­glers and fam­i­lies pedal-boat­ing un­der wil­lows. (By lunch, the restau­rant ter­races at the edge will have filled up, spoil­ing the mood. By din­ner, they’ll thump with Euro-pop and blink neon calls to party.)

Still west­wards, Shicha­hai has a win­dowwash­ing, fence-paint­ing week­end vibe. The taller, wider vil­las are ves­tiges from a time when the canals con­verged here and mer­chants flour­ished. Op­po­site a mar­ket of wood-caged birds, se­cre­tive Houhai Park is the pen­sion­ers’ de facto liv­ing room. One man dances a disco-cal­is­then­ics hy­brid around a ra­dio emit­ting tinny, atonal tunes. Oth­ers hover over stone checker­board ta­bles.

Stick out your flut­ter­ing hand, taxi down to Dashilan, a lad­der of hu­tongs be­low Tianan­men Square, and pull over at Li­ulichang, an old mar­ket street colonised by ar­ti­sans when the em­per­ors col­lected their now-price­less art. Dec­o­ra­tive store­fronts are fad­ing and the mer­chan­dise on fold­ing ta­bles, is more ming­ing than Ming. But root around and you might net a cloi­sonné bracelet, a bronze teapot or a string of glass beads.

Where Li­ulichang ends, there’s a stripped­down moder­nity to the build­ings: big­ger win­dows, more to look at. A sliver-thin art studio, a book­shop prop­ping up de­sign tomes in the win­dow. This is where Bei­jing’s young, cre­ative can-dos ply their craft. In the buzzi­est streets, Dashilan West and Yang­meizhu, there’s a sub­cul­ture of gal­leries show­ing delicate ce­ram­ics; fash­ion bou­tiques with chic wood pan­elling; en­tic­ing sta­tionery – and fewer cus­tomers, too.

The up­side is that shops and cafés are calm, their as­sis­tants thrilled to see you. At Meet­ing Some­one (99 Yang­meizhu), tea is served be­neath an in­stal­la­tion of pa­per chits float­ing in the wind. There are eight servers where one would do, flash­ing teeth, lin­ger­ing to chat – all prac­tis­ing a new brand of Bei­jing warmth. You’ve found it. Now bask in it.

64

See the For­bid­den City from nearby Jiang­shan park (above), and don’t miss the street food – or Bei­jing’s most fa­mous dish, Pek­ing duck, served to no­bil­ity since the 1200as

67 Pause for a mo­ment to en­joy the architecture in Jiang­shan park (above) or Drum Tower (be­low)

Houhai Park was once the em­peror’s plea­sure gar­den. Be­low: Night mar­kets crowd nar­row hu­tong al­ley­ways

68 The ancient Drum and Bell (pic­tured) tow­ers are at the north­ern end of the cen­tral axis of the Bei­jing In­ner City

Do what grand­mas do in the morn­ing and head to a sleepy hu­tong for youtiao (fried dough) or scal­lion pan­cakes and other treats

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