Getting Off the Beaten Path in Beijing, China
Getting advice from locals and expats before you travel is a great way to learn more about a city and make the most of your time there. We’re so excited to share this guest post from Sergi who lived and worked in Beijing for five years. In this article he shares his top tips on getting off the path in Beijing, China.
The majority of travelers who visit Beijing are blinded by the spectacularity and grandiosity of its historical monuments, such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven. Without knowing it, Beijing hides a vibrant city that is constantly changing, with a culture and lifestyle that you will fall in love with if you manage to get to know it.
In this article, I would like to highlight some of the places that tend to go unnoticed by tourists but that can give you a different point of view of China’s capital city.
1. Get to Know Old Beijing
In Beijing, urban pressure has destroyed many traditional neighborhoods with their narrow alleyways (hutong) and traditional courtyard-style residences (siheyuan).
Despite the government realizing the importance of maintaining historic neighborhoods over the past years, they have been remodeled to show a “prettier” version of old Beijing, destroying much of their charm. The clear examples of this are the hutongs located immediately around the Drum Tower (Gulou) and Lama Temple (Yonghegong), which are now tourist attractions or residential areas for the new city elite.
Nonetheless, within the city (I don’t know for how much longer), there still survive some areas where it appears the time has come to a stop and where you can still experience a bit of what life was like before the city opened up to the world.
One of my favorite areas to get lost in is to the southeast of Tiananmen Square. To get there, all you have to do is take the subway to Qianmen (Line 2) and head in the direction opposite to Tiananmen Square via a completely restored street with a tram for tourists. Then, you take the first street on your right (filled with people and souvenir shops) and follow the street until it ends. Then, you cross the street into the alleyway facing you (which is still quite touristy). Follow this street, passing by some hostels, such as the Leo Hostel, until you can no longer find a trace of tourist stores. This is where your adventure begins!
Address: The west end of Dazhalanxijie street (大栅栏西街)
2. Discover the Wild Great Wall
The majority of tourists who visit the Great Wall only visit the sections that have been restored, mainly Badalin and to a lesser extent Mutianyu. While these sections are impressive, sharing them with thousands of tourists leads to a somewhat disappointing experience.
Personally, I have visited multiple sections of the Great Wall of China and it keeps on impressing me every time that I go.
Some sections of the so-called Wild Great Wall (the part that hasn’t been restored) are spectacular, practically deserted and their routes are rather large. Because of this, they are ideal for excursions, even for two days camping on the wall.
Among all possible routes, one of the most recommendable ones is the 12 km that starts at the rarely visited section of Jinshanling and ends in Simatai, which is more popular, which makes it easy to find transportation back to Beijing.
If you decide to try out the Wild Great Wall, you should keep in mind that the trip isn’t exactly simple. Some of the climbs are practically vertical and rocks can come loose on your path. Because of this, it’s a good idea to hire a guide, considering that as you’re practically going to be alone, if you have an accident, finding help won’t be easy.
3. Admire the City From the Old Astronomical Observatory
The old astronomical observatory isn’t on the list of the most famous tourist attractions, but it does offer you something that you can’t find anywhere else.
The observatory is a small tower surrounded by a park where you will find a series of enormous astronomical observation instruments made of bronze, which mix Western technology (learned from the Jesuits, who arrived in the XVII century) and Chinese art.
Entrance only costs 10 Yuan and, in my opinion, it’s a perfect place to get away from the hordes of tourists that populate the city.
Address: 2, Dongbiaobei Hutong, Dongcheng District (北京市东城区, 东裱褙胡同2号) – Near the Jianguomen subway stop on Lines 1 and 2.
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4. Navigate Beijing’s Channels by Boat
While this is quite popular among Chinese tourists, many foreigners don’t know that you can get to the Summer Palace through the city’s ancient channels. You can take the boat near the Beijing Zoo (subway line 4). It stops at Zizhuyuan Park, a peaceful and very beautiful place, and at the end drops you on the doorstep of the Summer Palace.
Don’t expect a romantic trip with your partner, as these are normally large boats that only leave once they have filled up completely. Prepare to be pushed around to get on and to deal with noisy tourists taking pictures of every millimeter of the channel. Nonetheless, I still think that it’s an interesting way to get to the Summer Palace if you don’t have a very busy day filled with visits. My recommendation is that you first visit Zizhuyuan Park (close to the National Library subway stop) and then take the boat.
5. Enjoy University Nightlife
Beijing’s nightlife offers many possibilities, from the village of Sanlitun (popular among expats, passing through the hutongs surrounding the Drum Tower (Gulou), where the most alternative and bohemian vibe in the city is concentrated, and ending at Houhai Lake, filled with bars with live music and Chinese tourists paying astronomical amounts of money for their drinks.
Nonetheless, in the city’s northeast, far from tourist areas, is the Haidian district, where the majority of the city’s universities are concentrated. Keep in mind that Chinese universities have a lifestyle that is quite different from in the West, which means that you shouldn’t expect an agglomeration of clubs and bars like in the areas that I have previously mentioned. The Haidian District is enormous and has a multitude of interesting areas, of which I’m only going to mention two:
Wudakou: Around the Wudaokou subway stop (Line 13) is one of the only areas that has bars and clubs, and it is quite popular among both foreign and Chinese students due to its low prices.
Weigongcun: The night markets close to universities are one of the most popular pastimes among young Chinese people when they go out at night. Near the Weigongcun subway stop (Line 4) on a street called Minzudaxuexilu (民族大学西路), you will find one of my favorite night markets. There, you can sit down on one of the hundreds of improvised patios to eat any type of street food, especially barbecue skewers, and drink cheap beer until the early hours of the morning. If you’re interested, you can also buy clothing or thousands of other articles.
Keep in mind that these night markets are illegal, and even though it isn’t very common, the police can decide to visit the area and force them to take everything down.
6. Taste Craft Beer Made in Beijing
As expected, the craft beer craze has also arrived in China. Over the past years, the city of Beijing has been filled with numerous businesses where you can taste all types of craft beers. Below, I list some of the most popular ones:
Great Leap Brewing: This craft brewery opened its doors in 2010 and is considered the first of its type in the city. Among its beers, it is worth highlighting those that use typical Chinese ingredients, such as tieguanyin tea. It currently has three locations in the city.
- GLB #6: 6, Doujiao Hutong, Di’Anmenwai Avenue, Dongcheng District (北京市东城区, 地安门外大街豆角胡同6号)
- GLB #12: 12, Xinzhong Street (Room 101 Ziming Mansion), Dongcheng District (北京市东城区, 新中街乙12号紫铭大厦101室)
- GLB #45: 45-1, Xinyuan Street, Chaoyang District (北京市朝阳区,新源街45-1号)
Jing A: Opened in 2012 by two North Americans living in Beijing, Jin A combines local and international ingredients to create beers that fuse the best of American and Chinese beer making tradition. It is located in a restored antique courtyard and is an excellent place to enjoy a good beer outside during the city’s summer heat.
- Address: 4, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang district (北京市朝阳区,工体北路4号院)
Arrow Factory: With two excellent locations in Beijing, this brewery founded by two expats offers a good selection of German, English and American-style craft beer.
- Arrow Factory Brewing (Liangmahe): 1, Xindong Lu (Liangmahe Nanlu), Dongcheng District (北京市朝阳区, 新东路1号 (亮马河南路)
- Arrow Factory Taproom (Jianchang Hutong): 9, Jianchang Hutong, Dongcheng District (北京市东城区, 箭厂胡同9号)
7. Go Shopping with the Locals
The majority of guides suggest going shopping at places such as the Silk Market, Yashou or Wangfujing. The Silk Market and Yashou are mostly intended for foreign tourists and sell counterfeit goods of all types. Wangfujin is where you will find stores selling the most famous international brands (with astronomical prices).
If you’re looking to buy quality local-brand products, I recommend that you visit these other places:
- Xidan is the most popular part of Beijing for buying local-brand and international clothing. Normally it’s packed with people (especially on the weekends), and I don’t recommend it if you’re afraid of crowds. In Xidan, you will find giant shopping malls with multiple floors where you will find well-priced clothing. It’s located at the Xidan subway stop on lines 2 and 4.
- Zhonguancun is the electronics district, where you will find enormous buildings filled with all of the electronics that you can imagine. Make sure you bargain well for the price and check that everything works properly, as scams are common. It’s located on the Zhonguancun subway stop on line 4.
- Panjiayuan is an outdoor antiques market with hundreds of sales booths, and which is worth visiting even if you don’t want to buy anything. The main attraction of Panjiayuan is that it allows you to take a trip around China’s recent history through its everyday objects. If you’re not an expert on antiques, you should be careful with the products that are sold there, as they can be counterfeit. Panjiayuan (潘家园旧货市场) is located at 18, Huawei Li (Panjiayuan Road), Chaoyang District.
About the Author
Sergi worked in Beijing for five years and China changed his life. Upon returning home, he left his job as a researcher to dedicate his time to sharing what he learned in the Middle Kingdom. He is currently the editor of the website Sapore Di Cina, intended for people who would like to go to China to live or travel, and is the co-founder of EsChina Space, a Chinese language and cuisine academy in Barcelona.
Do you enjoy getting off the beaten path when you travel? Have you been to Beijing, China? Share any tips you have in the comments!
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