By China specialist Chris
Ancient history, iconic scenery and sensational dishes. Welcome to China’s enigmatic capital, boasting 21 million people, three millennia of fascinating architecture and a certain wall. China specialist Chris gives some suggestions on how you could spend 48 hours in Beijing.
An early breakfast in the tranquil courtyard surroundings of your hotel, Red Wall Garden, perfectly sets up a busy day in Beijing. You’ll not be alone – the locals rise early and there’s no better place to enjoy the most traditionally Chinese of morning activities, t'ai chi, whether taking part or just watching, in the grounds of the magical Temple of Heaven.
Your first day in Beijing is always going to be a history lesson, and the ideal next stop is the magnificent Forbidden City, the focal point of the capital. The crowds will tell you that this jewel of a palace is a place of pilgrimage for all Chinese people and it’s a fascinating site in which to wander.
Crossing the ten-lane thoroughfare of Chang’an Avenue, often referred to as the Shili Changjie (the ‘Long Street of Ten Li’) is an achievement in itself given the security procedures you must pass through on the way. Sitting on the other side, Tiananmen Square provokes thoughts of more recent and tragic history. Flanked by the austere Soviet-inspired architecture of government to the east and west, Mao’s Mausoleum to the south and his enormous portrait to the north, it’s a stark contrast to the imperial grandeur that you’ve taken in so far today.
A visit to the Houhai Lake and Shichahai Hutongs gives you a glimpse of one of the city’s traditional residential districts. Its network of lanes and alleys bustle with visitors and with any number of restaurants perfect for a light, or heavy, lunch: the famed Mr Shi’s Dumplings is one that sits in the top five of most Beijing restaurant reviews and is my preferred choice.
Relax the pace a little this afternoon with a lingering visit to the Summer Palace. Out in the western suburbs of the city, this beautiful park was a summer retreat of Emperors and it’s not hard to see why. Kunming Lake is surrounded by hills and greenery, pagodas and verandas. Today it serves much the same purpose, as a welcome retreat from a fierce Chinese summer, though for visitors now rather than rulers. Three hours here is time very well spent breathing in the views and people-watching while taking the weight off your feet.
For the ultimate Peking duck experience in a bustling and lively restaurant, Dadong has to be the first choice. Parties of families and colleagues sit around big round tables and are served by efficient, no-nonsense staff who bring dish after dish out in rapid succession. This is definitely one of those ‘only in China’ experiences.
If the day has not yet defeated you then head back to your hotel via Wangfujing night market which, although geared very much towards local and foreign visitors, is great fun. Some stalls aren't for the faint-hearted, serving ‘delicacies’ such as deep-fried tarantula and scorpion, just to name a few.
An early breakfast gives you the opportunity to look around the Dongsi Hutongs of the Red Wall Garden Hotel’s immediate vicinity. Take a left out of the gates where you’ll pass by locals downing bowls of breakfast noodles on stools outside their courtyards, chatting away with their neighbours as they prepare for the day.
Saving arguably the most iconic of all China’s sights for last, today is dedicated to the Great Wall. The statistics of length, age and numbers required to build it over the centuries are beyond impressive. Many parts of the wall are open to visitors and some are easily reached from Beijing on a half day visit for those pushed for time.
Jinshanling is our first choice, since we first started visiting China and for good reason, principally to get away from the coach parties and throngs of visitors that other sections attract. Just a two-hour drive away, you’ll find yourself almost alone with magnificent views at a largely unreconstructed piece of one of the world’s great wonders. An experience you’d be hard pushed to find at any of the world’s other great travel icons.
For a last night of gourmet food head to Capital M, which serves Chinese dishes (with a European twist) on the rooftop with a superb view of Mao’s Mausoleum as a backdrop.