35. Beijing, China

I’m gonna start this post off with an apology, because–not kidding–most of my travel notes from China look like this:


I’m not apologizing for going around China saying this to people, nor am I apologizing for thinking this kind of thing is hilarious. But I am apologizing that I didn’t take better notes on, you know, the more cultural aspects of my experience.

Anyway, the trip. After arriving at our hotel, waiting for everyone else to arrive, and eating dinner there, Jake and I cabbed over to Houhai with his brother and sister-in-law. It’s an area with hopping nightlife–bars, shops and bright lights surrounded a lake, and all of them seemed packed–especially for a Sunday night. Many of them had Chinese bands covering a hilarious selection of Western music, and some of them were actually really, really good. We chose one with outdoor seating and a rather large selection of blue cocktails, and after paying for one drink at the bar, we were able to buy multiple rounds from a stand selling beers for 8 yuan (about $1.26) apiece and bring them back to our table. Overall, it was pretty great, aside from the non-Western toilets (which I refused to use sober for the entire duration of our trip–girl’s gotta have her limits).


The first full day we spent in Beijing, I learned the meaning of a “bad air” day. Basically, it was foggy and smelled like burning rubber. But even then, I didn’t feel burning in my lungs or any of the other side effects people report after spending a long time outside–not sure if that’s lucky or unlucky…

That day, we walked from our hotel on Wangfujing Street to the Forbidden City, bypassing a lot of the shopping and novelties that I never ended up going back to check out (I’m pretty sure you can eat fried scorpion there, but most days I ended up dropping $25 on the hotel breakfast buffet out of hungover desperation. Miso soup, stir fried noodles and hash brown rounds all at once were just too good to pass up).

We were told to get to the Forbidden City early in the morning since as of recently, they only sell a certain number of tickets per day. By the time we got there at around 8:45, the place was swarming, but we didn’t have any trouble getting in. Note: Bring your passport. You’ll need it to buy a ticket.

We did our own walk-through without a guide, and I’m not sure that was the best way to approach it. After marveling at the first giant courtyard you enter, you walk through to…several other courtyards that look just like it. And while the architecture is impressive, it’s pretty consistent throughout, so unless you stop to read every sign, they kind of seem to blend together. There’s tons of history there that we completely missed; I tried to recall scenes from The Last Emperor and draw associations with different parts of the complex, but that only got me so far.



My favorite part by far was the Imperial Garden, which was absolutely gorgeous–but again, overrun with people. It seems like it would have been such a peaceful place to be on your own, though I’m not sure how realistic that would be given the crowds we encountered.




By some divine intervention, we ended up at the exit directly across the street from Jingshan Park, which had come recommended. After paying admission (seriously, you need to for everything), we climbed up the stairs to the pavilion at the top, which offered great, if hazy, views of the Forbidden City.


That night, we walked across the street from our hotel to an ultra modern restaurant called Da Dong to get the rest of the clan some Peking Duck. Everyone seemed to love it, and it was interesting to watch all the ceremony associated with carving and presenting it (though let’s be honest, I can’t watch that stuff TOO closely). For my part, I quickly learned that very little in China is actually vegetarian. Almost every one of the vegetable dishes I picked out was prepared with some kind of animal fat, which I only learned because I was traveling with a fluent Mandarin speaker. I ended up with some weird cold mashed potato things that looked like this:


The next day was easily my favorite. We started by taking the Beijing Subway (super easy, fast and clean–a really impressive urban rail network that totally puts DC to shame) over to Beihai Park, which got its start as an imperial garden. We rented a motorboat that looked like a lotus flower and zoomed around exploring it, which was a really fun way to spend an hour (I’m told you can bring food and beer on if you so choose, too).




From there, I somehow managed to navigate us to Nanluoguxiang hutong, despite having no idea what I was looking for. My cousin had described hutongs as follows:

“Hutongs are little alleyways in the central part of the city that represent the traditional Beijing style of living, with ‘courtyard houses and amazing traditional architecture.” Though some of the hutongs might seem old and dusty and run down, you are guaranteed to find little gems as you walk around. This part of Beijing is dying out quickly, since much of the city’s hutong area was demolished to make room for modern buildings in recent years, especially during preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Often, Beijing’s most interesting little restaurants and shops can be found in these areas, and you’ll also stumble upon hipster expat joints every so often.”

So when we got here, we thought it was it:


The map indicated that Nanluoguxiang was just a little bit further along, though, which I confirmed by holding it up in people’s faces and following in the direction they pointed. And when we got there, we knew it was it. It was bustling, with tons of shops and restaurants packed in–some Chinese, some expat.


We picked one of said expat restaurants for lunch in Passby Cafe, which had a travelers’ theme and an upstairs patio, from which you could look out onto the hutong. The menu, decor and beer selection (!!) were all pretty worldly, and the former and latter were pretty extensive. And for Asia, the pizza was EXCELLENT (just the fact that they describe it here as “pizzas with cheese” should tell you something).



We kept the expat ball rolling with a visit to Great Leap Brewing, an expat-run craft brewery with a nice little courtyard. The beers were solid (I tried the Cinnamon Rock Ale and Liu the Brave Stout), and it definitely seemed like a place I’d hang out if I lived in Beijing. They use 100% Chinese ingredients, too.


In the evening, we went to a Chinese acrobatics show at one of the two main venues for such shows, and while it was impressive, I’d skip it–you can see the same thing in the U.S. Which I have. At Navy Pier, no less, which is Chicago’s ultimate tourist trap. Enough said.

And at night, we took a pedicab (I just really wanted to try it once) over to Sanlitun, another area known for its nightlife. It took us about a full hour to actually find the main drag from where the pedicab driver dropped us off–signs that said “Sanlitun” seemed to point in all different directions–but finally we made it to the mall and Apple store that Jake’s brother identified as a landmark. And after walking through the mall’s courtyard, bright lights and loud music indicated we’d found it. We ended up in some divey place that sold Heineken in those tall funnel things you can use to dispense it yourself, and that did us well until sunrise. At the end of the night, I definitely told multiple waitstaff that I was a good wizard.

Sanlitun. Blurry, like my night.
Sanlitun. Blurry, like my evening.

Needless to say, the next day was a bit rough–and it was action-packed. We hired a driver for the day who took us first to Lama Temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple where I basically sat in a corner and tried not to barf. By our next stop, though–the Temple of Heaven–I had mostly recovered, which I was thankful for. The temple and grounds were beautiful, but this was another place I wish we’d had a guide–we explored and walked around a bit, but I don’t feel like I took away nearly as much as I could have.

templeofheaven templeofheaven2 templeofheaven3

The Summer Palace was easily my favorite, though (setting aside all the traffic we had to contend with on the way there). The architecture was absolutely stunning, and the grounds featured a gorgeous lake.

summerpalace summerpalace2

My favorite part was the intricately painted ceilings, which I was trying to take a nice photo of when my phone died, so this is all you get:


Anyway, it was definitely worth the trek we made to get there, though I wish we’d somehow done it at a time of day that didn’t feel like rush hour (if that exists).

We’d intended to go to KTV–karaoke–that night; I’m told it’s a big part of the entertainment and social scene, and that Chinese people are amazingly good at it (which I believe after hearing the Houhai cover bands). After Sanlitun, though, I couldn’t bear the though of another night of going out–and anyway, gotta save a few things for the next trip, right?

Friday morning before we left for Xi’an, I walked over to Mao’s tomb in Tianenmen Square. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been so dead-set on seeing the preserved body of a Communist leader, but considering I’d already seen the preserved bodies of Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, I felt I had to complete the trifecta. If you go, take note–lines can be long, and you can’t bring in your purse. Like, at all. If Jake hadn’t volunteered to step out of line and hold onto mine for me, the whole mission would have ended in abject failure. You’ve been warned.


To be clear, I’m not sure whether I really liked Bejing as a city–or how much more time I’d want to spend there. I’m definitely glad I went and saw the sights, but I think the sheer size and sprawl just sort of put me off a bit.

That said, I do wish I’d had either a couple more days or just one jam-packed day (my specialty) to zip around and see a bit more. I’d have liked to see Olympic Village and walk around the inside of the Bird’s Nest, for one, and my cousin also recommended the 798 Art District, as well as the expat-owned Red Gate Gallery near Jianguomen. Guluodajie is another hutong I wanted to see, too.

But those will have to wait. Below are some other recommendations I either didn’t or couldn’t use, in case you can:

– Happy Beer Place (Passed this in Sanlitun and desperately wanted to see what great secrets it held, but alas, the group was on a mission)
– Dali Courtyard (Yunnan food restaurant)
– Quanjude (Peking duck restaurant)
– Jiaozi (dumplings) and street food (in addition to the scorbion kabobs on Wangfujing, you can get others that are less touristy/more traditional if you keep your eye out for a character shaped like a kabob–串. I’m also told that jianbing–“kind of like a crepe with scallions and an egg inside”–is pretty solid)
– Slow Boat and JingA (craft breweries)
– Hongqiao (pearl market near the Temple of Heaven, which was described to me as “4-5 floors of crazy market, including a whole floor of just pearls.” Apparently, the stores on the top floor sell the nicest ones, while the others are farmed, and if you want to bargain, start by going to 1/4 of the price. Just the messenger here)
– Uyghur food ( 炒面片 chao mian pian, noodles in tomato sauce;  炒羊肉 chao yang rou, lamb meat; and 馕 nang, similar to Indian naan bread, are dishes that came recommended to me)

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