City Life: Business for pleasure
The construction's finished, the Olympics is over, and Beijing is still showing off its facelift to the world.
At its heart, the Forbidden City marks the historic nerve centre of imperial China, but the glossy skyscrapers, thriving street markets and buzzing bar and restaurant scene surrounding it cement Beijing's status as a thoroughly modern metropolis. One of the four ancient capitals of China, Beijing is a flat urban checkerboard with the Forbidden City standing proud in the centre. Until the 20th century came around, the five towering fortified gates and high walls marked the city borders, but since then shimmering skyscrapers of glass and steel have sprung up and the city has sprawled outwards. Traditional courtyard houses, siheyuan, occupy the heart of old Beijing, but among and around, striking modern architecture abounds. No longer content to remain Shanghai's dowdier, bookish sister, Beijing is now a city that balances the best of both worlds - historic architecture and ancient monuments mingle with a buzzing cosmopolitan cityscape.
Within most of central Beijing itself, a combination of taxis and metro rides should fulfil all your urban navigation needs. However, if you're keen for a trip out of the city, or to explore to the outlying sections of the Great Wall, hire a car from Beijing Limo (www.beijinglimo.com), which has an extensive fleet to should suit most size and budget requirements.
About 26km from the city centre, Beijing Capital International Airport has three terminals processing direct international flights from Air China, United, Continental and British Airways, Qantas, and plenty more. It's one of the world's largest (the third terminal alone is bigger than Heathrow), and is due to be supplemented by the city's second airport in the ensuing decade. Prearrange transfers if you can, as although there are a host of taxis available, they'll expect to see the name of your destination written in Chinese before they set off.
Country code for China: +86, for Beijing: 10. Don't bother with either if you're calling within the city.
Anchee Min's The Last Empress tells the tale of the notorious Dowager Cixi, recounting China's ongoing struggle against Westernism and modernisation from a first-person perspective. I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen is a collection of mildly absurdist satirical short stories from a Beijing-based author. Richly inventive and a touch macabre, Ma Jian's The Noodle Maker is a metafictional tale of a state-employed writer describing the novel he longs to write.
Do go / Don't Go
Unless you're planning to venture into the cooler mountainous regions around Beijing, summer is not the ideal time to visit, as temperatures frequently soar beyond 40ºc. Equally, winter can be harsh, particularly in January and early February. The autumn months from September to early November, are ideal.
Other than the eponymous Peking duck, historically, Beijing's northern Chinese cuisine has been mostly a spicy bend of choice delicacies swiped from other areas and tweaked to perfection for the imperial court. Unlike their rice-eating Southern counterparts, Beijing-ers wolf down noodles, steamed or fried buns and crisp, filled savoury pancakes. Mongolian hotpot, featuring thin slivers of fatty mutton plunged quickly into a simmering table-top tureen of hot broth, is particularly popular, usually in winter. Other local favourites include zhajiang mian, a garlicky meat sauce served over noodles garnished with shredded vegetables, usually cucumber, and Jiucai bing, a freshly made flatbread stuffed with garlic chives and egg. From Tianjin, Jianbing, a crispy spring-onion and egg pancake, is another favoured street snack. For a quick 'gastroduction' to the sheer variety of Chinese street food, head to Wangfujing Snack Street, where you'll find anything from tasty grilled kebabs to exotic skewered scorpions.
Cabs are a dime a dozen in traffic-heavy Beijing and, as long as you make sure the number plate starts with a B and that the meter's running, are a safe and easy way of getting around. Smith tip: get your hotel to write any destination addresses in Chinese, together with any phone numbers of the places you're visiting, so the driver can zip you straight there.
Tipping is not customary in China, but in Beijing, as with any cosmopolitan hub, mid-high end establishments will be unofficially grateful for a tip of around 10 per cent. Some bars and restaurants, especially those geared to foreigners, may add 10-15 per cent to the final bill. Hotel staff will appreciate - and in some cases, expect - a few hundred yuan as a token.
The Renminbi (literally 'people's currency') is most commonly known as the Yuan (CNY).
You can have excellent quality clothes made very cheaply, so leave plenty of room in your luggage for fine silk dresses and sharp suits. Chinese toilets are often free from such Western luxuries as toilet paper, so it's always useful to have some tissue paper stashed in your bag.
Beijing has so many ancient monuments and historic sights to gawp at, after a while the temples and royal courtyard homes all blur into one spectacular history lesson. Before that happens, make a speedy beeline for the Dashanzi Art District (aka '768'). Once a labyrinth of high-ceilinged Bauhaus-style factories, the once-industrial area has been recreated as an artistic hub, with galleries, cafés, boutiques and restaurants lining the streets. 798 Space (www.798space.com) is the highlight, most notably for the Mao-era slogans printed on its walls.
Nowhere on Earth does Peking duck better than its culinary mother city, and you'll find the crispy delicacy all over the city. The traditional Peking duck is specially prepared and roasted in a wood-fired oven using wood from fruit trees, which is said to impart a special fragrance to the crisp, lacquered skin.
Choose from a baffling array of Chinese teas on Maliandao Street in the Xuanwu district (otherwise known as Tea Street), where more than 600 shops sell around 500 different varieties and an unfathomable cache of tea paraphernalia. If you're daunted by the scope of the selection, head straight to the Hong Zhi Teashop (+86 10 6342 4406) and take advantage of its eye-openingly informative staff. At the weekend, Panjiayuan fleamarket is a must-do for trinket-hunting, with a huge selection of kitsch 'maomorabilia', porcelain, jade and wooden ornaments, books, hats, bags, rugs, and more. As with most market shopping in China, offer as far below asking price as you can, and don't expect any 'antiques' to live up to the title. The Baoguo Temple Market in the Xuanwu district is a different story, however - you'll often find unique and authentic items here to add to your collection. Although most international fashion labels have made their way to Beijing, the European price-tag hasn't, and most items will often come in 30 per cent more expensive than in Western boutiques.
The city's many skyscrapers aside, for a bird's eye view of central Beijing, head to Jingshan Park, a 57-acre former imperial garden facing the North Gate area of the Forbidden City. Made from soil that was excavated from the the City's moat, the 48-metre Jingshan Hill is one of the few lumps in Beijing's landscape and, from the top, offers panoramic views of the entire Forbidden City complex and most of the Beijing skyline.
Famous for its mind-stretching size and infamous as the site of the 1989 massacre, Tiananmen Square was built to contain up to a million people at once, and visiting it is both an awesome and humbling experience - not least for its role in recent history. During the day, it's filled with kite-flyers, pedlars, and trigger-happy tourists, but if you visit at dawn or dusk you can catch the daily flag-raising and lowering ceremonies - one of the last few communist rituals still in practice.
January-February The Spring Festival and Chinese New Year empties Beijing like a drain as its inhabitants return to their home villages to spend time with their families.
February Two weeks after the start of Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival, sees children and adults alike walking the streets bearing colourful lanterns of all shapes and sizes.
September-October Held when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and brightest, the Mid-Autumn Festival sees families and friends gather in the evening to nibble on sweet mooncakes (a round, thick biscuity pastry filled with lotus or red-bean paste and a salted egg yolk centre) and to admire the swollen moon.