Beijing is wonderful city. It was bashed by the tour book for tearing down the old city walls, which was decades ago, and for all of the rapid modernization and destruction of many of their famous hutongs (alleyways) in preparation for the Olympics and forthcoming emergence as one of the world's great cities. True, the modernization is undeniable. And true, it was probably a lot cooler with the additional hutongs and the city walls were probably awesome. However we found a city with plenty of character and the sites to match. We spent about 4.5 days in Beijing and we could have spent a month.
We stayed in a hostel in the Wanfujing area. This is a good location in the city. It is just east of the Forbidden City, which ironically is incredibly crowded. From the Wanfujing area you will have no problem catching the subway, buses, or a taxi to wherever your heart desires. Just make sure to have your hotel write the name of your destination in Chinese for the cabbies, as their English is limited to none. The subway is crowded but convenient and cheap. One ticket costs about $ .30 USD. Between the Wanfujing stop and the Tian'amen stops, the subway gets exceedingly packed. We actually saw a guy's hood to his jacket hanging out of the door of a coming train. I guess they just couldn't pack anything else in.
The food in Beijing is some of the best and cheapest I have ever come across in a capital city. For the budget traveler you will have no problem finding a huge plate of fried rice or noodles for about $2.50 USD. Another must for the foodie is to visit the Wanfujing Snack Street. It is 100% touristy, but undeniably fun. You can try such delicacies as sea snake, sheep testicles and penis, starfish live scorpions, and sea horse (which the vendor assured me was good for my penis). That's good, I was curious. I am pretty sure that your average resident Beijing-er does not sit around their home on a Saturday snacking on testicles, but the street is a good time. Another food must in Beijing is of course the roast duck. We had a amazing dinner on Ghost Street, which is lined with restaurants on either side and lit with red lanterns everywhere. We got the tip for our restaurant from a traveler we met the previous day. He gave us the manager's mobile number and name. We had our hotel make reservations and Vicki (the manager) spoke very good English. She even topped off our duck dinner with a tour around the restaurant's kitchen and 3 separate courtyards that help house overflow guests in the summertime. We ate very well on this trip for not a lot of money.
The sites in Beijing are well known and deservedly so. The Great Wall, of course, is a must. You can probably have your hotel book a bus trip out, or just do it yourself. The Summer Palace deserves almost a full day to enable you to see the entire grounds. The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Olympic stadiums, etc are all well and good. A definite must see is Lama Temple. It has its own subway stop, and is the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It is stunning. Make sure you do not miss the giant carved Buddha at the very back. Our friends visited the zoo and said it was a little disappointing, but the pandas were cool. Try to visit the Temple of Heaven on the weekend if you can. I have no schedule of this, but when we were there on a Sunday, we met a great big group of middle-aged Beijingers playing cards and dancing like it was their day to get away from the kids and grandkids. They tried to get us to dance with them to no avail and it was very cool.
The shopping is Beijing is a great deal price wise and a great deal of fun. We visited the Pearl Market and the Silk Market, both of which sell almost everything under the sun. If you have the stomach and the resolve to brave the crowds, the yelling ('hey lady, lady, lady!'), and the touching (contrary to what we were told, the vendors definitely grab you) you will find some well priced goodies. There are pearls and endless rows of jewelery, knock-offs of almost any brand you could imagine from Coach purses to Columbia jackets, limitless scarfs, men's and women's clothes, obscene amounts of shoes and boots, backpacks and luggage, and so on. Haggle like hell. If you have not agreed on a price until you are actually walking away, you are not haggling enough. Just have a price in mind of what you want to pay and start a little bit lower than it. Be ruthless because the shopkeepers are, but it is a good time. Most of them are very nice and are good sports about the haggling. We were told many times about what 'tough' shoppers we were. It felt quite good. Almost as if I actually enjoyed (gulp) shopping.
All in all, Beijing is a city on the move. It still has lots of culture and hutongs, even if they used to be better and more prevalent. The city has a neat communist feel to it as well. It has the humongous, function-based (aka ugly) government buildings and large open squares. Everywhere you went it seemed there was someone keeping an eye on you. But amidst all of this you will see capitalism at its finest. There are giant posters of the new LeBron James sneakers and Brad Pitt was lending his face to Tag Heuer. You can buy almost anything, anywhere. It is amazing to think that China was only officially 'opened up' less than 30 years ago.
So yeah, I didn't know that you can ride a mini roller coaster to get to part of the Great Wall either.
Mmmm, delicious duck.
Oh, you know. Just hanging out on a frozen lake at the Summer Palace in China. Same old, same old.
You guessed it! Sheep testicles.
Riding the pedi-cab.
The Temple of Heaven
Cuteness and the Forbidden City
Us inside The Forbidden City, it was cold.
Hey there Mao!