Beijing, China - Stein Travel
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Beijing

The capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing (formerly Peking) is a very modern and exceedingly busy city (nearly 14 million people call it home) with high-rise buildings, international hotels and sprawling suburbs. The city is abuzz and bristling with cranes on the skyline as construction projects give rise to new skyscrapers and modernisation proceeds apace. However, Beijing also encompasses numerous attractions of cultural and historical interest, of which some, such as the Great Wall of China, the former Imperial Palace (known as the Forbidden City), the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the remains of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian, are UNESCO-endorsed World Cultural Heritage Sites. Chinese history and culture fascinates Western visitors, and Beijing is a great place to start exploring it. The city abounds in palaces, temples, mansions, gardens and tombs that epitomise classical Chinese architecture. It also has roughly 120 museums and more than 100 public gardens.

The first port of call for most visitors is the Forbidden City, which lies at the heart of Beijing with the rest of the city radiating out from it in a grid pattern. For five centuries this massive palace complex with 9,999 rooms functioned as the administrative centre of the country and home to a succession of emperors, who lived in luxurious isolation, surrounded by courtiers and retainers. The Palace overlooks the infamous Tiananmen Square, site of so much Chinese history with political drama and dissent.

In preparing to host what they hoped were 'the best games in Olympic history', Beijing undertook many major renovations in 2008. Public transport was improved, environmental issues addressed and a general clean up of the city was ordered. The Chinese saw the games highlight its economic rise and emergence as a world power. Some of the infrastructure, such as the iconic 'Birds Nest' stadium, is still in use for different purposes, and contributes to Beijing's unique landscape.

Information & Facts

Climate

The city of Beijing falls in the monsoon region, experiencing hot, wet summers and cold, dry winters. There are four very distinct seasons, with a wide temperature variation between winter (down to well below freezing) and summer, when the mercury hits the high spots. During the height of summer, July and August, Beijing is subject to sudden evening downpours of rain, so an umbrella comes in handy. Spring and autumn are relatively short seasons. Spring, between February and April, is characterised by warm and windy conditions. Autumn, between August and October, is regarded as the best season to visit because it brings blue skies, pleasantly mild temperatures and slight humidity.

Eating Out

The large number of local dishes in Beijing has made for some of the longest menus in the world. While diners ponder over traditionally cooked meals or new takes on old favourites, eating out in Beijing will be like nowhere else in the world. From ingredients meant for royalty in Imperial Cuisine or more 'mysterious' fillings in a street-side soup, food preparation in Beijing adheres to old traditions reflecting culinary styles from all over China.

Chinese food in Beijing differs dramatically from the fare in Chinese restaurants worldwide. Beijing's famous Peking roast duck is the star attraction with several restaurants devoted entirely to it. For a chance to sample many different kinds of local food, visit one of the 'snack streets', like Donghuamen Snack Night Market, Guanganmen Snack Street, or Gui Street, all with dozens of vendors plying their specialties.

Migrants have infused the city's cuisine with new cultures and tastes, reflected in the blossoming choices in Beijing restaurants. This includes western fine dining as many of Beijing's top hotels now recruit top internationally trained chefs and international style restaurants open to enjoy success on their own.

More expensive restaurants in Beijing will generally accept credit cards, but street vendors and takeaways will expect cash. While hotel restaurants will sometimes include a 15% service charge, tipping is not expected in Beijing.

Getting Around

The subway is a great way to get around in Beijing. Though it can be very crowded at peak commuter hours, the service is comprehensive and efficient. Line 1 and Line 5 can be used to access many tourist attractions. The subway shuts down at midnight and starts again at 5pm. Be aware that if you are carrying luggage you will need to go through x-rays. You can buy a prepaid card (Yîkâtông) that allows you to travel on subways and buses. The fare is the same for the subway, but reduced for buses. The Beijing bus system is comprehensive, but confusing for foreigners as most of the signs are in Mandarin. Most buses operate from 5am to 11pm.

There are many taxis available, both official and unofficial. They charge a base fee of around 10 yuan, and there is a surcharge of one yuan on each trip. Tourists will generally pay more than locals, but if you feel you've been cheated, ask for a receipt to make a complaint with. All official taxis have license plates that begin with the letter B. It is a good idea to have your destination written in Mandarin to show the driver, as most do not speak English.

Driving in Beijing is a complicated and sometimes frightening process, with few English signs and non-stop traffic jams in the city. Visitors are not permitted to drive in Beijing without a Chinese driver's license, which you can get at the airport or transportation police stations.

Cycling is also a good alternative with numerous bicycle rentals around the city, and well-defined bike lanes, bike parks and the company of millions of other cyclists, especially at rush hour. It may look intimidating, but can be the best way to get around for the more adventurous traveller. For the Olympics in 2008, 50, 000 brand new bicycles were made available and can now be rented at outlets close to subway stations, commercial districts, Olympic venues, hotels and office buildings.

Kids Attractions

Steeped in a mystical and fascinating history, Beijing may not, at first glance, seem suitable for travel with children. But look past the ancient buildings and temples, and you'll find more than enough activities and attractions while on holiday with kids in Beijing.

The Summer Palace is a good place to start sightseeing with the kids. With magnificent gardens open to visitors, children will have plenty of space to run around. The Happy Valley Amusement Park never fails to entertain and thrill the whole family as moms can wander around the shopping centre while the kids are at play. Milu Park ranks as one of the best places to enjoy a picnic outdoors and do a little milu deer spotting, while spectacular sealife awaits at Beijing Aquarium.

On rainy or very hot and humid days, take the kids to Le Cool, an indoor ice skating rink, or to one of the many indoor playgrounds around the city, such as Fundazzle. It's a great way to tire them out so you can either pop them in their stroller and carry on with your own sightseeing, or, amidst all the excitement of being in a new city, put them to bed.

Language

The official language is Mandarin Chinese, but there are hundreds of local dialects.

Money

The currency used in China is the Renminbi Yuan (CNY). The Yuan is divided into 10 chiao/jiao or 100 fen. Make sure you exchange your leftover Yuan before returning home because this currency can be exchanged only within China's borders. Travellers cheques, preferably in US Dollars, and foreign cash can be exchanged in cities at the Bank of China. Banks are closed weekends. The larger hotels and the special 'Friendship Stores' designed for foreigners will accept most western currencies for purchases. Major credit cards are accepted in the main cities at various establishments, but outside the major cities acceptance is limited. ATMs are scarce outside the main cities.

Night Life

Neon lights are a staple of Beijing nightlife, with a predictable swarm of DJ dance clubs and karaoke bars lighting up most corners of the downtown districts. This is encouraging as not too long ago there wasn't much nightlife in Beijing at all. The city is just beginning to create modern discos and chic bars more favoured by foreigners. Beijing's nightlife still doesn't compare to cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai for pure debauchery, but its cultural offerings and diversity of entertainment are unrivalled.

Except for novelty fun, most hotel venues and their cookie cutter disco decorations and beats should be avoided. Some unique areas popular with expats are Hou Hai Bar Area, a picturesque lakeside nightlife hub, and Sanlitun Pub Street in the Embassy Area of Chaoyang District, an favourite for western music like rock, hip hop and jazz.

There still isn't too much crossover between western and Chinese clientèle but it can be interesting to soak in some Chinese karaoke and liquor at local haunts. Most venues stay open until the early morning, although most people in Beijing go to sleep before many of them open.

There are a host of Chinese art shows to enjoy if late night booze joints don't sound enticing. These include Chinese opera, dancing and theatre most nights of the week. Many visitors enjoy seeing kung-fu demonstrations and acrobatic shows. The Laoshe Tea House and the Tianqiao (Overbridge) Area are great places to explore traditional Chinese performances.

A note of caution: it is advisable to research and plan your night out rather than leave matters to spontaneous choice as one might do in other cities. Be very cautious of allowing taxi drivers or helpful locals guiding you to an off-the-beaten track bar or club - these are often designed to fleece visitors of money.

Grab a copy of Timeout Beijing for updated event listings and gig guides.

Shopping

Shopping in Beijing to find bargains and haggle for the best prices is an essential part of the experience of visiting the city.

Walking and bargaining in the countless markets in Xiu Shui Jie Shopping Mall or the Xiu Shui Market will no doubt build up an appetite, but luckily there is plenty of food at these stalls for shoppers to refuel. Popular buys include fake designer labels, clothing and bags. Bargaining is an essential skill and an expected part of the transaction, but remember to keep a smile.

The main shopping area is around Wangfujing Dajie, where a number of department stores can be found, including the Beijing Department Store. The Xidan area offers wonderful big department stores selling fixed-price goods including electronic equipment. The Hong Qiao Market is a popular indoor market in the south central area of Beijing where bargaining is expected. Here buyers can haggle for goods such as cheap no-name or fake brand electronics, sunglasses, batteries, watches and jewellery.

Panjiayuan Collectors Market is an outdoor market with a good array of arts and crafts from all over China, including popular Beijing souvenirs like jade bracelets, cloisonné and lacquerware, silk, calligraphy, porcelain, and vintage Cultural Revolution books and posters. Beijing Tea Street is the best place to find anything associated with tea, including tables, tea sets, and a wide variety of teas.

Liulichang in the south of Beijing is a great place for Chinese antiques. Buyers should be aware that authentic antiques over 100 years old display a red wax seal. An export licence must be issued in order to take these out of the country.

Avoid shopping trips on evenings and weekends, as the crowds can be overwhelming. Shops in Beijing are open daily from 9am to 8pm and there is no sales tax.

Sightseeing

Previously in Beijing, the city's most interesting attractions related to the spectacular history of China's capital city. These wonderful examples of ancient innovations and well-preserved glimpses into millennia of Chinese history are still there, but the city is no longer only viewed as a virtual museum.

Now eye-catching structures and modern architectural wonders are among the city's most visited attractions including the National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest, and the National Grand Theatre, known as the Eggshell. It is no surprise many believe the modern attractions detract from the city's old, but many enjoy the stark contrast.

Yet, of course, the iconic historic Beijing sites remain the most popular. The Great Wall of China is the city's most famous attraction, only rivalled by the well-preserved Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing. More recent history can be seen at the infamous Tiananmen Square or the Chairman Mao Mausoleum. A walk through some of the world's most ancient to most modern attractions makes Beijing eternally captivating.

Time

Local time is GMT +8.

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