Return to Beijing

I last visited Beijing in summer of 1988. Now, more than 16 years later, I returned for another look. As I expected, much has changed. The "haves" say that it is for the better. I did not meet many "have-nots," but inequality is certainly growing by leaps and bounds.

Return to Beijing

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

My last visit to Beijing was with a "special" tour that China offered to overseas Chinese in an attempt to develop tourism. Back then, Beijing was a city full of bicycles, vendors peddling fruits and vegetables (and vendors were a people who were generally poor, but not unhappy), five-star accommodations that had no clue what service means, and gastronomic offerings that were, at best, plain and repetitive. These memories were born of a restrictive environment, with little exposure to the real Beijing -- our tour guide often reminded us that we were not to venture outside the hotel without his escort. In the last 16 years, Beijing -- and, of course, China as a whole -- has undergone some drastic economic development, so it was with much excitement and, I admit, trepidation concerning the once-beautiful sights that I returned to Beijing in October for a 4 ½ day visit.

Before we left, I did lots of research on Beijing. I read the major tour books and also the tour brochures before deciding on the length of my stay. As most tours stay in Beijing for about 2-3 days, and many tour books recommend about 5 days, I thought that 4 ½ days would allow me to see most of the major sights. Don’t count on it. Beijing is vast, it’s interesting, and although many of its back alleys are fast disappearing to be replaced by soulless, multi-storied buildings and large Olympic stadiums, there are simply lots and lots of things to do. Looking back, I thought that I must have covered only about one-third of the must-see sights. My biggest regret is that we did not have time to even visit a market or go shopping. I attributed my lack of time to several factors. First, my ancestors were from China, and since I was a bit familiar with Chinese history, I don’t seem to be able to tear myself from most sites very quickly. Second, my companion was obsessed with picture taking, and armed with an unfamiliar digital camera, he was learning as he went along. Thirdly, Beijing is simply so vast, and the distance between some of its important sights is fairly large. Lastly, and I was not warned of this, the traffic was insufferable. However, we did visit a new sight that turned out to be one of my favorites in Beijing: the Big Bell Temple. ${QuickSuggestions} Early October is one of the best months to visit Beijing. The October that we experienced brought with it gorgeous weather -- except for the first day, when a haze seemed to envelop Beijing in a stupor -- we had sunny days, and while it was cool in the morning, the days were in the high 60s -- perfect weather for visiting. We were pleasantly surprised at the blueness of the sky, but my mom told me that Beijing has the advantage of getting wind from the north that clears out the pollution more characteristic of other large Chinese cities.

To do Beijing justice, allow at least 5-7 days. That way, you could wonder the back streets of Beijing before all of the old "hutong" disappear, linger over your favorite sights, attend the acrobatics, the Beijing Opera, and the water puppets show, and of course, shop. We picked up Beijing Today, available from the front desk of our hotel, for local event listings. The listing there is pretty comprehensive and is a good source of entertainment happening about town. We missed Tan Dun’s concert "The Map" by a few days, and I would have liked to have seen it.${BestWay} Because of the limited time, we mainly took cabs around. Taking cabs was fairly cheap. That said, try to stay away from cabs during rush hour, which supposedly occurs from 7 to 8:30am and 5:30 to 7pm. At least that’s the common wisdom. However, for a couple of days, we were caught in snarling traffic even at 9:30am and 7:30pm. If I were to do it all over again, I would plan my sights so that during traffic hours, I would take the subway. Beijing has an efficient subway system, but for such a big city, it has limited stops and covers a relatively small area. As backup, it is not a bad alternative, as it does have stops at the major tourist sights. Having seen how bicycles competed with cars on the road, I personally would not rent bicycles, although some guidebooks name that as an option. My personal opinion is that the Chinese had elevated the art of driving extremely closely while avoiding hitting each other to a science; I witnessed a couple of instances where cars and bicycles collided. While no one was hurt badly, riding bicycles just seemed stressful.

St. Regis

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

When traveling for personal reasons, I usually do it budget-style. However, I have always wondered what it was like to live like the rich and famous, so this time around, having racked up some Westin points, I made reservations for three nights at the St. Regis.

My first reaction was that of surprise. After having driven past the Hyatt and its imposing, albeit crass and impersonal, glass façade that cried out loudly "we serve very important people," I was deposited in front of a fairly non-descript building. As it was set way back from the street, I did not see it until we drove to the front door. Although we came to appreciate the fact that it was all understated, our first reaction was closer to: "Uh-oh, did this taxi driver take us for a ride? Did he just drop us in front of the wrong hotel?"

Our doubts were dispelled the minute we walked through the door. The lobby was a grand vision of white marble and towering palm trees. Because our room was not quite available, we were escorted to the 18th floor, where drinks were served. Then a front desk clerk came to show us to our room. Having gotten it free, we were expecting some cursory space, thinking that this hotel would no doubt have some cringe-worthy rooms set aside for just this occasion. Our surprise started when we saw the foyer, then the walk-in closet, then real orchids in the bathroom and carnations in the bedroom. I have not stayed anywhere with a foyer and walk-in closet and real flowers before, not even the top hotels in the US.

The room was great, but the service was even better. A few minutes after we settled in, our own floor "butler" rang and offered to unpack and press our clothes. Having mentally reviewed the budget stuff that we packed, we declined her offer (aaahh, what a waste). She then volunteered to bring us tea, coffee, and fruits. From then on, every time we needed something, including unlimited water, coffee, and shoe shines, we called our butler. When we needed a transformer for the battery charger and electric shaver, our butler, a young lady who must not have weighed more than 100 lbs, quickly came back with a 30-lb transformer. Never have I seen anything that big, but she laughed and said that many people ask for this type of thing. Believe it or not, if you are extremely lazy, your butler can draw bath water for you. Now, that’s ridiculous.

I can see why the St. Regis is the choice of many American diplomats. You never want for anything, and since the hotel has a world-class health club, four restaurants, plus a cigar lounge and a couple of bars, you might just as well sit back and pretend you are still back stateside, with the exception that now you have a "butler." Sounds obnoxious, but I have to admit that I enjoyed every minute of it.

Lc The St Regis Beijing
Beijing, China

Qianjude Duck Restaurant

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

Peking duck is the ubiquitous dish of Beijing. Peking duck is a luxury, as this is the one meal where diners consume predominantly meat in a country where the average meal consists of mostly starch and vegetables. When in Beijing, Peking duck is strongly recommended.

Qianjude Restaurant is to Peking duck what Peking duck is to Beijing; that is, it is probably the single most famous Peking duck restaurant, having been in business since 1964. The restaurant has a number of branches, and even the Beijing markets where we went in search of snacks carried Qianjude roast duck in to-go pouches. Dignitaries from around the world had all consumed duck from this restaurant, which dispenses thousands of ducks a day. However, just because it is the most famous does not mean it is the best. We should have listened to Frommer’s. It really is overrated.

At 8pm, when we arrived, there was still a line of diners waiting to be seated. We thought that this was a good omen. Ten minutes after we arrived, we were seated. The waiter appeared quickly to take our tea order. He reappeared shortly with tea to take the order; we ordered half a duck, which also comes with a soup, along with condiments and a braised vegetable dish. As service was efficient, we thought that we were finally, after a long day, able to settle back for a good and relaxing meal.

Imagine our surprise when the duck appeared just a mere four minutes later. A chef came out with half a duck on his cart and proceeded to expertly carve it out in front of our table. But, I thought, it could not be; I know that, for a restaurant this big to specialize in Peking duck, they must be mass-producing these things, but I am not ordering fast food. Maybe this was for the next table. No such luck. As the chef was carving the duck, another attendant appeared with all of the fixings for Peking duck. Then the duck was set on our table, and we were invited to dig in. I was disappointed. The skin was very crunchy; however, there was too much fat and not much flavor. This was definitely not the best, not even one of the five best, Peking ducks I have had. It was a disappointment. To compound the matter, when the duck soup arrived, it was gamey.

But we were both very happy with our braised vegetable dish. It was Chinese cabbage and gingko nuts, braised in duck broth. While the duck soup that came with our order of ½ duck was gamey, the duck broth that came with the cabbage was delicate but extremely flavorful. So we drank the broth instead of the soup. Yum. If I ever come back to this restaurant, it would be to try their other offerings, instead of the one dish for which they are famous.

Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant
32 Qianmen Avenue
Beijing, China, 100051
+86 (0)10 6511 2418

Dazhong Shi (Big Bell Museum)

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

Dazhongsi, or Big Bell Museum, is one of my favorite spots to visit in Beijing. It is a bit out of the way; in fact, it’s a lot out of the way of the usual sights, so you would have to make an effort to go see it, but believe me, it’s really Beijing’s most interesting museum. It is closest to the Summer Palace, but it’s still about a 15-minute cab ride away. I have not been able to find out whether there is public transportation there, but I am sure a combination of buses would take you there. I took a cab there after the Summer Palace. If I remembered correctly, the driver charged us about 30 yuan, or less than $4 (I think).

Big Bell Museum, as its name implies, houses the largest and oldest bronze bell in the world. At fifty tons, it is deservedly called the King of Bells. It reputedly can be heard 40 kilometers away, though we did not witness it in action. It’s incredibly huge. Words cannot describe it. You will have to see for yourself below how dwarfed my companion was, compared to the bell. And, incredibly, it has these tiny relief texts -- 250,000 of them, cast all over the bell. There is not an empty space in this incredibly large thing. I can’t imagine how much preparatory work went into getting this bell ready for firing.

Luckily for us, this bell is not the only attraction in this place. On exhibit are several hundred large bronze bells from temples all around the country. Some bells are plain, while others have elaborate texts and abstract patterns and images, and they all have these legendary creatures sitting on the top of the bells. My favorite was a set of chime bells from the 400s BC that was unearthed in 1978. There are about 65 bronze bells suspended in three levels on a stand, also cast of bronze, weighing a total of almost 10,000 lbs. As chime bells, they are actually used to play music. Because we visited the museum during the off hour, we were allowed to approach the bell, touch it, and hear it played. We could not have timed the visit better. The staff told us that at about lunch time, from 11:30am to about 1:30pm, the place is deserted of visitors. As it is far from any place, the museum is mostly visited by tour groups. They all come at about the same time, take lots of photographs, and leave. As the approach to the bells is restricted, most don’t get the chance to see the bells up close and personal. So skipping lunch is sometimes very rewarding.

Beijing Big Bell Museum
A31, North Third Ring Road
Beijing, China
+86 (0)10 6255 0843

Jingshan Park

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

It is absolutely amazing that Beijing’s highest point was created from excess earth from the imperial moat that was dug around the Forbidden City. As Beijing is very flat, what the engineers did with this excess earth was ingenious. They essentially created views of the Forbidden City from this park, right across the northern gate.

The park is well-manicured, and dotted here and there are some pretty bonsai. There are three ways to get to the top. If you have time to amble, the western and eastern walkways have gentler hills that follow roughly the circumference of the park. Or you can elect to reach the top by climbing the steep path in the middle. We chose the middle way. After a short but steep climb to the top, we were awarded with an outstanding view of the Forbidden City. First, however, there is the obligatory commercial set-up, where you can be relieved of your well-earned cash in exchange for the privilege of dressing up in Qing Dynasty King and Queen costumes and have your photograph taken.

Although, at ground level, I had appreciated the perfect linearity with which the Forbidden City was built, as we walked on a perfect axis from the south gate through various courts and inner courts to the north gate, I was struck anew at how perfectly aligned the ceremonial halls are. Looking down, you can see all of these halls, with their larger structures and roofs, aligned in a straight line, surrounded by lesser halls and outer courts. Other recognizable sights could also be spotted: the Lama Temple, the Drum Tower, and Beihai Park. Although the temple at the top houses a very large Buddha statue, it was built sometimes in the ‘70s and so is not of any significant historical value.

However, the park itself is an important historical spot. A must-stop for Chinese tourists is a tree to the east of the entrance where Emperor Chongshen, the last Ming emperor (17th century), hung himself when rebel troops invaded the city. These troops, thinking that they had ushered in a new dynasty, had a few weeks of merry eating and raping before they, in turn, fell before the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty. Anyway, if you are a fan of martial arts lore, much is made of the fate of the king’s youngest princess. Legend has it that the king was going to kill the princess, but either because he could not or because she put up a fight, he only succeeded in cutting off one arm. She was later rescued by a nun and taught the martial arts. Then she went out into the martial arts world and saved people left and right. I think it’s just a great story.

Jing Shan Park
Jing Shan East Street, North of the Forbidden City
Beijing, China
+86 (0)10 6404 4071

Train travel from Beijing

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Quan on November 15, 2004

One downside to staying at the St. Regis (see my entry on this hotel) is that I am utterly convinced that their entire travel/concierge staff gets downright incompetent when confronted with requests that are not of your usual "rich people" variety. Case in point: we wanted the hotel to help us book train tickets from Beijing to Zhengzhou, our next destination, about 6 to 8 hours from Beijing. You would not believe what we had to do to get this to happen. First, we were told that "we can only get hard-seat tickets for you." Never mind that even the Rough Guide has the following comments on hard-seat tickets: "(it) is really only recommended for the impecunious or on relatively short journeys… the air is thick with cigarette smoke, and every available inch of floor space is crammed with travelers who were unable to book a seat." Second, they told us to go to the station to get it ourselves. Never mind that this hotel sells itself on being able to do anything for you.

Anyway, a call to the manager resulted in immediate efforts to resolve the situation. Of course, this being China, it was not resolved that quickly. However, about two hours later, they managed to unearth two soft-sleeper tickets, which we requested because we wanted to spend the night on the train in order to maximize our time in China and, of course, save on the cost of a hotel room. The soft-berth tickets ended up costing us about $30 per person on an express train.

Soft-sleeper tickets make train travel feel almost luxurious. In Beijing, you get to wait in a plush waiting room, complete with large, comfortable, leather armchairs. A special board is set up to flash the number and time of your train and announcements as to when you can enter the gate. Soft-sleeper ticket holders are allowed to reach the platform a few minutes, and sometimes tens of minutes, before the general stampede caused when everyone is allowed to board, thus making the boarding process so much more pleasant.

The Chinese train boarding process is plenty efficient. As you board the train, you exchange your ticket for your berth number with the attendant. In exchange, you get these tokens. The train attendant maintains an inventory of all tickets, and before you are to reach your destination, he/she comes by to exchange your original ticket for the token, which means that if you don’t play musical berths, you should not ever miss your station. And considering that the train was full, playing musical berths must not be very fun.

The setup of the soft-sleeper class is as follows: there is a choice of Chinese or Western toilet, which is generally empty -- the Chinese generally prefer their own toilet -- and each compartment has a radio, fan, and four berths on two sides, so there is an upper berth and a lower berth. The lower berth is generally desirable, as you have to climb to get to the upper berth, but then, in exchange, before it’s time to go to bed, everyone feels free to use the lower berth as sitting space to conduct conversation. So it’s really up to you.

The one little surprise I have is that I thought that, since we had chosen a soft sleeper, the mattress was going to be soft. Well, surprise -- I guess it is softer than a hard sleeper, but it is still hard…really hard. However, I have to admit that after I twisted and turned for a little bit, once I got to sleep, it actually turned out to be quite all right. I have always complained of backache, and sleeping in strange places often compounded the problem. But there is something about those hard mattresses. I had no backache at all when I got up.

Well, our train ride passed without much trouble. After we checked in, our compartment companions did feel free to use my sleeper to talk for about a couple of hours, after which one of them prepared for sleep, while I caught the other talking to a train attendant. Imagine my surprise when he came back into the compartment with a combined TV/DVD player. It’s clunky, but it is real luxury to be able to watch a movie during the night, which, of course, he proceeded to do for the night. He was considerate enough to turn the noise down really low, so for all intents and purposes, I had white noise to sleep with.

Wandering the hutongs of Beijing

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Quan on November 19, 2004

Before leaving for Beijing, a friend warned me not to miss the hutongs of Beijing. In case you are wondering, the hutongs are ancient houses built around narrow and winding lanes that were the predominant features of old Beijing. According to the guidebooks I consulted, the hutongs have been yielding in the past number of years to large apartment buildings. Recently, preparation for the Olympics in 2008 contributed further to the leveling of the hutongs.

So we made sure to include hutongs in our wonderings. Although, from Jingshan Park, we saw a large hutong area near the Lama Temple, our limited time in Beijing did not allow us to go there. Instead, we wondered in the hutongs next to Beihai Park. Despite the fact that all of the houses are very old and that many are decrepit, they must have been so charming once upon a time. They have these cute doors that are very narrow and short, kind of squatty. Because the narrow alleyways can’t accommodate automobiles, the dominant mode of transportation in and out of these areas is the bicycle, and once in the while, we can spot a pedi-cab driver paddling tourists around. Wandering the hutongs, we were thus transported in time to what must have been Beijing in the early 1900s. It was heaven to escape from the noise and pollution outside. In our wonderings, we saw traditional courtyard houses—four single-story buildings arranged around a courtyard with one shared door to the outside.

I especially remembered one such structure. I had noticed, while walking in the narrow alleyway, that there was a tiny blackboard with a picture of a house, with flowers and butterflies, and an arrow pointing to the left. Turning left, we saw, about 200 feet down, an open door. Peeking through, we saw a traditional courtyard and a sign "WC." Taking the existence of a public toilet to indicate that these traditional courtyard houses are probably not private, we knocked and entered. The first sight that greeted us was lots of persimmons on the window panes, more flowers that someone had painted, and clothing hung out to dry in the sunlight.

It turned out that the blackboard sign was pointing to this group of houses. It is a center for disabled youth in the neighborhood. A student in his 20s—he told us he studied at the University of Beijing—told us, in fluent English, that disabled youths from the neighborhood are all invited to spend time singing, reading, playing sports, and engaging in other activities at this center until someone from their family come to get them. The youths there must have been surprised to receive visitors who looked Chinese but spoke a strange language. After saying hi to these young people and thanking them for letting us visit, we left the courtyard.

Having heard a number of radio programs on NPR lamenting the rapid loss of the hutongs to Beijing’s unbridled passion for big and ugly buildings, I had expected the Chinese who live there and who run the risk of losing their home to also bemoan the impending loss of their homes. During my wanderings in the hutongs, I heard at least one opinion to the contrary.

The voice we heard was from a gentleman in his 60s. When we first saw him, he was taking an evening walk in the hutong, wearing shirt and pants and a Mao cap. He lived in the hutongs adjacent to Beihai Park, but not quite in the back lakes area. Seeing us wondering around and gazing at every hutong while grabbing onto our notebook, I wondered whether he mistook us for inspectors from the government. He approached us and told us emphatically that the hutongs must be torn down. I then attempted to engage him in conversation with my broken Chinese. From what I managed to understand, he had lived in these hutongs all his life, but that his dwelling was more than 100 years old, that it had never had work done, and that frankly, unless the government proposed to do something about the hutongs, they will all fall down and injure people, and well, become a menace. His personal opinion is that they should all be torn down and that modern buildings should be constructed. He said that many people are of his opinion. Not being fluent in Chinese, I was not able to confirm his statement with others in the vicinity. However, thinking back, I guess I should not be too surprised. Many Chinese, at heart, are very practical. Having no doubt lived a difficult life with no modern amenities, I am sure he looks forward to a day where running water, continuous electricity, and uninterrupted heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer are something that he could take for granted. Isn’t this the ultimate battle in many corners of the world between development and preservation?

© LP 2000-2009