There’s been a Chinese element outside Terminal 3 at Heathrow as of late. And you, as the holder of a British passport (as well as most other European and North American passports), get to explore the place visa-free for upwards of 72 hours (as long as you’re in transit to an onward destination).
So picking your 72-hour destination of choice can be pretty hard. Here’s a tip: Start out in Beijing. That’s easier said than done: headcount-wise, we’re close to three Londons, and we’re building a Tube system that’s more than double of London’s by 2020 (we’re already larger today!). We also have 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites, which should get you planning already for a subsequent visa-free visit…
And when you get the bottom of it all, it’s really the above-ground parts of the Chinese capital that make it worthwhile. So here’s a look at the entire city for absolute beginners.
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
“Beijingers” have been around for at least half a million years ago. (No joke: the remnants of Peking Man date back to at least 530,000 years.) But we didn’t get to become Chinese capital until around 850 years back, when the city, then known as Zhongdu in the Jin Dynasty, became the national capital. (There’s a more famous capital further west — Chang’an, now Xi’an.) And we “only” built our city as-is (with the world-famous Forbidden City in the centre) around 600 years back, when Beijing was capital to the Ming Dynasty.
The city’s fortunes shifted greatly during the Republican period after 1912, until Mao Zedong declared it capital of the People’s Republic in 1949. But you knew that already. What you didn’t know was that there was a lot of discussion as to how the city would expand. Alas, a fair bit of “the old” were destroyed: much of the city wall came down to build a ringway with a city subway line underneath, and plans to make the “new” part of the city in the West were met with only limited success. The city didn’t have a “real” skyscraper until the 1980s, when it opened up to the rest of the world.
Beijing was still pulling itself together when it lost by just two votes the bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney, but by the time we got 2008, this was one rejuvenated city ready for the Games. The ageing subway system at least doubled up in mileage, the Olympic Green was built (with a huge Olympic Forest Park to the north — very popular amongst locals; and free!), and the foundation was laid for a huge expansion of the city’s Central Business District. (Like the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, it’s somewhat east of the absolute city centre.)
The city’s continuing to expand: it really is a case of the old and the new together in this city as it races ahead to host part of the 2019 Basketball World Cup and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Oh and by the way: the government doesn’t govern out from the Forbidden City any more — they’ve shifted slightly west, into the Zhongnanhai complex, which if you don’t hail from Number 10 or the equivalent, can be quite a challenge to get into.
GETTING INTO TOWN AND AROUND
Most of you will touch down at the huge Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport — colossal, yet without all that walking at Heathrow. (Terminal 2! That was quite a walk!) Both British Airways and China’s flag carrier, Air China, operate from this terminal.
Most BA flights will arrive during the daytime, when the Airport Express is available. For ¥25 (around £2.50), you’re whisked into the city centre within 20-25 minutes and can change to city lines. Getting a Beijing Yikatong transit card is highly recommended: including an Airport Express return, start with ¥100 (£10 or so) for your three-day stay.
The Beijing Subway is easily the best way to get around town, as you’re spared of the mayhem on the roads. Do remember, though, that obligatory security checks apply throughout the system, so it’s best to carry as few items with you as possible. You’ll find that you will need Lines 1, 2, 8, and 10 as the main lines. (Lines 1 and 10, in particular, have the tendency to be very busy at peak hours.)
For central Beijing, it’s best to start at Tian’anmen Square, then work your way further north through the Forbidden City itself, then via Jingshan Park (climb all the way up to the hill in the centre for great views of the city) out via its west exit to Beihai Park, a city park with a mini-lake and a lamasery at the top of the island “mountain”. Then head out from its north exit for a tube connection — Line 6 — where you’ll probably want to check out Nanluoguxiang, a typical (yet, alas, “commercialised”) Beijing hutong, or narrow winding alleyway. There’s lots of good food there as well, although be wary of anything exorbitant when it comes to the price.
You’ll then want to pop right down from Nanluoxiang onto Line 8 for the Olympic Green. For those who want to take a look at the universities, they’re also not too far, on the western end of Line 15, at this confusingly-named station, Qinghuadonglu Xikou. A bit further out are the city’s imperial gardens — most notably the Summer Palace (Line 4 to Beigongmen or Xiyuan).
Finally, for the Great Wall, you’ll probably want to do this by train, so you’ll need Suburban Railway Line S2 at the city’s north railway station. Just make your way there by Lines 2, 4, or 13 of the city subway, follow signs to the North Railway Station, take a train from there, and you should be at the station by the wall in around an hour or so. (You actually get to see the wall first before arriving at the “wall station” — get your cameras ready!) Oh, and the Yikatong card works there as well. You’ll be taken to the rather touristy bit by Badaling in northwestern suburban Beijing, although there’s also a less touristy Chinese village, Chadaocheng, not far from Badaling station.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
Whilst the fare on Gerrard Street isn’t by any means bad, it’s not “the real deal”, as they say, and this in particular applies if you’re headed to China.
There’s fantastically expensive “for-show” street food area in central Beijing just off Wangfujing which you might like to avoid. Sanitation isn’t bad, although prices will be much higher. Instead, try a few of these suggested tastebud ticklers:
Guijie (aka “Ghost Street”): Don’t be scared by the name; it in fact is home to a fair number of the city’s tastier restaurants. Much more local than posh, this is favoured by many locals. Subway Line 5 at Beixiniqiao will take you to the westernmost end; Lines 2 and 13, and the Airport Express, connect to Dongzhimen on the easternmost end. Your goal is to check out Dongzhimen Inner Street for food on Guijie.
Sanlitun: The London of Beijing, food-wise. Some local food as well, but if you’re so into the M25 that it has to be Italian one day, then Korean the next, you’re best served around Sanlitun, which is where “world people” (aka expats) gather. Tuanjiehu station on Line 10.
Wangfujing: For those permanently stuck in Westfield Mode, salvation comes to you here in the form of the Oriental Plaza shopping centre. You’d want to stay on the lower level for anything from burger joints to hot pot food marts, or spicy hot food from other parts of the country. For those who can free their mind to try the real street fare, head further north into Wangfujing for the food street next to the Department Store, which is much better than the for-show food street a few blocks further north. Wangfujing station on Line 1.
Qianmen: Clichéd local food, sometimes overpriced Peking Duck, and if you can happily neglect the Starbucks at the northernmost end of the street, it’s actually quite decent (never mind the “odd newness” of tearing down a street twice, then trying to restore it to its ancient glory). Locals would much more prefer any other restaurant by the corner. Qianmen station on Line 2 (northernmost end), or Zhushikou station on Line 7 (southernmost end).
Guomao (Beijing CBD) and Dawanglu: For those who believe the world inside a plate must remain as dainty and sophisticated as the likes seen in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, and environs — five-star hotels galore. (Also for Americans who want a massive burger halfway through their day.) Guomao station on Lines 1 or 10, or Dawanglu station on Line 10 (Line 14 soon, too).
DOS AND DON’TS FOR CHINA
China is nominally a centralised, unitary republic of 30+ provinces, but you’ll easily notice that as much as they appear the same, they’re really quite different. For Beijing, here are a few tips and tricks…
If drinking tea, tap your three fingers (the ones in the middle) on the table if you’re being poured tea. This gesture of thanks will wow your Chinese friends.
Any attempt at speaking in Mandarin will please locals. But don’t be too happy if they instantly praise that your Mandarin is “very good”; the average Chinese uses 3,000 of these characters on a daily basis. So for you, the hard bit’s really just begun…
Always have your wits ready when you cross the street — whilst China does go by a penalty point system for drivers, enforcement is still random, and we don’t want anyone hurt.
Finally, where you’d usually say “sorry” (if ever) when trying to get past the crowds, you’d need to say laojia (pronounced lough-jah) in Beijing. The very British sorry might work at times as well, especially near, say, the CBD.
Enjoy “the Jing”!