5 Things To Do In Beijing

Beijing is undoubtedly one of the great cities of the world – it’s big, it’s old and it’s bursting with cool.  There is so much to see and do in Beijing it doesn’t really matter how long you spend there, you’re likely to leave feeling like you only just scratched the surface (I mean, even old mate Peking Man thought Beijing was a pretty happening spot about half million years ago… Imagine what the city has come up with since then!)

This week’s Friday Fives are my pick of things to do in Beijing – not necessarily all the big name sights (although, you should probably check them out too), but the 5 things I enjoyed most during my time in the city.

5 Things To Do In Beijing:

#1. The ‘other’ part of the Great Wall (Jinshanling to Simatai): It’s an obvious one, yes, but you’re in Beijing – you can hardly pass up a visit to one of the most impressive structures made by man!

There are several different sections of the Great Wall accessible from central Beijing. Closest to the city is Badaling, the section of the wall most visited by tourists and what is considered by some to be the ‘Disneyland’ section of the wall.  It’s the most heavily restored, the busiest and it’s where my Dad met Vince Vaughn during the Beijing Olympics (Fact!).

The largely unrestored Jinshanling to Simatai section of the wall.

If you’re after something a little less crowded, head to the well-preserved Jinshanling to Simatai section of the wall as it’s largely un-restored and retains many original features.  Visitors to this section can expect a stunning, reasonably isolated and sometimes strenuous 15km hike up a lot of steep hills and over some very crumbly path…  All followed by an exhilarating zip-line over a river at the end if you so desire (yup, you can zip-line off the Great Wall. Cool, no?).

Along the wall you’re sure to meet some pretty keen vendors who like to jump out of the shadows and accost you to buy – precisely when you’re tackling a particularly difficult section of climbing.  You’ll quickly note that despite their grey hair, their fitness levels are far superior to yours (even if they’re 80 years old and even if you’re Lance Armstrong), so don’t even try to outrun them.  Buy their bottles of ice-cold water and listen to their stories – they know lots of interesting things about that old wall.

#2. 798 Space: This is possibly the coolest space in Beijing (when cool is measured on arty expression and creativity, that is).  Set amidst decommissioned Soviet-era factory buildings in the Dashanzi art district of Beijing, 798 Space (also called Factory 798 or the 798 Art Area) is a contemporary artist space packed with trendy cafes, art installations, workshops and galleries that are open to the public.

Factory 798 - Beijing's artist space

Residual evidence of the Cultural Revolution can be found around much of the vast complex (brightly painted slogans of “Long live Chairman Mao” on the walls and ceilings, for example), providing artistic contrast to modern street-art and avant-guard installations.

Even if you’re not an art buff, 798 Space is still fascinating and well worth a visit – especially if the whispers of Government development plans are anything to go by, as 798’s days may sadly be numbered.

Check out the shine on that artery-clogging goodness!

#3. Peking Duck: When you’re in the motherland of the tastiest duck treat ever invented, there’s no two ways about it – you absolutely have to eat at least one meal of Peking Duck (several would be fine also).  Nowhere in the world does the duck as well as the restaurants of its creation point, Beijing… that sweet, crispy skin and deliciously succulent meat alone are worth a trip to China.

Ask at your guesthouse for directions to the best duck place around and treat yourself for a night – your taste buds (but not your arteries) will thank you for it.

#4. Dong Hua Men Night Market: Hearing a stall-holder yell out “Penis! Penis! You try eat penis!” would be weird anywhere else on earth… but not at Beijing’s Dong Hua Men Night Market.  This vibrant, nightly food bazaar hosts dozens of stalls selling some of the more, em, adventurous foods you might ever want to try including; sheep penis, snake skin, scorpion, sea-horse, starfish, centipedes, beetles of every kind and the guts and gizzards of just about every animal on God’s earth.

Mmmm... scorpion

Yes, it is a bit touristy and one gets the distinct impression that the stall holders really play up to the ‘let’s eat weird shit’ attitude of the foreigners (I did hear one trader describe the same piece of skewered meat as sheep penis to one man and snake to another…), but whatever, it’s cheap, lively, different and great fun – just grab yourself a can of beer from the wondering vendors to wash down your fried grasshoppers and you’re set!

#5. Hutong bars: Beijing’s hutongs (old laneway communities) aren’t just nice for a daytime stroll in antiquity, they’re also great places to head for a tipple.  Some of the best bars in Beijing are in hutong territory – particularly around the Bell and Drum towers. There are bars to suit all budgets and décor tastes with options of chilled-out rooftop couches, trendy beer garden bean bags and chic low-ceiling wooden interiors.

You won’t have to look far to find a cheap ‘2 for 1’ or ‘all you can drink’ offer to occupy your Saturday night (or Sunday afternoon) and the intimate vibe of the hutong bars, plus the fact that your hanging out in an aesthetically appealing ancient neighbourhood, makes the hutong bars infinitely more enjoyable than the seedy joints along Bar Street in Sanlitun (unless you’re after Michael Jackson impersonators and bad cover bands of course).

Free English language magazines such as Beijing This Month usually have listings of what’s going on where and often provide an address in Chinese so you can show the taxi driver you’ll ultimately need if you want to find a specific bar.

Rooftop drinking in Beijing's Hutongs on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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