Beijing is dotted with parks, but most have strict rules, and whistles start blowing as soon as you even think about setting foot on the grass.
There are, however, a few diamonds to be found among the city’s lesser-known parks where visitors can lay back by their picnic basket, pop the cork on a bottle of wine and, believe it or not, even step on the grass.
For a lazy afternoon, try the canal park by the northeast corner of the Second Ring, across from MOMA. Here, you’ll find a lovely stretch of water lined with reeds, flowers and a boardwalk. Bring a bottle of red and a friend or two—or just a good book.
After dark, the lush greenery and bridges of Haidian’s Beitucheng Xilu Park come to life with locals gathering to dance, sing traditional songs, play instruments and spin tops. Bring your best rendition of a revolutionary hymn or just lay back on the grass and soak it all in. We even spent the night there once.
Blissfully removed from the tacky lights and PA-blasted amateur karaoke of Houhai, the newly renovated north gate of Xihai Park is a getaway in the center of the city. Down from the tree-shaded boardwalk, where old men gaze intently over their fishing poles, lies a new rock garden just perfect for an escape in the middle of town.
They’re not unicorns, but the mythical long-antlered Milu deer once driven to extinction in China have been re-introduced into south Beijing’s Nanhaizi Milu Park. Follow the herds and enjoy the nature reserve in imperial style at what used to be the royal hunting grounds.
Canal Park (East from Yonghegong Bridge, 雍和宫桥往东),
Beitucheng Park (北辰西路公园),
Xihai Park (South of Jishuitan subway, 积水潭地铁站往南),
Milu Park (Daxing Nanhaizi Milu Yuan, 大兴南海子麋鹿苑, Tel: 8796-2107, Web: www.milupark.org.cn)
China’s temples: see one and you’ve seen them all, right? No way. Beijing’s Fayuan Si is far from the museum that more touristed temples have become. Paradoxically, it is one of Beijing’s oldest yet most active temples. With the China Buddhist Academy located here, the “Source of Dharma Temple” is a living, breathing temple, tucked pleasantly into a quiet hutong in Beijing’s Muslim district. ¥5 admission. Fayuan Temple (7 Fayuan Si Qianjie, 法源寺前街7号, Tel: 6317-2150)
Chinese television loves song-and-dance variety shows, but few expats ever experience the magic in person. “Beijing the Fantasia” at the Beijing Night Show Theater chronicles the history of the capital, from Peking Man to Liberation. Expect over-the-top costumes, choreography, kungfu and, of course, plenty of minority nationality dances. 7pm, nightly. ¥320-680.
Beijing Night Show Theater (大雅宝胡同1号, 1 Dayabao Hutong, Tel: 6527-2814)
Shadow Puppet Center
Before the age of stadium concerts and music videos, China’s kings of pop were puppets made of leather and moved by wooden sticks in shadow puppet plays (piyingxi, 皮影戏). Beijing alone had around four dozen shadow puppet troupes at the height of their popularity. Nowadays, the elaborate shadows still dance in traditional, modern and kid-friendly plays upon the stage with the Longzaitian group’s performances every day near the west gate of Tsinghua University.
Chinese Shadow Puppet Culture Center (28 Tsinghua University West Road, 清华西路28号, Tel: 6261-8506, 136-2139-9612)
Since he was a child, Li Songtang has collected the antiques and cultural artifacts discarded from Beijing’s disappearing hutongs. Last year, Li opened this courtyard museum to showcase his collection of 6,000 antiques and share the stories and memories of the capital’s history. Li guides the tours himself, telling the stories of the various objects. 9am-6pm, daily. Pay by donation.
Songtangzhai Museum (3 Guozijian, 国子监3号, Tel: 6401-8718)
Sword Taiqi at Ritan Park
After one too many cultural events that seem uninspiringly scripted for tourists, join the locals in a round of sword-wielding taiqi at 6:30am every day at the south gate of Ritan Park. Unlike a package tour, visitors don’t need to bring a wallet–or their own sword for that matter–because this slow-style martial arts workout is absolutely free.
Ritan Park (South Gate, 日坛公园南门)
CNex Saloon Café
Working with Beijing-based filmmakers, documentarian Ben Tsiang leads this center and café that screens local documentaries and films. The group aims to tell the story of contemporary China from the inside out by producing and screening 100 films over the next decade. Sunday, Aug. 9, CNex screens Umbrella, a documentary about factory workers in Guangdong.
CNex Saloon Café (Jing Yuan, No.3 Guangqu East Rd, Building #1, Fl. 2, 广渠东路三号竞园图片产业基地1号库东2层, Tel: 8721-5576, www.cnex.org.cn)
Before setting out to explore the capital’s most outstanding private kitchens, we consulted the expert: Adlyn Adam-Teoh of Hias Gourmet, a Beijing-based culinary excursions and events organization. “Chengfu Courtyard is exceptional,” Adam-Teoh advises. “The chefs are descendants of Mao’s chef, and the ingredients are the same as those used in Zhongnanhai, so they are sourced from special markets.”
This private restaurant in a cozy courtyard between Zhongnanhai and the Forbidden City may be the capital’s ultimate dining experience. Run by grandson of Chef Cheng, who cooked for Chairman Mao throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, Chengfu Courtyard recreates dinner menus of historical nights in Chinese history, including the meal Mao and Nixon shared during the president’s historic 1972 visit. From the tableware to the produce sources to the waitstaff attire, every detail is historically accurate and utterly delectable. Call to reserve a table. There is a ¥580/person minimum.
Hidden in a courtyard in Dongdan, Beijige is famous for its Kunqu opera performances, imperial cuisine and impeccable service. Don’t miss out on the gongbao shrimp or steamed golden melon stuffed with mushrooms. Sets range ¥288-988/person.
Yuanluo is a private Sichuan courtyard at Di’anmen renowned for its clay pot kaoyu (¥58/500 grams). Other popular dishes include the drunken eggplant (¥18) and roasted baby duck with honey (¥28).
For a private kitchen with a view, Fu Lin at Houhai’s south bank offers a vista of the lake. The courtyard’s ancient trees and pond, however, are even more stunning. Fu Lin serves lighter Zhejiang fare, as well as French dishes. Sets range ¥260-580/person.
For Cantonese fare, Xu Yuan’s private lake-side courtyard serves traditional southern favorites, including Xu Yuan’s golden laced shrimp and honeyed pork ribs.
Hias Gourmet (Web: www.hiasgourmet.com, Tel: 6400-9199 ), Chengfu Courtyard (38 Nanchangjie, 南长街38号, Tel: 6606-9936), Beijige (Add: 24 Dongdan Santiao, 豆瓣三条24号, Tel: 6528-8288), Yuanluo (Add: 119 Di’anmen Xidajie, 地安门西大街119号,Tel: 6657-0747), Fu Lin (Add: 23 Bajiaoting Hutong. 八角亭胡同23号, Tel: 8328-6313), Xu Yuan (Add: 18 Xilouxiang, 西楼巷18号,Tel: 6404-4330)
Whisky Me Away
While most pubs keep the neon burning all night, Beijing’s whisky bars prefer the shadows, opting for off-the-beaten-path destinations that draw in discriminating customers who have often studied the “water of life” longer than capital clubbers have mixed it with green tea.
For sheer selection, the capital’s first whisky bar, Ichikura, leaves newcomers in the dust. Ichikura has over 80 single malts, as well as 40 blended whiskies and 20 bourbons. Order one of the 20 Japanese whiskies, and the owner will be more than happy to share with you its history. To find Ichikura, walk up the stairs on the south side of the Chaoyang Theater.
The city’s easiest to find whisky spot–and perhaps most impressive–is Glen. Here, bartender Iida Tomonobu hand cuts ice to best compliment his expertly mixed cocktails. There are also more than 100 whiskies on offer.
Other options include the 15-seat Bar Promise on the second floor of Jianwai Soho, Er, which has a list of bourbons on par with that of Ichikura, and newcomer Hanabi. Finally Entero is the capital’s only whisky bar with a private (and very affordable) KTV room.
Ichikura (36 Dong Sanhuan, south side of Chaoyang Theater, 朝阳剧场南边, Tel: 6507-1107), Glen (203 Taiyue Suites, 16 Sanlitun Nanlu, 三里屯南路16号, Tel: 6591-1191), Bar Promise (2/F, Bldg 15, Jianwai Soho, 建外Soho15号楼2层, Tel: 5900-0151), Er (1/F Longbao Plaza, 36 Maizidian, 麦子店街36号龙宝大厦1层, Tel: 6591-5926), Hanabi (30 Hetaoyuan, 101 Ruichanghuiguan Building B, 核桃园30号瑞昌会馆B座101号 Tel: 5138-9870), Entero (1 Xinyuanli, 新源里1号, Tel: 8451-0554)
While we could spend an entire day browsing the 200 shops at Glasses City, our favorite stop is a cozy corner shop run by a family of ethnic Koreans (F10, Tel: 6733-5745). Every two months, the owner treks to Seoul and hauls back some of the best frames in Asia. Though they stock flimsier domestic frames, we’re happy to throw down ¥300 per pair for the good stuff. It’s still a fraction of the price back home.
Beijing Glasses City (64 East Third Ring Road, Nanbalizhuang, 东三环南八里庄64号, Tel: 6732-2441)
Maliandao Tea Street
If you’re keen on becoming a fully acculturated Beijing ren, you must know where to procure the most aromatic and reasonably-priced tea in north China. Whether you’re looking to splurge on a rare varietal of tieguanyin or just find a bargain, Maliandao is where it’s at. When we want a cup of something truly extraordinary, we hit up stall 14 for a half kilo of unoxidized Anji white tea (¥100-800, Tel: 136-8306-4588).
**Beijing Tea City (14 Guangwai Maliandao Lu, 马连道茶叶加工厂 广外,马连道路14号, Tel: 6340-9534)
If you’re tired of buying overpriced greens at Olé and then making a separate stop for fresh Norwegian salmon, this culinary fortress is your one-stop alimentation station. Vendors stock all you need for your next dinner party, and it’s fresher and cheaper than the stuff at most expat grocers. Check out stall 081 for imported olive oil, coconut milk, fish sauce and all the spices that make home cooking so nice.
Sanyuanli Meat and Vegetable Market (East Third Ring Road, Shunyuan Jie, behind Xinhua Bookstore, 新源里菜市场, 东三环顺源街)
Guanyuan Pet Market
Ask any bird-walking laotou’r where he picked up his wings, and with shocked incredulity, he’ll say, “Guanyuan, dangran!” Beyond birds, this lively market is Beijing’s Noah’s ark, with hundreds of species of creatures vying for your love and adoration. Consider raising your own real-live Totoro—imported from America—at Chinchilla Beijing Specialty Shop (¥600-2,000 per furry friend).
Guanyuan Pet Market (Southeast corner of Guanyuan Bridge, West Second Ring Road, 官园五洲花鸟鱼虫市场, 二环路官园桥东南角)
Your Secret Spots:
We ask Beijingers about their favorite out-of-the-way spots
“I love walks around the (east side) of the Forbidden City ... It’s the unknown side of a tourist attraction, kind of spooky, laid-back and fun. I never see any laowai there.”
Changpu River Park (菖蒲河公园)
“China creates these kinds of bubbles for expats. I live in the suburbs of Beijing, but one of my favorite places to get away is the Zoo Market. It’s great for shopping splurges.”
Zoo Market (Outside the Beijing Zoo, 北京动物园周边)
“Try Adaxi Xinjiang Restaurant. The service is good, and everyone is a lot of fun. It’s a lively environment, and the servings are huge–tons of chuan’r. It’s enough to feed a family.”
Adaxi (25 Jintailu, 金台路25号, Tel: 8599-2065)
“The Ming Dynasty City Wall Park is really cool. It’s one of the best landscaped public places in Beijing and one of the coolest parks in the city.”
Ming City Wall Relics Park (9 Chongwenmen East Street, east of Chonwenmen Station, 崇文门东大街9号, Tel: 6527-0574)
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