City lovers can understand the comforting anonymity of being in a crowd. But there are New York City type crowds and then there are China crowds. China crowds are on a whole other magnitude, and it can turn you into a regular misanthrope. Especially when you’re squished into a massive mosh pit of people trying to get through security to enter the Forbidden City. Once inside, you get the audio tour and try to make it a good informative day but instead you get absorbed into massive blobs of tour groups at every stop. People become aggressive and judgmental at some point. While waiting in line for the bathroom, some lady tried to cut the line by saying she had to give something to her friend inside, then when the attendant tried to stop her she aggressively pushed past him shouting her friend needs her bag of tampons or something. Then another lady in line said in a northern Chinese accent that these Zhejiang people need to stop making Shanghai people look bad. So you get the picture, the crowds in China are enough to bring out the worse in people. Or maybe people behaving badly make the crowds in China unbearable. Chicken or the egg?
If you get away from the super touristy Forbidden City, then the rest of the city isn’t so bad. Hutongs or narrow alleys form a labyrinth around the city. These alleys are formed by the walls of the siheyuans, or traditional courtyard houses. Most of these have been torn down but certain neighborhoods have been preserved for their historic value. A lot of the hutongs have been commercialized, filled with street food vendors and boutique shops. Beijingers really love their famous local brands (老招牌) with old family recipes that have their quality vouched for by being in business for hundreds of years. So there could be five vendors selling exactly the same food but only one of them would have a line that goes around the corner. If you don’t know the names of these local brands, just look out for the lines formed by the locals.
In parts of the city, you can even find relative solitude. There are several large parks built around the lakes next to the Forbidden City. Beihai park is one of my favorites. Wide paths circle the lake and are lined with old weeping willows. It can take up to two hours to walk around the lake, especially if you often stop to people watch. There are old people dancing badly but not giving a shit, people pedaling rubber ducky styled boats around the lake, school kids drawing a picturesque pavilion, a group of German tourists, a couple doing a dramatic dance to “My Heart Will Go On” to a sizable audience…there is just so much wonderful life going on and no aggro crowds.
If you really want to get away from people, just 2 hours outside of the city is a town at the base of the Simatai segment of the Great Wall called Gubei Water Town. In recent years, ancient towns have been restored as hugely popular attractions, especially in the Shanghai/Zhejiang areas. This northern town is a completely modern settlement built in the style of an ancient town. I don’t think of it as “fake” however, just like I don’t think of Disneyland or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as “fake”. I think it’s great as far as man-made tourist attractions go: cobblestone streets lined with shops hawking traditional foods and handicrafts, along with modern cafes and restaurants, a lazy canal winds through the town crossed by picturesque stone bridges, ivy is strategically planted on every wall and has turned a blazing red in the fall. It evokes another era and another more idyllic world and offers an escape from reality.
Nestled at the base of the Simatai Great Wall, the entry point to the Great Wall is through the town where you can take a scenic gondola ride or hike three miles or so to the top. I hiked almost half way looking for the entrance to the gondola before I realized I missed it. The hike is strenuous but well paved with a lot of stairs and it is really scenic as well. Even though the hillside is covered with fall colors and the temperature is just a tad chilly, there were no China-sized crowds there this time of year. My aunt and I stayed at the ginormous Water Town Hotel, which is an absolutely beautiful and luxurious behemoth. We usually prefer to book small bed-and-breakfast inns that are nestled in the town itself, but we kind of planned the trip last minute and didn’t have time to research. Either way I can guarantee that it’ll be a completely relaxing stay.
Four Day Itinerary
Forbidden City – This is probably the #1 tourist attraction in all of Beijing, so as with these kind of places, getting there early helps, but not much. There were be a line for security and another one to buy the tickets. Once inside, if you break away from the tour group routes, you can find some pretty empty spots where you can quietly soak in the fact that you’re inside the Forbidden Fucking City in Beijing! Don’t forget a photo op in front of the Tiananmen Square with the Chairman, although it’s a bit hard to get a good photo with the current set up (it’s basically a big crowd funnel).
Jingshan Park – out of the north gate of the Forbidden City, short hike up to the top for birds eye view of the Forbidden City.
Street food outside of Jingshan park – look for a crowded street full of street vendors. Then look for the lone line for the paicha (排叉儿). What is a paicha? It looks like an unassuming piece of tortilla chip, and it is in fact just fried flour and sesame seeds but holy kitchen god is it delicious.
Bei Hai (North Lakes) Park – walk over from Jingshan Park and enjoy a stroll around the lake. Take a rubber ducky pedal boat out on the water or just people watch from the shore.
Nanluo Gu Xiang – trendy shops and eateries in an old-fashioned hutong (alley). Historic hutongs branch off of the main shop-lined one and still has real si-he-yuan (Chinese style courtyards) that Chinese millionaires have bought and live in.
Hou Hai (back lakes) – basically bars with a view of the lake – if you are not that into the bar scene just go there during the day and enjoy the scenery or take a bike tour. There are tons of bike tour guides that will pull you around the old alleys chatting your ears off with historical snippets or just local celebrity gossip. The guy who pulled us said he got to take Obamas daughters around on a tour when they visited Beijing, but he wasn’t allowed to say a word to them the whole time. Sure dude!
Yandai Xiejie “smoke pipe alley”-lively old street, similar atmosphere with bars and souvenir shops to Hou Hai and close to there.
Overnight trip to Gubei Water Town. Spend the day checking out all the charming hidden corners of this “ancient town”, listen to actors “tell stories”, check out the street food and boutiques, and wait until dark to see all the giant lanterns light up.
Wake up refreshed the next day to climb the Great Wall. Wear good shoes because this section of the Great Wall is wilder and less maintained than some of the other sections. There are steep and slippery stones and even ladders, but it’s a lot of fun and the view is amazing. Note: I did not do this with Ellie, although I did see plenty of toddlers and small children on the top. I don’t think it’s dangerous, but as with all things with small children, take it slow.
Places I’ve skipped because I am an old lady, but are probably fun for young single people: Sanlitun – bars, Xidan – shopping center near Tiananmen Square
In addition to all the foods I’ve mentioned above, keep an eye out for these traditional street foods.
Clockwise from top left:
1. Bingtang hulu (冰糖葫芦). These are the ubiquitous hawthorn berries with a hardened sugar shell. These have been my favorites since I was a kid. The sugar is so delightful so crack with your teeth and the hawthorn adds a wonderful punch of tartness.
2. Mian cha “Flour Tea” (面茶) – a healthy concoction of millet gruel, sesame paste and oil, topped with more sesame. I’m a huge lover of sesame sauce, but somehow this combination did not work for me and I didn’t like it that much.
3. Shuangpi Nai “Double Skin Milk” (双皮奶) – this creamy custard has a unique texture that is kind of in between a really custard and liquid milk. It’s flavor is like farm fresh milk with a heavy taste of cream. So delicious.
4. Zhajiang Mian “Fried Black Bean Sauce Noodles” (炸酱面) – this is another traditional dish that originated in Northern China. The sauce is made with fermented black beans that is like a ultra potent soy sauce but with even more umami. Traditionally there are a ton of toppings to go on the noodles but the basic toppings are sliced cucumbers and pickled cabbage.
Hot pot is a really popular dish in China, but especially as the weather turns cooler in the northern climes. My family took me to a specialty hot pot restaurant called Lijiang Fish Hot Pot. They specialize in ultra-thin sliced fresh fish instead of the more common thinly sliced meat. It was absolutely delicious.
This amazing dish is famous around the world for a reason. Typically an entire roasted duck will be wheeled to your table and the chef and carve the whole thing for you. Pair it with plenty of wine and take your time, dining for 4 or 5 hours is not uncommon. The best part according to my relatives are the pure fat right underneath the skin that has been fried to a perfect crisp. Mmmmm, nothing like eating pure fat (sarcasm? maybe).
My relatives took me to Quanjude restaurant （全聚德）。Dadong (大董）is another one that is recommended to me.
Goodbye, Beijing! I know I’ve only explored a tiny fraction of this giant capital, I can’t wait for the chance to come back and see the rest. Shout out to my friend Lian and my relatives for all the recommendations.