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Some destinations are so fascinating that they inspire us to re-visit them, again and again. TPG Contributors (and husband and wife) Mitch Berman and Susanne Lee have traveled to Beijing, China together several times since 1989, and this is how they’ve seen the city change.
Susanne was one of the rare solo independent travelers to China in 1980, when Beijing was emerging from the paranoia and isolation of the Cultural Revolution. Almost all signs were only in Chinese and bicycles (and the sounds of their bells) were everywhere, but there were very few cars.
Nine years later, Susanne returned with Mitch to cover the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, and they’ve returned together several times since.
Beijing today is one of China’s showpieces and among the great cities of the world, and though traffic is heavy and air quality has become dire, you can eat and buy anything you want and see incredible sights, including the Great Wall.
Here’s how Beijing has changed in recent decades, and how to have an enjoyable time there today.
THE GREAT WALL
Visiting the Great Wall at Badaling on her first trip, Susanne ran into only a few tourists from local Chinese tour buses. Years later, to avoid the insane crowds at Badaling, we went together to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Our six-year-old son was so excited that as soon as he got off the top of the ski lift, he declared, “Every step is a joy!” We had vast stretches all to ourselves and we could explore beyond the restored sections to places where only bricks, crumbled stones and dirt marked the Wall’s remains. By the end of our day’s hike, our son’s legs were worn out and he announced, “Every step is a misery.”
Most tourists still see the Great Wall at Badaling, but a great many now come to Mutianyu. After you finish exploring Mutianyu, you can take an individual toboggan ride back down the hill. At Badaling, you’re stuck on a rail, riding a slow-mo semi-rollercoaster.
For the fit hiker, Jiankou offers an unrestored, wilder view of the Great Wall. Unlike Badaling and Mutianyu, there are no cable cars and often even no steps – just a steep path that is intact in places and crumbling in others with trees thrusting through the ancient masonry. Not without risk, and definitely a challenge, it’s well worth it for the ruggedly glorious views. Set aside most of a day for this trip. You can also hike the six miles from Mutianyu to Jiankou. All of these destinations are about 50 miles from Beijing.
In the 1980s, restaurants had a “people’s side” with no-frills tables for the masses and a separate section for the tourists with cloth napkins and tablecloths — but the food came from the same kitchen. We ate spicy eggplant on the people’s side and from the next table, a group of locals honored my white-guy chopsticks skill by offering me a toast.
Years later, when we brought along our son, he lived on hand-pulled noodles served in a spicy meat sauce and moon cakes filled with lotus and sesame. At the night markets, we ate fried quail eggs on a stick, tanghulu (candied crab apples on a stick) and skewered chicken.
Quanjude, the 150-year-old chain of 50 restaurants (eight of them in Beijing), remains a reliable bet for Peking Duck. As you’ll see in the photo above, they’ve had just a bit of experience with the dish.
For a visit to junk-food heaven, explore Nanluoguxiang, an ancient hutong (more about those later) with food stalls that serve everything from lamb kebabs to rose-shaped fruit sorbets to foot-tall soft-serve ice cream.
Night markets are among the most exciting places to eat anywhere in Asia. Sprawling Donghuamen is the best known night market in Beijing, with cicadas, seahorses and scorpions-on-a-stick — and boatloads of tourists and jacked-up prices to match. If you’re up late, try Niu Jie Snack Street for Muslim food, including halal hot pot, and visit some of the stalls in Niu Jie Supermarket, such as Yibaoheye Zenggao for red bean cakes.
In the 1980s, credit cards weren’t a thing in China, and like many third-world economies, they didn’t have a proper hard currency system. Instead, tourists used Foreign Exchange Certificates and the people used renminbi, which could not be changed into foreign currency. Enticed by a local guy scalping renminbi near our hotel, we managed to buy some of this Chinese currency at a discount.
Armed with our renminbi, we visited the Beijing Department Store (opened in 1955 and pretty much unchanged to that point) on what was then the city’s only major shopping street, Wangfujing. Everything they sold was dirt cheap and made in China, and the staff moved as slowly as the minute hand on a clock — despite the life-sized bronze bust outside that depicted an idealized shop clerk.
Commercial relics of that era were the state-run Friendship Stores, the only places foreigners and high party cadres could shop for imported goods. Though a few Friendship Stores still exist, they’ve long since lost their caché.
As for genuine (and some not-so-genuine) relics, we shopped for antiques in the Qianmen area. The shopkeepers kept telling us everything was “Qing Dynasty” — which was a god bet in China, considering the Qing ruled from 1644 to 1911.
These days, China has one currency, credit cards are accepted almost everywhere and Wangfujing is now a pedestrian street with all the designer wear you’ll ever need — some inside the Wangfujing Department Store (the former Beijing Department Store), and much more in the modern landmark atrium that houses Beijing apm and in the mammoth Oriental Plaza. You can still buy antiques in the Qianmen area, but watch out for forgeries.
When shopping for big-ticket items in Beijing, be sure to bring along credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Citi Premier Card. To see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.
Our six-year-old son described the hutong, the wandering maze of old streets linking ancient courtyards, as a “neighborhood from long ago.” We wandered the narrow, lively alleys where hole-in-the-wall joints served hearty noodles, old men smoked and women hung out laundry from sticks.
We were fascinated by the transience of water calligraphy — older gentlemen writing in water with huge brushes on stone and cement. Walking backward, they worked in large scale. Then, as the characters began to evaporate, they appraised each other’s calligraphy and the words disappeared.
Though a third of the hutong (the word is both plural and singular) were bulldozed for the 2008 Olympics, one that’s still going strong is the food street Nanluoguxiang, which we described earlier. Many more hutong can be found in the area around Dashilar Street, near Qianmen, which has a nearly millennium-long history and where new snack shops like Spoonful of Sugar (try the homemade sodas or quiches) sit next to traditional businesses such as Ma Ju Yuan, the official hatter for the Qing government. Another area to explore are the hutong around Beixinqiaosantiao, which specialize in casual eateries.
We all know that the world is changing fast, but as we’ve watched Beijing over the past few decades, it’s changing even faster. It seems that modern Chinese history is written in water calligraphy, disappearing as soon as it happens.
What destinations have inspired you to make repeat visits? Please share with us in the comments below.