Shortly after leaving our jobs and moving out of the Bay Area, we began our 3-week trip starting in Beijing. We have both been to Beijing separately before, for me it was about 14 years ago. In my vague memories of Beijing as a student, there were not as many shopping malls, modern buildings and the air was not an issue the last time I was here. Still a lot of bicycles in Beijing, and heavy traffic traveling between outer and inner rings. After settling our bags from California to Taiwan for one day, filling myself with milk tea and good old Taiwanese food, we packed again for the capital in most of past 800 years.
Since we have both been to the most touristy spots (Tiananmen Square, Great Wall and Temple of Heaven) and the crazy summer crowd, we did not go to those places on this trip. Check out our itinerary and lists of places for our days traveling in Beijing.
Summer Palace Wedding
A big event here was my sister friend (friend who is like a sister)’s wedding, where I was bridesmaid along with Shuo from Beijing. The wedding took place in Summer Palace (頤和園) between 4th and 5th rings on her birthday, and we spent the day before planning and rehearsing. Y is a brilliant multi-talented girl from Beijing, my sister at Stanford during graduate school years, and we first met at a group camping trip to Bodega Bay in California.
Since the venue was a historical site (in an historical restaurant building called “御膳” – emperor’s dining area), Y wore a Han dynasty dress and she picked a fusion red dress for two of us bridesmaids. Because M the groom is from Utah in the US, he wore a western suit and the ceremony consisted of multiple western and Chinese rituals — 3 times drinking from calabash (合卺酒), Chinese way of tying the knot (couple cutting a strand of hairs from each other and put them in a bag with knots), and a western one passing a bouquet to the next bride to be. The ceremony was a very beautiful one with so much love from both sides of the now big family from Beijing and Utah, and friends from all over the world.
After lunch reception, we all walked to the Summer Palace via a secret entrance from the wedding venue. It was like walking from a quiet alley to the most crowded crossroad, separated by one discreet red door. Y’s parents led 18 of us to take a boat ride at Kunming Lake (昆明湖), weaving through throngs of people on the day before dragon boat festival, one of the biggest national holidays. The lake was surrounded by historical bridges and temples, and it was a perfect break after lunch banquet.
798 Art District
After all the wedding matters were settled, we took Mobike to explore 798 art district near our hotel. It was similar to Taipei Huashan park or Kaohsiung 駁二, but a lot bigger. Quite a few shops were closed around 6pm, we mostly walked around some narrow alleys and wide roads in the park, and encountered some outdoors art figures by surprise. We had clay pot for dinner there, and walked back to the hotel in the dark.
We later moved to a hotel at the top of Wangfujing street. After dropping our bags, we walked down Wangfujing street, as it turned into modern malls on both sides. This was a lot different from my memory of Wangfujing 14 years ago, when few western modern shops existed. Walking past a street of food vendors, we had lunch at a popular chain restaurant Xibei You Mian (西貝優麵村) in APM mall, where they had special Chinese noodles and meat skewers from north west China.
Then we took the subway to Silk Market (秀水街), multiple floors of shops selling knock off goods and bags where buyers must bargain. One could find brand name clothes and shoes and bags, but they are most likely not real. A common strategy is to counter with 10-20% or lower of the original price, and then converge to maybe 30-40%. I was casually looking for hats, though there were not many options, mostly clothes, sneakers/shoes (probably can find Kanye West shoes that look exactly the same), bags, and jewelry.
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed by Sanlitun. Maybe I just didn’t know too much about this neighborhood, and I was expecting external history in the area. To me, Sanlitun felt like a shopping area, with a few malls and a famous Uniqlo colorful building. A lot of foreign shops like H&M, but I guess I’m just not so interested in shopping. The highlight was our dinner at a hidden restaurant “Sun Chase” (日上三甘) in a building without any sign outside, guess most people came from either word of mouth or Dianping.
Jingshan Park 景山公園
This park right above the Forbidden City was my favorite in Beijing. We walked to the East entrance, after stopping by a baozhi shop for breakfast. The entrance fee was 2 RMB, and surprisingly the park was not very crowded 9am Tuesday. The park was lively, with locals doing morning group stretches, or writing calligraphy of poems I learned in childhood on the ground with water! I was amazed by the calligraphy, it adds even more culture to the park, what a fun thing to do if I were retired or just felt poetic.
Later we climbed a few stairs to Wanchun pavilion, and came to view of the whole Forbidden City and other parts of Beijing. However, the smog had clouded the view to some degree on a sunny day. The view was impressive nonetheless and there were five more pagodas near the highest one. I strongly recommend checking out this spot, preferably in early morning to avoid the crowd and super hot weather in the summer. The view of Forbidden City and Chinese pavilions were worth a little bit effort from the stairs!
Water Cube 水立方
Swimming in Water Cube was a dream come true for me. This was also somewhere I experienced very nice people in Beijing, where people and cars tended to express more aggressive manners. If you plan to visit Water Cube, I’d suggest buying tickets ahead especially if you plan to swim. At the counters, I was told the swimming tickets had to be purchased online at a lower price (45RMB). As a foreigner, it was difficult to buy tickets online without WeChat Pay and Alipay (they both required bank account and a Chinese phone number). Fortunately, the lady at the front counter offered to buy a ticket for me on her phone and shared the ticket via WeChat. I was so grateful for her kindness 🙂
The race and diving pools where 2008 Olympics was held was only used for special events nowadays, with blue and white spectator seats on both sides. Only the training pool of 10 50-meter lanes were open to public now, and 5 lanes were deeper that required a certificate to swim there. There was also an indoors water park, mostly for kids and a bit pricey.
10 years after the Olympics, the facilities were a bit outdated and minimal. If you plan to swim here, I’d recommend bringing shower stuff and towel since none are provided here except for a locker with wristband key. In any case, the pool was cool but not cold, perfect for a hot day in the summer. The 5 shallow lanes were pretty crowded, especially with kids from summer camps. However, the long 50 meter lanes made it less crowded to swim in circles, compared to typical 20-25 meter lanes. I swam for about 10 laps until the lane got a bit overcrowded, it was so refreshing on a 90F/32C sunny day.
Beijing Duck Experience
My birthday meal this year was Beijing duck at DaDong. T came to the same DaDong venue on his previous work trip, and really liked the “experience”. It was a huge venue with two gigantic floors, they cut and served the duck right in front of us. We got half of a duck (there were two types of ducks, normal bigger size vs. smaller size but more tender — we got the normal one), two condiments for the duck, two Zhajiangmian (dry noodles with soybean paste), and one magic shrimp (tasted like American Chinese style walnut prawns).
It was more than enough food for me, even though I’ve grown to American appetite. Every dish was well prepared, and the ambience and service were superb. After the meal, there were two surprise complimentary dishes, one purple porridge like bowl, and one plate of lychee with dry ice. Everything was about 70USD after all for two, what a deal for us who were used to San Francisco pricing!
Smoke Bag Byway 煙袋斜街
On our last morning, we visited this byway near the drum tower. There used to be a few shops selling smoke goods, and it was commercialized and about 232 meters long almost parallel to the Houhai lake (后海). We mostly walked around the streets, stopped by a stationary store for postcards, and headed back to the hotel.
We probably spent the longest time finding hotels in Beijing than other cities in China. Because of the size of Beijing, places are generally spread out and 20-minute travel time is already pretty short.
We stayed in NUO for three nights with the other wedding guests, a hotel with modern design and probably one of the best hotels we have stayed for just 170 USD per night. The location is in the outer ring, but there are still bunch of restaurants and points of interest in the neighborhood (Jiangtai Rd 將台路). The most famous sight is probably 798 art district, about 25 minute walk or a 15 minute bike ride.
Later we moved to Prime Hotel in Wangfujing for two nights, to be closer to the first ring. It was about half the price of NUO, an older hotel but location was perfect for exploring a few famous tourist destinations by foot or quick subway ride – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, a few museums and many shopping malls. The hotel building had traces of Chinese style extravagance, and the room was comfortable.
I still felt a lot of history in this city that interleaves with modern shopping malls. Walking/biking into an old hutong, and then back out on a super busy 6-lane road was quite a transition. Effort was put into keeping and restoring the cultural heritage, while modern buildings were quickly established in the background. Beijing is such a big city, I met so many different types of people and saw just a small subset of distinct neighborhoods. I already have a picture of my ideal day in Beijing: grab breakfast at a traditional dough based shop (baozi, jianbing), spend the morning in Jingshan park, up to the top of Wanchun pavilion; lunch at a local noodle shop, swim at the Water Cube; dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant in Wangfujing and then take a walk on the street after.