Three districts in Beijing to savor and linger in
Afriend planning a trip to Beijing opened a map, pointed to a hotel and said, “I should be able to walk from there to the Forbidden City easily, right?” ¶ Not easily. Maps don’t convey the city’s size, which together with traffic and construction makes walking hard and even unpleasant at times. The best way to reach such far-flung attractions as the Beijing Zoo and Lama Temple is by taxi or subway, a frustration for people who like to explore on foot. ¶ But there are some districts where travelers can wander freely. My favorites were Dongcheng, Chaoyang and Haidian.
Dongcheng, on the northern and eastern sides of the Forbidden City, is best known for Wangfujing, Beijing’s main shopping street, where people from the provinces wander agog, like cowboys in up-to-date Kansas City.
Foreign visitors are more likely to be drawn to Dongcheng’s old-fashionednarrow-alley hutong neighborhoods, where people go about daily life, queue up at closet-sized noodle factories, get a scolding from the community warden and don’t bother to change out of their pajamas in the morning when they walk their dogs.
Wandering through the hutongs, which flow in a tangle toward big streets like streams trickling toward rivers, is one of the principle pleasures of visiting Beijing. They are lined with trees, tiny shops and low-rise courtyard residences, or siheyuans, built exclusively of gray brick during the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties. The narrowest, Gaoxiao Hutong, is 2 feet wide; the shortest is Yichi Dajie Hutong, or One Foot Street.
Some siheyuan houses were large and luxurious, built by aristocrats, highly placed officials and well-to-do merchants who lived there with their families for generations. After the protracted revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949, many siheyuans were divided into densely packed, multifamily dwellings without private toilets, central heating or running water.
A tidal wave of urban development that has destroyed many hutongs was driven by an effort to improve living conditions for workaday Beijingers and continued unabated until just a few years ago.
But lately, the city has recognized the attractions of the old neighborhoods, especially in Dongcheng, where signs in Pinyin -- Romanized Chinese -- identify every hutong to help foreigners find their way.
One of the 40-odd palatial siheyuans that survive in Beijing recently went on the market for about $25 million. Some hutongs are now protected by law, and preservationists protest when others, such as Dongsi Batiao on the northeastern side of the district, once colonized by artists, writers and Peking Opera stars, are targeted for demolition.
Instead of leveling old neighborhoods and forcing longtimers out, the Dongcheng District renovated Nanchizi Hutong, centered on the graceful Pudu Temple at the southeastern corner of the Forbidden City. When the dust settled, residents were moved back to upgraded quarters complete with tap water, toilets and broadband cable.
Grass-roots private enterprise has given new life to the alleyways leading off Nanluogu Street on the western side of Doncheng, the hub of one of the city’s most popular hutong neighborhoods. The government repaved the street and still maintains such historic sites as the siheyuan home of the Communist Revolution-era writer Mao Dun, but the restaurants, cafes and shops selling stylish threads reflect the recent capitalist recharging of Beijing.
I stayed at a low-rent hotel in the neighborhood on my first visit to Beijing 10 years ago but found more upscale accommodations recently at Guxiang 20, a stylish new inn on Nanluogu Street that boasts a rooftop tennis court and canopy beds.
I favored Xiao Xin’s Café a few blocks south for coffee and Wi-Fi and wandered every day to the Drum and Bell Towers, which kept the time in old Beijing. The National Art Museum of China, with its stunning collection of contemporary Chinese art and a wing devoted to intricately crafted shadow puppets, and Jingshan Park, an old imperial garden overlooking the northern gate of the Forbidden City, are also nearby.
Mostly, though, I hung out in the hutongs around Nanluogu Street, where old men play mah-jongg, moms dandle babies in split-crotched trousers and public toilets still outnumber private commodes.
CHAOYANG’S NEW CHINA
If you ask foreigners working in Beijing where they live, they’ll likely say Chaoyang on the eastern side of the city. The district’s contemporary look and conveniences have made it attractive to embassies, multinational corporations, shopping mall developers and most of Beijing’s big chain hotels. These cluster along the Second and Third ring roads, coming to a stunning halt at the southern side of Chaoyang in the Central Business District.
It’s decidedly too far to walk to the Forbidden City from Chaoyang. But when a new light rail line opens next year, the district will become one of the city’s major transportation hubs, offering connections to the Forbidden City and the Olympic Green.
I settled into a room at the Poly Plaza Hotel (technically in Dongcheng, but closer to the major sights of Chaoyang) to explore New China in Chaoyang.
The 15-year-old Poly Plaza occupies one of two shirt box-shaped towers on either side of a theater where I heard the China Philharmonic Orchestra perform Sibelius and Tchaikovsky one evening Its state-owned art museum, displaying a distinguished collection of perfectly preserved classical Chinese paintings and sculptures, recently moved to the new Poly Plaza office tower diagonally across the ring road from the hotel.
Given its style and amenities, my Poly Plaza double was a good deal at about $100 a night. But a cup of coffee cost more than $5 in the lobby cafe. So in the mornings, I frequented a café in the underground shopping center at nearby East Gate Plaza, which has a multiplex where I saw “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” (Beijing is crazy for cinema, so I also took in films at the nearby French Cultural Center and Cherry Lane Movies in northeastern Chaoyang, a showcase for new Chinese films with English subtitles.)
Back on street level after “Pirates,” I found myself at the threshold of the upscale Ginza Mall and the Dongzhimen intersection, a vast construction site where the light rail station and office complexes are rising on three of its four corners.
It was an easy walk east from there to Workers Stadium, the true heart of the district. The stadium was built in 1959 and is being renovated for Olympic soccer. Some of Beijing’s most popular expat addresses surround the stadium, including the Bookworm, an English-language lending library and store; the Bodhi spa; Yoga Yard; and Green T. House, a restaurant where Asian fusion describes the cuisine and décor.
At the Green T. House, I sat on a cushioned banquette studying a menu with such offerings as “Kiss Me, Don’t Say Goodbye,” a dark chocolate-jasmine fondant. I chose “Snow Flake Yogurt Soup,” made of light and creamy cucumbers and delectable grilled prawns, with a glass of iced apple tea.
When Chaoyang began modernizing two decades ago, Sanlitun Street, set among the embassies on the northeastern side of the district, quickly became a hot spot, lined with restaurants and bars. Although the party seems to have moved west to the Houhai Lake area, the neighborhood still has some of the city’s hippest boutiques and most varied cuisine -- burgers at Kiosk and tapas at Alameda, both in the Nali mini-mall.
Why go all the way to Chaoyang for yoga and burgers? Because, apart from the multiplexes and malls, you can’t take China out of Chaoyang. Every modern apartment complex is really its own little alley-laced hutong where traditional Chinese city life unfolds at mom and pop markets and shop houses. Laundry dries on balconies. Peddlers sell ugly baked sweet potatoes, one of Beijing’s favorite snacks. Kids practice skateboard tricks, and cobblers ply their trade by the curb.
The fascinations of wandering in Chaoyang never flagged. On a long walk west to the Lama Temple, one of nine religious sites in the capital where Tibetan Buddhists once worshiped, I followed Dongzhimen Beizhong Street through a neighborhood where the restaurant menus were filled with caviar, blinis and vodka. I understood why when the road dead-ended at the Russian Embassy, a stoutly walled compound where I imagined apparatchiks monitoring the thaws and fast freezes that have long marked Sino-Soviet relations.
Another day, I headed south from Workers Stadium to 700-year-old Dongyue Temple, now Beijing’s Folk Arts Museum, and lovely Ritan Park, formerly the Temple of the Sun. The park was a favorite haunt of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who died in 1976 and is said to have put a protective hand over many historic sites during the worst rampages of the Cultural Revolution. Now it’s a popular place for strolling at night and drinking at the Stone Boat Bar, permanently moored on a pond blanketed with lily pads.
At Da Dong restaurant on the Third Ring Road, I had Peking Duck with skin as crisp as potato chips and watched cranes perform a ballet in the sky over the Central Business District, where Rem Koolhaas’ 755-foot CCTV Tower is on the rise. Crossing a courtyard outside ritzy Shin Kong Place several long blocks east of the tower, I happened to see workmen installing a sign for the mall’s new Fauchon boutique, soon to bring Dijon mustard and foie gras to New China.
THE WEST END
I think of the West End, especially Haidian, as my neighborhood because that’s where I lived during my language course. It is home to Peking and Tsinghua universities, the Harvard and Yale of China, as well the Old and New Summer Palaces, Incense Burner Peak , Big Bell Temple and Zhongguancun, Beijing’s riotous electronics market.
The Olympic Green is a 15-minute cab ride away, and a light rail line, soon to be joined by two new subways, runs through the district, providing relatively easy access to central Beijing. But I often had a hard time dislodging myself from Haidian. It’s airier than downtown and, on a clear day, the western mountains seem close enough to touch.
Haidian’s high-energy heart is the area around Wudaokou Station, which has a half-finished look, more like Tijuana than Cambridge, Mass., lined with student-friendly cafes, movie theaters and high-rise apartment buildings. Korean restaurants predominate, although few people can resist the congee shop on Chengfu Road, where they grab a Chinese porridge for breakfast, served with their choice of sweet or savory toppings.
Chengfu Road dead-ends to the west at the gates of Peking University, known to students as “Beida” and founded in 1898 by Qing Dynasty Emperor Guangxu. It was part of ill-fated reforms that were cut short when a coup d’etat elevated the ultraconservative Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled China from behind the scenes until her death in 1908. But the university endured, breeding scholars, artists and dissidents, and in 1952 moved from its original site on the eastern side of Beijing to park lands near the Summer Palace.
The campus is one of the loveliest places in the capital, hushed by serious scholarship and verdant with trees labeled in the nomenclature of Linnaeus. Most buildings are decorated with the carved beams and painted rafters of Ming Dynasty architecture. I often wandered around Weiming Lake and Boya Pagoda, passing intriguing sights such as the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art & Archaeology, the Research Center for Deng Xiaoping’s Theory at the College of Marxism and the tomb of American writer Edgar Snow, whose 1936 “Red Star Over China” helped make the Communist Party’s struggle to free the country from imperialism and feudalism known in the United States.
To the north, a canal separates Beida from the ruins of Yuanmingyuan, often called the Old Summer Palace, built in the 18th century. Compared with the nearby New Summer Palace, started a few decades later, it is a neglected treasure but nonetheless precious for the history that whispers around it.
The first Europeans who saw Yuanmingyuan’s interconnected gardens and pavilions, set on a system of man-made rivers, were so astounded by its splendors that they called it the “Versailles of the East.” But when the great powers of the 19th century began carving up China, first by treaty and then by force, Yuanmingyuan was sacked and burned.
French author Victor Hugo wrote in an 1861 letter that the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by two bandits: England and France. That shameful episode has long since been forgotten. But at Yuanmingyuan, I saw and understood how it fueled antagonism toward the West and helped shape China’s communist future.
One weekend, I absconded from my dorm room at Beijing Language and Culture University for some R & R in the Xizhimen district south of Haidian. I got a good rate -- about $175 a night, including a munificent buffet breakfast -- at the Beijing Shangri-La. (It’s part of a Hong Kong-based hotel chain that, I found, consistently does the best job in China, especially when it comes to service.)
My beautiful, king-bedded double overlooked the Third Ring Road, the old CCTV tower, the Beijing Zoo with its sleepy pandas and rare snub-nosed monkeys, Purple Bamboo Park, Wutai Temple and Capital Indoor Stadium, sprucing up to stage Olympic volleyball. When I asked the concierge where to shop, he directed me to Dongwuyuan Wholesale Market, a designer knock-off gold mine across from the zoo where I bagged a stunning white lace jacket for $3.
I took a boat trip from a dock near the zoo to the Summer Palace, heard a docent play a winsome Chinese air on the Marquis of Zeng’s 65 chimes at the Big Bell Temple and toured the Beijing Film Studio, a now seedy 50-year-old complex where the Peking Opera was put on-screen and vintage World War II movies were made.
In pretty Purple Bamboo Park, I joined old folks in their regular weekend sing-along, imagining what they had seen during their long lives in China.
Down the hill by the lake, indescribably cute kids were eating Popsicles and chasing butterflies, and I wondered what they would see in China’s future.
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