Looking for a break that blends blockbuster sights, historic hutongs, cutting edge architecture and stellar street grub? You’d better make a bee-line for Beijing. Check out TNT’s tips on how to make the most of the Middle Kingdom on a budget…
Seek out street markets
Chances are ‘chi fan’ (let’s eat), is the phrase you’ll hear most often. Beijing has a thriving local gastronomic scene but, if money is too tight to mention, avoid high-end dining joints like Beijing Da Dong Duck (www.dadongdadong.com, even if the restaurant does serve up superior versions of Beijing’s signature dish) and head to a night market like Donghuamen. The latter isn’t for the faint-hearted (Beijing is a city that adores its meat and subsequently you’ll see vendors peddling silkworms, scorpions, sea-horse, snake and starfish and the like) but it’s certainly lens friendly! Select your food stall and then sit and feast with locals eating street nosh like noodles and jiaozi (steamed dumplings) that are guaranteed to have you keeling over in bliss.
Hold your nerve and haggle hard
Beijing’s trendiest shopping street is without a doubt the pedestrian-only Wangfujing, but it’s also one of the most expensive. The budget-conscious would do well to seek out the Silk Market or Yashow where industrious bootleggers will be happy to test your conscience by offering DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters long before they hit the screens for a couple of quid. Here – so long as you haggle hard – you can pick up a pair of Louboutin look-alikes for a snip. Lastly if you’re in town on a Saturday or Sunday, head for the colourful Panjiayuan Antique Market – Beijing’s biggest and best-known arts, crafts, and antiques market and a photographer’s dream.
Worried about all the calories you have been consuming on your hols? Your worry isn’t misplaced. Beijing adores the body beautiful – and that, my friend, demands a devotion to exercise. Ditch the gym though and tune into the Beijing vibe, by practising Thai Chi, for free, in Ritan Park – easily one of Beijing’s prettiest parks. China’s capital city is punctuated with parks and, for most Beijingers, they are akin to a second home – a place to socialise, relax and yes, stay fit.
Walk this way
Walking is the best way to see Beijing – everywhere has something of interest – and happily, it’s a free form of transport. However if you’re suffering from sore feet, hop on the subway which is cheap, clean, efficient and easy to use. Alternatively, take a taxi. Drivers rarely speak English which can prove problematic if your Mandarin is miserable but they are inexpensive and (unless it’s raining) in plentiful supply.
Sanlitun – a popular nightlife destination – is where Beijing’s elite and expatriate population head when they want to let their hair down in a hip (read eye-wateringly expensive) haunt. However if you want to party for peanuts like a local and not a laowai (foreigner), look to a karaoke (KTV) bar. Karaoke might not top your Saturday night agenda back home in Blighty but trust TNT when we say that once you pick up the mic and play air guitar, you’ll soon discover that it’s actually a whole heap of fun. Prices for room hire vary according to time (as a rule, the earlier you go the cheaper it is) but as rule of thumb, expect to pay around 200RMB per room, per hour.
Body aching following a long flight? Try TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). TCM aims to balance your yin and yang and ward off disease and illness through a combination of nutrition, exercise and treatments such as acupuncture (where fine needles are inserted into the skin), moxibustion (an alternative to acupuncture which involves a therapist moving a heated cup of herbs above your body), mediation and traditional Chinese massage. All of the aforementioned can be tried on the cheap in any street corner parlour.
Enjoy time out in Tiananmen Square
Only a philistine would leave Beijing without visiting the free attraction that is Tiananmen Square. Standing at 880 metres long and 500 metres wide, the world’s largest public square has enough space to accommodate up to one million people. The square was originally designed and built-in 1651 but has been enlarged four times since and is considered the symbol of the People’s Republic and the centre of Beijing’s landmarks. The iconic square owes its name to t its location – it’s situated in front of the south gate (Tiananmen) of the Forbidden City
Go to the Great Wall
Built between the fifth and 16th centuries, The Great Wall of China – the longest wall in the world – is arguably the symbol of China and no visit to Beijing is complete without making a pilgrimage to this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Or as Mao Zedong himself once put it: “He who has not climbed the Great Wall, is not a true man.”
However as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, guided tours to the Great Wall – built to function as an impenetrable line of defence – can be crazy expensive. If you don’t fancy forking out a fair amount of dosh, skip the official excursion and travel to the wall (we recommend the less touristy Mutianyu or Simatai sections) independently by bus.
China is celebrated for its tea, which first rose to popularity during the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. As such, lost-in-time tea houses abound. You can while away a whole afternoon in a tea house enjoying an inexpensive cup of scented tea (spring), green tea (summer), Oolong tea (autumn), or black tea (winter) while watching Beijingers eating, drinking, doing business, chatting, playing chess and simply enjoying each other’s company.
Take advantage of the 72-Hour Free Transit Visa
Thanks to blockbuster sights such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City, Beijing is top of the bucket list for a lot of travellers – but obtaining a tourist visa isn’t exactly hassle free. The amount of detail required on the application (expanded from two to four pages back in 2011) plus the steep fee proves a little off putting to say the least. The good news, however, is that passport holders from 45 countries – including the UK, the US and Australia – can make three-day visa-free visits to the Chinese capital provided they have a valid passport as well as a confirmed flight ticket (to a third country or region) that will depart within 72 hours.