Beijing Travel Guide

Beijing Travel Guide

In one of his epic romantic poems, Mao Zedong wrote: "One Who Fails to Reach the Great Wall Is No Hero." No matter that one esteemed translator described Mao’s poems as “not as bad as Hitler's paintings, but not as good as Churchill's.” The sentiment is the same. Have you fully lived if you’ve never walked the Great Wall of China? A trip to Beijing lets you check that box as well as plenty of other marvels: Peking Opera, roast duck, Forbidden City, hot pot soup, Tiananmen Square, a weird building that looks like a pair of pants, imperial gardens, chic hidden cocktail bars and, if the heart desires, even a drag show. While it’s nowhere near a gay mecca, Beijing does have a gay scene, as evidenced the Beijing Queer Film Festival and its own LGBT Center. At the time Mao penned his mediocre poems, gayness was underground owing to its being pathologised and criminalized. However, same-sex sex was finally deleted from the criminal codebooks in 1997, followed by its removal four years later from the mental illness textbooks. That said, being gay is still highly stigmatized so the scene, while fun, easy to find and accessible, is still fairly discreet.

The best hotels in Beijing

If you’re keen to dive deep into of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations but prefer to lay your head in a setting that is more contemporary chic, The Opposite House is for you. Inside the lime-green glass cube building, you will find minimalist rooms with bleached wood floors, open-plan bathrooms and walls of dark slate. Striking art installations dot the soaring common areas and the pool bottom is made of stainless steel. The hotel sits at the centre of the Sanlitun, a massive complex for shopping, eating and nightlife. It’s got a great bar/club called Mesh that’s posh and full of expats on Thursdays. In the same district, the high-design CHAO Sanlitun Beijing is a striking mix of futuristic, classic, and Zen. The hotel was conceived as a place where guests can mix with the local community. To that end, it’s got a common area, a co-working space, an art centre and even an amphitheatre. Pretty cool. A stunningly extravagant property is the Hotel Éclat Beijing, which showcases museum-quality art in a building that resembles the Louvre Pyramid. A member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the hotel’s collection includes Salvador Dali, Zhang Guolang, Chen Wen Ling, Andy Warhol, Gao Xiao Wu, Zou Liang. We’re not sure hotels get any better than this. If big hotel complexes aren’t your thing, Double Happiness Beijing Courtyard Hotel is a lovely and affordable option. No two rooms are the same at the converted 200-year-old courtyard house located down an alleyway. The whole space feels eclectic and personal. Another courtyard hotel but with a slicker vibe is the Beijing 161 Drum Tower Hotel, which also has a great outdoor terrace. Another version of the traditional courtyard house hotel is the hip and laid-back The Orchid. With just 10 rooms and a maze of flowery terraces and warm heartfelt service, this place is the proverbial gem.

Photo: Zhang Kaiyv

Photo: Zhang Kaiyv

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Recommended hotels in Beijing
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The over-the-top costumes, make-up and acrobatics of the Peking Opera will make you say, ‘Cirque Du Who?’

Things to do in Beijing

Even if you don’t fancy yourself an opera fan, do yourself a favour and take in a Peking Opera at the National Center for the Performing Arts, aka “The Giant Egg.” The elliptical arts centre is itself an architectural marvel to behold, made of titanium and glass and set on an artificial lake. The over-the-top costumes, make-up and acrobatics will make you say, ‘Cirque Du Who?’ An art museum in an anonymous glass office building? Just go with it. The Poly Art Museum is an intimate and exquisite treasure trove of ancient artefacts including bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties and Buddhist stone carvings. And then…there’s the Watermelon Museum because who doesn’t want to visit a 4,000 square meter shrine devoted to the history of the giant fruit. If you’re in Beijing you’re no doubt going to visit the World Wonder that is the Great Wall. Here are a few different ways to do the wall: you can visit the part of the wall that’s open at night on a Night Tour on the Great Wall at Simatai. It’s a nice option to avoid the crowds since it’s well lit and offers breathtaking views. Did you know there’s a slide at the Great Wall of China? Yes, it’s slightly silly to toboggan down the Great Wall but it’s also slightly thrilling. Take in the views and breezes as you glide (or zoom) down the 1580 meters slide.

Peking Opera | Photo: Hans Bernhard

Peking Opera | Photo: Hans Bernhard

Great Wall of China | Photo: Johannes Plenio

Great Wall of China | Photo: Johannes Plenio

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Recommended experiences in Beijing
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The building shaped like a pair of trousers that would fit Godzilla is referred to as ‘Big Pants’ by locals

Things to see in Beijing

Beijing is a wonderful place to wander. Marvel over the Temple of Heaven, considered by some to be the pinnacle of religious architecture in China. For centuries, emperors led prayer ceremonies and sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. The focal point of the imperial complex is a magnificent wooden circular building that was built with no nails. Be sure to pay a visit it Tian Yi Mu’s Tomb, devoted to the most powerful eunuch in Chinese history. The grounds are nothing spectacular, but the history of eunuchs in the country is. Emperors entrusted their many wives and concubines to the care of these men, knowing if the woman fell pregnant, it was the leader who sired the child and not his neutered assistant. China’s last eunuch died in 1996. That building shaped like a pair of pants that would fit Godzilla? Technically it’s the CCTV Headquarters building, although locals refer to it as “Big Pants.” Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the soaring, gravity-defying, cantilevered structure is amazing, even if you think it’s ugly, which some do. For the trendy artsy Beijing experience, spend a few hours in 798 Art District, a former weapons factory transformed into an arts complex with galleries, art centres, artist studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars. It’s been compared to SoHo, but it’s actually much edgier and hipper. It’s got a steampunk-esque skywalk and pro-Maoist propaganda from its former life still adorns some of the gallery walls. Hutongs are something you also want to see. They are the skinny alleyways formed by the connection of traditional stone courtyard houses. Before the Chinese government recognized the historical importance of hutongs, many were bulldozed in the unrelenting quest for modernization. Today, some are protected landmarks. We like the Beixinqiao Toutiao Hutong and the ones in the Dashilar area, located south of Tiananmen Square. If you’re not from a metropolis like London or New York, you might find Beijing’s hectic pace something you need a break from. For a little R&R, Yuyuantan Park is a peaceful place to watch the locals chill, swim and play mahjong. Ritan Park, home to extensive gardens a wee lake, is another quiet spot to recharge.

CCTV Headquarters | Photo: Raj Eiamworakul

CCTV Headquarters | Photo: Raj Eiamworakul

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Haidilao Hot Pot offers free nail art and shoe shines while you wait in line

Where to eat in Beijing

In a word, Beijing’s food scene is astounding. Everyone is going to tell you to eat duck, and you should listen. Duck de Chine regularly earns high marks from locals and travelers alike. The crisp, sweet and aromatic bird is served in a chic setting. Another top-tier duck roasting establishment is Sheng Yong Xing, which breaks with tradition by cooking the bird at higher temperatures to reduce oiliness. Going to Beijing and missing out on the hot pot is like visiting NYC and not having a slice of pizza. You dunk sliced meat, veggies, and seafood into a simmering pot of soup on your table, kinda like Chinese fondue. Haidilao Hot Pot is a chain open all day, every day. Their shtick is free nail art, massages, and shoe shines for customers waiting in line. The good news is the hot pot is worth the wait. The Southern Fish is a casual, affordable joint serving fiery and savoury Hunanese delights. Try the stir-fried pork belly, pounded roast green chillies with preserved century eggs and the hot and sour fish head soup. You will leave the tiny restaurant a happier person than you were when you entered. (It doesn’t have a website. The address is 49, Gongmenkou Toutiao, Xicheng district.) Traditional Beijing bean-paste noodles are another must-try dish when in the city. For that, there is Hai Wan Ju. Be sure and slurp the leftover broth once you’ve finished your noodles. The LGBT-owned Two Cities Café and Lounge is a place for gays, straights and everyone in between to sip coffee (or organic tea), read a book, and make new friends. If you are looking to dive into the local LGBTQ+ arts and culture, there is no better place to start than here.

Duck de Chine

Duck de Chine

Duck de Chine

Duck de Chine

Shopping in Beijing

As a gay Beijing guide, we are happy to report the city’s fashion is edgy and hip. If you’re a shopper, set aside a stack of Renminbi as well as some time to make some purchases. The celebrity owners of streetwear chain NPC (New Project Center) are kind of like the Drake and Kanye of China. Be prepared for hip hop music and a lot of oversized graphic T’s and limited-edition kicks. I.T. Beijing Market is another local chain with panache. The homegrown brands produced in-house are some of the leading streetwear labels in China. For a concept store that seamlessly stitches together food, fashion and home, there is Algorithm. The curation is thoughtful and the aesthetic minimalist. They carry menswear. Dongliang is a concept store set in a historic hutong district whose raison d’etre is showcasing fresh-faced Chinese fashion talent. They now have a sister store called Paint by Dongliang for those with more, ahem, bold sartorial tastes. Lost & Found is an offbeat boutique for those who like your souvenirs with some history behind them. The shop rescues old and lightly-used ephemera and gives it new life. A great place to pick up quirky gifts. Jingcheng Baixing is another place for Beijing. They sell traditional handicrafts such as painted figurines, wee enamel treasures and toys. (No website, the address is 44 Guozijian Jie Dongcheng district.) Lastly, you are going to see those goofy “I Heart BJ” shirts on sale everywhere. (BJ is Beijing’s nickname). You are going to think they’re silly and not pick one up, but then when you get home you’re going to regret it. So, you might want to rethink that. Just sayin’.

Photo: Eric Prouzet

Photo: Eric Prouzet

Panjiayuan Market | Photo: Eric Prouzet

Panjiayuan Market | Photo: Eric Prouzet

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Baijiu, China’s national hooch, is the world’s best-selling spirit you’ve never heard of

Photo: Sicong Li

Photo: Sicong Li

Beijing nightlife

Betcha didn’t know Baijiu, China’s grain alcohol choice, is the best-selling alcohol in the world that you’ve never heard of. Outselling whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined, it’s from fermented sorghum or wheat. Baijiu at Capital Spirits is the place to try it. If you’re a drinker who cares 100 percent about the drink, and 0 percent about anything else, the Arch Bar is your joint. We are tired as you are of the term “hidden gem” but this place actually qualifies. The intimate bar with stone walls and a pitched roof serves up mind-blowingly inventive cocktails that actually taste great. Be warned, you may find truffle oil in your bourbon, but you’ll be thankful it’s there. Located in the mansion of a former warlord (?!) at 3 Zhangzizhong Road, Ping’an Avenue in the  Dongcheng District. If beer is your bag, you’re in luck in Beijing, where microbreweries proliferate. Gay-friendly Great Leap Brewing incorporates unlikely traditional Chinese ingredients into the flavor profile including local honey and Sichuan peppercorns.

While the Beijing gay nightlife scene is often compared (unfavourably) to Shanghai’s, there is still plenty of queer fun to be had after the sun sets. LGBT Thursday nights at Red Dog are a hot ticket. The crowd is pretty and the vibe is rowdy (in a good way). GLAM stands for Good-looking Asian Male. Glam night at Long Jing on Thursday is a gay social for the professional crowd whose members are, of course, good-looking, Asian and male.

Photo: Elvir K.

Photo: Elvir K.

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