Day Trip to Heaven
Admiring China's stunning architecture on a clear afternoon.
On my visit to the Forbidden City, the blustering wind made all attempts at focused photography nearly impossible but my eyes were locked on the guard's calculated movements. I wanted to capture this stunning moment of orderly procession but I was quickly losing feeling in my fingers. As if anticipating my intentions, the third guard turned in my direction and my finger instantly released. By far, one of my favorite memories from our trip to China.
Wangfujing snack is crazy place to get a meal. The alley is packed with people and vendors, and even if you're not eating, it's worth going, just for the experience. There are tasty scorpions on a stick, or maybe you'd rather goat tripe soup and fried stinky tofu? Additionally there are great, perhaps more 'normal,' foods to be had here, such as yangrou chuan (pronounced yong row chuar), grilled mutton on a stick, fried noodles, and all sorts of candied fruits. Certain side streets off the main drag house restaurants, and others are home souvenir markets that are a great place to practice haggling over prices (China's national sport). Wangfujing 'snack street' is not to be missed.
Hiking the Great Wall was an amazing experience. What made it even better was going to Simatai, which isn't as heavily visited as Badaling and other parts of the Wall. It's harder to get to and takes more effort to reach, but it's worth it. The Wall stretches out for miles and miles. Totally cool.
The most fantastic ancient tourist site in Beijing, only accessible to Chinese dynastic rulers until quite recently, when China opens its borders to tourists. The architecture is completely restored and the site is gigantic. Once you enter, you can walk through the maze of a palace that used to be the home of the emperor and his family.
I used to be a docile tourist—get a map and brochure at the entrance, follow the prescribed route, or make a beeline for points of my interest. But one day impatience taught me the rollicking fun of ignorance and discovery. I didn’t feel like waiting in line at the Forbidden City in Beijing to pick up a guide map. I stumbled in unprepared for the enormity of the place. I spent the entire day until closing wandering corridors with no clue what I would find around the next corner. I think anyone with a map could not appreciate the labyrinthine nature of the city the way I did, crisscrossing the place several times trying to ensure I didn’t miss anything. I anticipated nothing, so even the largest temples and most expansive courtyards were astounding surprises to me, and I found my way into nooks and crannies where no one with a map charting out "points of interest" would have bothered to look. It was truly one of the most fun days of my life, and was a lasting lesson in the true nature of discovery.
The old hutongs [alleys] near Drum Tower are lined with nameless snack shops selling what I call Chinese fast food. One staple is shui jiao, which are boiled dumplings typically filled with pork and fennel. You dip them in vinegar and soy sauce with chili oil mixed in to your taste. —Fuchsia Dunlop This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
There's a reason this is one of the wonders of the world. No, it cannot be seen from outer space, but it is truly magnificent. When visiting China, avoid the super touristy hotspots. We visited a spot that locals preferred called MuTianYu, about 40 minutes outside of Beijing and a short hike to the entrance. There are a few "forbidden trails" but carry on with caution. Bring water and a packed lunch to have a picnic on the Great Wall!
To understand China, it's imperative to understand the role that religion and philosophy play in the culture. Buddhism has played a prominent role, and this gorgeous temple tells a bit of that story. The Yonghegong is on the North quarter of Beijing, and is easily accessible by bus or subway. Go late in the afternoon to avoid the early tour buses, and to catch some monks in the midst of their ceremonies.
You can’t leave Beijing without having Peking duck at Da Dong. I eat the crisp skin first, dipped in sugar. Then I pile the skin, meat, leek, cucumber, and sweet, fermented sauce onto pancakes. I finish by drinking the broth from the carcass. —Fuchsia Dunlop This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
If you're looking for something more original than the ubiquitous "I heart BJ," or, "I climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt, then look no further. Plastered is an original design T-shirt shop that specializes in tongue-in-cheek treatments of Chinese and Beijing culture. You will find such things as shirts with a stained glass portrait of Mao or Liu lei Feng, communist revolution propaganda-style T-shirts designed by Beijing tattoo artists, and many other one-of-a-kind T-shirts and hoodies. The shirts cost 145RMB and Hoodies cost 250RMB. Plastered T-shirts is in the heart of Nanlougu Xiang, and is open from 10am-10pm, seven days a week.
Hai Wan Ju is a cheap spot to taste Beijing folk cooking. They make very good noodles—handmade, of course. The zha jiang mian—noodles with fried bean sauce and vegetables—is a classic Beijing noodle dish. Here, they also add pork. —Fuchsia Dunlop 21 Zengguang Lu, Haidian District, 86/ (0) 10-8207-0488. This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
The Ming Tombs are 31 miles northwest of Beijing. The cemetery covers an area of 40 sq. kilometers with 13 Ming emperors buried here. This is a popular UNESCO attraction in China and easily combined with visiting Badaling Great Wall for a day trip from Beijing. I found that after visiting the Great Wall, with all the crowds, the Sacred Way walk at the Ming Tombs was peaceful and quiet with few people.
This was taken a couple of years ago, when I went on my first major trip solo (well, solo as part of a tour group). This remains one of my all time favourite pictures. Rather than go to the more crowded Badaling section of the Great Wall, our guide took us to the Jinshanling-Simatai section. At the time, there was approximately 10.5km of walkable wall. Two of my tourmates decided to do the entire section (there were parts that were crumbling), but the rest of us decided to get down to level ground for a little and walk alongside the wall. Accept the help of the guides - they will show you where to step so you don't slip or fall.
Visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World makes for a good day. Head to the Mutianyu Wall location, known for fewer crowds. We unintentionally went on a horrifically polluted day in March, but that made for zero crowds and some moody photos. We only stopped roaming and climbing when we could no longer see the wall as it steeply ascended into the "clouds." Be sure to take the toboggan down this UNESCO Wprld Heritage site, and stop at The School House on your way out of town for some delish food and an on-site glass blowing studio. http://www.theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com
Yunteng Binguan specializes in the cooking of the Yunnan province. The restaurant is hard to find, but their cheese is worth the hunt. It’s like a milk cake of fresh curd topped with fried Szechuan peppercorn. —Fuchsia Dunlop Bldg. 7, Dong Hua Shi Bei Li, Dongcheng Qu, 86/(0) 10-6711- 3322. This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
One of my favorite moments in Beijing was sitting around the cozy circular bar at Noodle Bar for front-row action of the chef pulling our noodles by hand. The menu is simple and straightforward: all noodle soup with your choice of brisket, tendon or tripe beef (or the vegetarian version), which you check off from a paper menu attached to a clipboard. Laughably inexpensive, the meal was just the hearty fix we needed to once again brave the biting Beijing cold. Noodle Bar is a bit difficult to locate and taxis won't be much help. The 1949 Hidden City complex in which it is located sits directly behind the Pacific Century Place Mall. Once you've crossed the mall, you'll see an entrance to 1949. Once there, you must walk through an art gallery space to reach the courtyard and past Duck de Chine (also a must-try restaurant) to get to the bar. Well worth the trek!
I first went to this restaurant, hidden deep in a crumbling hutong (alleyway) neighborhood, by myself in a rickshaw one foggy November evening. It’s one of those unique, authentic finds that have remained intact for decades. The roast duck is beyond good. —Alessia Antinori 11 Beifengxiang Hutong, Dongcheng District, 86/(0) 10-6702-5681. This appeared in the May 2013 issue. Read more about wine entrepreneur Alessia Antinori.
After an aimless walk through the calm hutongs in the centre of Beijing, we suddenly came to a crowded night market. It was only one row of food stalls, but it stretched for several hundred meters! Among other things, you can find more unusual fare, like grilled seahorse, or scorpion.
“Our umbrellas are a part of our culture that is disappearing,” says Cheng Dehu, the owner of Beijing’s Ruo Shui Tang Oil Paper Umbrella Workshop. As China has modernized at a breakneck pace, most traditional oil paper umbrellas have been left behind. But Ruo Shui Tang artisans still turn them out using a century-old technique: they boil bamboo, carve the wood into collapsible frames and handles, and glue on translucent paper. Artists then paint landscapes or portraits on the paper, and waterproof it with tung tree oil. The whole process, which relies on the work of 30 people, produces umbrellas that can withstand being opened more than 2,000 times. Visit the studio to peruse or purchase umbrellas. From $30. 144 Gulou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District, 86/(0) 10-6406-4496. This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue.
Explore the back streets near Andingmen Station for a glimpse of everyday life in the hutongs of Beijing. While in the area, stop for a drink at the unexpectedly hip Siif Cafe. As the sign out front says, they have good coffee, along with cocktails, Belgian beers, and live music or DJs on the weekends.
According to our guide to the Great Wall, Mao once said, "you can not be a great man until you have walked the Great Wall"
Beside the architectural beauty of the Forbidden City, I just love the color palette of the entire palace. The lavish gold, red and green mixture created such contrast yet cohesive look.
Ningxia is a region that borders Inner Mongolia. The food reflects the desert and grassland terrain. Go to the restaurant at the Ningxia Hotel for fantastic steamed mutton with wild herbs. Instead of the rice you’d find in southern China, here you eat pasta. —Fuchsia Dunlop This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
From October 13 to 24, food writer Fuchsia Dunlop will lead guests through cooking classes, insiders’ restaurant visits, and a farm stop on a culinary tour from Beijing to Shanghai. From $5,990. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
Dining at Made in China at the Grand Hyatt is expensive, but the staff creates an excellent experience. Open kitchens allow you to catch a glimpse of the Peking ducks roasting in ovens over fruitwood-fueled fires. I always order the dumplings. —Fuchsia Dunlop This appeared in the May 2013 issue.
What would the Empress Dowager Cixi have said? Here I stand beneath the soaring ceilings of the grand pavilion in Beijing’s Aman at Summer Palace hotel, facing an intricately carved, floor-to-ceiling wooden screen depicting cypress-lined lakes and terraced hills, and what am I wearing? Not a flowing silk gown, but jeans and a T-shirt. Thankfully the empress, known as the Dragon Lady, who ruled China from 1861 until her death in 1908, is not here to enforce a dress code. But after a 14-year restoration, the hotel—much of it occupying rooms where visitors once waited for an audience with Cixi— gives me a glimpse of what her luxurious life, if not her wardrobe, might have been like. To get to my room, I stroll past weeping willows and through arcades painted bright red, a color that represents happiness in Chinese culture. Off a courtyard filled with ancient pines, I enter my suite. I walk across clay tiles, admiring the exposed beams spanning the high ceilings and the lattice screens that accent the walls. Four posts draped with a silk canopy surround a bed that looks big enough for a family of seven. Plush sofas and a mahogany writing desk welcome me to the sitting room, and the expansive bathroom features an oversize tub framed by still more latticework. The next morning at six, I join other early risers for tai chi under the willow trees that line Kunming Lake, on the grounds of the Summer Palace. Dressed in a loose-fitting, white silk uniform with red ribbing and a mandarin collar, our instructor cuts a graceful figure against the misty lake, drawing the attention of passersby who take pictures of him and giggle at us. The slow, meditative movements somehow manage to be both invigorating and calming—the perfect way to start a day in the frenetic metropolis of Beijing. I take a 10-minute cab ride to Empress Cixi’s winter home, the majestic Forbidden City, where I spend the morning surrounded by swarms of tourists like me. The Dragon Lady would never have put up with such a ruckus. When I return to the calm embrace of the Aman, I regain some of my royal serenity in a calligraphy class. I learn to write the characters for Beijing, China, and my name in (relatively) graceful brushstrokes. The bespectacled instructor remains stoic as I try to replicate his delicate strokes as brash slashes of ink. Empress Cixi was a respected painter and calligrapher, and last year one of her calligraphic works sold at Christie’s for $38,790. When I get home, my Beijing-born friend Feng will declare my work “not bad” in a way that says, “Don’t quit your day job.” The next morning our guide, Jerry, picks up a group of us, and we drive through the pine forests of Fragrant Hills Park to a remote part of the Great Wall. We walk along narrow trails as Jerry tells us of his life as a young man in modern China. He confesses that he knew nothing about the massacre at Tiananmen Square until five years ago. Even now, he is prohibited by law from discussing it further. Jerry charts China’s remarkable embrace of capitalism in three sentences. “When my parents’ generation got married in the 1970s, everyone bought three things: a watch, a bicycle, and a sewing machine. My uncle’s generation in the ’80s bought a refrigerator, a TV, and a washing machine. My generation buys a big apartment and a BMW.” Empress Cixi, who is said to have drunk from a jade cup and eaten with golden chopsticks, was clearly ahead of her time. As I wander the Summer Palace grounds on the last day of my trip, I watch kites dance across the sky. They are anchored by children and adults scattered amid the 544 marble lions that line Seventeen Arch Bridge, which connects to an island in Kunming Lake. I imagine the empress could have witnessed a similar scene. Then I come upon 70 people line-dancing to a perky rendition of “It’s So Easy (to Fall in Love)” sung in Mandarin and ponder what Cixi might have thought of that. The kinetic crowds make me glad that I have a tranquil retreat. I return to my cocoon and heed the call of the tub. I light candles, draw a warm bath, and relax as Chinese classical music wafts in from the CD player in the bedroom. It’s good to be empress. A Aman at Summer Palace, 1 Gongmenqian St., Summer Palace, Beijing, 86/(0) 10-5987-9999. From $650. amanresorts.com. This story appeared in the July/August 2011 issue. Discover other palace hotels:Venice, ItalyRajasthan, IndiaPlaya del Carmen, MexicoMarrakech, MoroccoCounty Clare, Ireland
There are way too many doors inside of the forbidden city. Sometimes, take a peek at the closed door and you might see the path leads to another door. Also, a good tour guide might tell you more stories associated with them.
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