Off Duty: Beijing

Discover a city with a booming business and arts scene
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The Independent Travel

Why?

After centuries of isolation, Beijing has burst onto the world financial market. While Shanghai remains the economic centre of China simply because so many large corporations based are there, Beijing is fast catching up as the country’s entrepreneurial centre. Currently, the city is enjoying a year-on-year growth of 12 per cent with big areas for development in the real estate and automobile sectors. In Beijing car ownership increases annually at a rate of nearly 20 per cent - hence the smog.



You’ll find the city at the northern tip of the North China Plain, ringed to the west and north by mountains and the Great Wall. It’s unusual for an historic capital not to be sited near any major water course, but if you’ve seen Mulan you’ll remember Beijing's importance is strategic, repulsing all those incursions from the steppes.

The city’s traditional financial district spreads across Fuxingmen and Fuchengmen, but Guomao, home to various corporate headquarters and shopping precincts, is making a convincing bid to be the new central business district. Wangfujing and Xidan areas are the major retail districts and Zhongguancun has been dubbed "China's Silicon Valley".

In recent years the phenomenal growth of Beijing has been responsible for traffic jams, smog and “energy-saving initiatives” (ie blackouts), but there is tremendous cheerful energy in the city. Beijingers want to get things right.

As well as opening itself up for business, Beijing is also making great strides culturally with the opening of the new National Arts Performing Centre, one of the few venues in the world to enclose three separate venues - a theatre, opera house and concert hall - under one roof.

All in all this is a great time to visit, but go now rather than during the Olympics when not only will the city be too hot, but all the hotel rooms will be full!

Where?

Shell out for some luxury. Raffles Beijing, East Chang An Avenue (00 86 10 65263388; raffles.com) is without a doubt the best place to stay. Situated next door to the Forbidden City, it’s perfect for sight-seeing and for shopping in Wanfujing. Henry Kissinger, Kiri Ti Kanawa, HM the Queen and even Chairman Mao have stayed here, so the place must be getting something right. Rooms from 4,100 yuan (£315).Subway: Wangfujing.

For something a little more exotic and great value, try the Beijing Courtel, 8 Courtyard, Andingmen West Street (00 86 10 6407 6799; beijingcourtel.com), a traditional but stylish hutong courtyard hotel close to the magnificent Bell and Drum Towers. Rooms from as little as 500 yuan. Subway: Anding Men

Foodies will love Han Cang on the shores of Qian Hai (00 86 10 6404 2259) It’s a real treat, with delicious Hakkan cuisine (from the southern provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi and Fujian), chilled beer and friendly staff. The restaurant is run by a cheery bunch of women and keeps a low profile (there isn’t even an English-language sign outside). Expect to pay 75 yoan per person with beer. Subway: Gulou Dajie.

You can’t be in Beijing without trying the city’s signature dish, Peking Duck, at one of the Quanjude restaurants that claim to have invented it in 1864. Be bold and turn up at the multistory Quanjude megalopolis at 32 Qianmen Avenue (00 86 10 6701 1379) Customers are marshalled by young women in long red dresses who use megaphones to make sure tables don't stand empty for a moment. Expect to pay 80 yuan per person with beer (don’t drink the wine; it costs a fortune). Subway: Qian Men

What?

The Forbidden City can easily take you a day. Don’t linger in the big impersonal spaces and crowded audience halls, but head for the back of the palace, where the Imperial dynasty lived on a more human scale. There’s a useful coffee shop after the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which used to be Starbucks and still looks like it. Entrance 60 yuan. Subway: Tian’an Men Dong.

The Lama Temple is a working temple with shaven-headed monks and nuns cheerfully going about their business in yellow and ochre robes. Shrine after shrine leads to the vertiginous Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, inside which stands an 18m statue of the Buddha carved of a single trunk of sandalwood. It’s actually in the Guinness Book of Records. Entrance 25 yuan. Subway: Yonghe Gong.

The huge Drum Tower is where the hours of the day were beaten out in Imperial times. Now, displays of drumming are carried out every half hour by six musicians in traditional dress. It’s an impressive sight - and sound - but if you suffer vertigo the steep steps up will bring you out in a cold sweat. The views across the city are worth it, however. Entrance: 20 yuan. Subway: Gulou Dajie.

Bei Hai Park is where the locals come to ballroom dance to piped music. You’ll also find musicians, chess players and pavement calligraphers happily doing their own thing. On Jade Island in the middle of the park there is a temple, built in 1651 to celebrate a visit from the Dalai Lama in the days when he was a more popular figure with the Chinese government. At the very top of it is a shrine with a statue of Yamantaka, the many-armed protector of Beijing. There’s also a lovely old restaurant on the shore of Jade Island called Fanshen, which was founded by the cooks from the Forbidden City when they were turned out of work in 1926. Entrance 20 yuan, plus 2 yuan to see Yamantaka. Bus 5, trolley-bus 101, 103 and 109.

Wow!

Go and see the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Chang'an Avenue (00 86 10 66550820; chncpa.org/n16/index.html). It cost anything between €288m (Chinese Government figures) and €300m (what the architect claims) and is built to resemble a giant egg floating in a lake of water. Inside the egg there is an opera house, theatre and concert hall and the only way to reach them is through a glass tunnel that runs underneath the lake. Admission by performance ticket only. On special days when the government want good weather in Beijing they seed the clouds with silver iodide to create a downpour to the west of the city and blue skies over Beijing.

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