Insider's guide to... Beijing

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
What's the weather like?

Extreme. Freeze-dry conditions right now with a chill factor of -20C driving people indoors for fear of bits dropping off, and humidity as low as the Arizona desert leading to all-over body dandruff. Don't worry though: the summer is just as bad, with temperatures peaking at 40C, also driving people indoors.

What are locals complaining about?

Spitting fines. Anyone caught gobbing in public places will be fined RMB50 - not a small sum for the kind of people who traditionally have felt the need to spit violently 20 times an hour. This law came into effect from 1 October coinciding - intentionally - with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the People's Republic of China.

Who's the talk of the town?

The Falun Gong. Described by the government as a "menacing" cult leading millions of people astray. Described by themselves as an exercise workout group promoting spiritual and physical well-being.

What's the cool drink to order?

Depends who you ask. Trendies are into gin and tonics, Hooch, and rum and coke. Turquoise-coloured blue coral reef tea is also modish. If you are vying for a business deal, you will serve your guest either a cocktail of snake bile and Chinese wine, or red wine (preferably French, so you can pronounce it without embarrassment) mixed with Sprite. Finally, the young and beautiful lounge on the sofas of Starbucks coffee joints pretending to revise their MBA module while in fact eyeing up the local and foreign talent.

What are people eating?

Hot pots. The concept is DIY. You are given a heated copper pan containing boiling water. You chuck in almost anything - from raw chicken to cows' intestines. You watch it cook, fish it out, mix it with a bit of sauce then savour the taste - it's actually quite delicious. In most hot pot restaurants you share one large pot, so the pace of eating is frenzied as you dive in to claim any floating scrap of food as your own.

What's the latest outrageous stuff on TV?

A shockingly tacky Chinese version of Blind Date is currently all the rage. The contestants sit with their personal details emblazoned on boards below their desks (height, qualifications, job, salary, and so on), competing for the right to be matched with a desirable partner. The fascinatingly totalitarian local twist, however, is that it is not the contestants themselves but the audience who eventually get to decide who must go out with whom.

Where won't the locals dream of going?

Empty, abandoned state-owned factories. Small and dirty restaurants of which there are many to choose not to go to. And generally, Beijing city centre - especially in the summer when the pollution is in full force.

Where do the locals go that tourists don't know about?

While foreign tourists continue to head for the fantastical Summer Palace outside the city, locals are heading in ever greater numbers to the more sinister "old summer palace", the original Versailles of the Chinese emperors. Since the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, this palace - gratuitously destroyed in the mid-19th century by British and French troops as a means of making the imperial court "see reason" during the opium wars - has acquired a new resonance with Chinese youth.

Where are the chic doing their shopping?

Wanfujing, a shopping mecca bursting with modern department stores. Wanfujing boasts the best shops in Beijing, but they are still not a patch on those in Shanghai. Serious shoppers take sleeper trains to stock up on designer wares.

What's the trendy place to escape for the weekend?

Tanzhe Temple - with its terraces of stupas, thousand-year-old gingko trees and thriving community of Buddhist monks - is the most beautiful, the largest and the oldest temple complex anywhere in the vicinity of Beijing. Because it is at least 40km out of town, and not accessible by public transport, only the elite with private transport have so far discovered that it is perfect for a picnic in summer and for a deep-snow walk in winter.