Travel: A short stay in... Peking

The Chinese capital boasts the finest food, sights and hotels in the entire country. Now is the time to take advantage of the good-value packages on offer and, once you are there, just jump on your bike and go with the flow. By Simon Lewis
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The Independent Travel
WHY GO THERE?

For 1,000 years, Peking has been the physical and spiritual heart of China, home to the Emperors and their modern equivalents. There is still plenty of evidence left of Imperial times, including the most spectacular buildings and tranquil parks in the country, but the main impression today is of brash modernity - a city criss-crossed with freeways and bright with concrete and glass. It can seem vast and inhuman, but it is not hard to unearth the city's more private side; with the best food, sights and hotels in China, Peking is easy to enjoy. Its most fascinating aspect is the snapshot that it provides of a deeply conservative country in the throes of radical change.

GETTING THERE

AIR: The lowest fares to Peking cost around pounds 325 return in low season, rising to pounds 400 in high season. Packages can be very good value for a short trip. At present, China Travel Service (0171-836 9911) offers very cheap flight-and-hotel packages to Peking. Currently on offer is a four-night package for only pounds 399, which can be taken any time to the end of September but must be booked before the end of June. From July, prices will be adjusted upwards but not necessarily by much. Hayes and Jarvis (0181-222 7822) also has a special offer of flight-plus-four-nights, available and bookable to the end of July. The eight-night deal is from pounds 659. (Prices do not include visas.)

TRAIN: The train from Moscow to Peking costs around pounds 370 for a second- class ticket and takes six or seven days, depending on your route. It's a superb trip, across one of the world's last wildernesses - but pack hefty books and decent food. It's possible to go all the way from Waterloo to Peking by train, but it will cost around pounds 1,000, so it's much cheaper to get a flight to Moscow (the cheapest are around pounds 200), and then pick up the train there. It's about pounds 100 cheaper to take the train in the other direction, if you book your ticket in China. Tickets can be booked through Intourist (0171-538 8600) and CTS, or Regent Tours (0117 9211711).

GETTING AROUND

Peking is very spread out; with straight, wide streets, walking soon becomes tedious. Buses are cheap and frequent but always packed. The simple subway system running around the centre is much quicker and more comfortable. The distinctive boxy yellow taxis (called bread loaves by the locals), are good value at Yn1 (approx. 20p) per kilometre, with a minimum fare of Yn10. By far the best way to get around is by bicycle. Peking is flat, and all the major roads have cycle lanes as wide as the car lanes - most Chinese cycle everywhere. Bikes can be rented at most hotels, or from Wang Shifu outside the CVIK plaza on Jianguomen Dajie. Expect to pay a deposit of around Yn300 and a daily rate of between Yn10 and Yn50.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Tiananmen Square. You can hardly avoid this concrete desert, the stage for many of the great events of modern Chinese history, from the first calls of liberalism in 1919 to the massacre of 1989. It's a slightly scary place, lined with monumental buildings and dotted with revolutionary sculpture, but it is humanised in the evenings by hordes of kite- flying kids and strolling lovers.

Forbidden City (daily 8.30am-4.30pm, last admission 3.30pm. Admission Yn55, students Yn20). This awesome palace complex, the psychic centre of China for five centuries, was home to 24 emperors, some of whom never saw the need to venture outside its walls. It is not as exclusive as it once was - you won't be beheaded for venturing inside. It is enormous - allow at least a day to look around.

Mao Mausoleum (8.30am-11.30am, free). Your chance to file past the most controversial figure in modern Chinese history (though he's looking a little waxy these days) and buy a Mao lighter or key ring.

Beihai Park (daily 6am-8pm, admission Yn10). Created by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, this is the most pleasant of Peking's many parks, elegantly landscaped and peaceful, with a scattering of religious architecture.

Temple of Heaven (daily 6am-6pm, admission Yn30, students Yn5). A sumptuous temple set in a park, this is the high point of Ming design. Unearthly and brilliantly coloured, it appears at first like a hallucination of a dayglo spaceship.

Ancient Observatory (Wed-Sun 9am-4.30pm, admission Yn10). A marvellous little place lost amid gargantuan tower blocks. Home to set of huge astronomical instruments bizarrely decorated with lion's feet and clinging dragons.

Military Museum (daily 8am-4.30pm, admission Yn5). A museum that does its job of impressing you with the scale of Chinese military might.

Yonghe Gong (daily 9am-4pm, admission Yn10). A Tibetan lamasery, this is the city's most exotic temple. Seek out the statues of Buddha having sex, once used to educate the Emperor's sons.

Getting lost in the Hutongs. Peking's hutongs, or alleyways, are the city's intimate face. They offer a glimpse into Chinese domestic life - old men playing draughts or sitting with caged birds - as well as buildings that have been given strange new uses - the temple converted to a light-bulb factory is a personal favourite. The hutongs are at their most tangled around the Shisha lakes in the North of the city, and best explored by bicycle as you are bound to get lost.

Great Bell Temple (Tues-Sun 8am-4.30pm, admission Yn5). The temple houses a collection of bronze bells and is more interesting than it sounds; the bells are great works of art, decorated with pictures and religious texts. The biggest is the size of a house and weighs 50 tonnes.

Summer Palace (daily 8am-7pm, buildings close at 4.40pm, Yn35.) A stately pleasure-ground built for emperors, and still the best place to retreat from the city. Look for the marble boat, one of the world's most expensive follies, built by Empress Cixi with funds intended for the navy.

OUT OF TOWN

The Great Wall. Begun by China's first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the third century BC, and completed in the 16th century. The Great Wall of China is perhaps the world's biggest ever engineering project, and one of the most useless. Invading armies found it relatively easy to get around: Genghis Khan simply bribed the sentries. You can see it at Badaling, which is easy to get to but very touristy; Mutianyu, which is further to go but much less tacky; or, best of all, at Simatai, which is hard to get to (tours start from the Jinghus Hotel) but virtually unspoiled.

Badachu (daily 8am-5pm, admission Yn2). A treasure trail of eight temples leading up a hill. Avoid at weekends, though, when it becomes too crowded to enjoy the scenery.

Kiangshan Park (daily 7am-6pm, admission Yn2). A range of wooded hills that are at their best in autumn. Check out the Tibetan-style temples, designed to make visiting llamas feel at home, then ascend the peak for views of the city before going back down again on a horse.

WHERE TO STAY

Finding accommodation is not the nightmare it was 10 years ago; these days, there is a surfeit of luxury hotels, and if you are on a budget, it's the cheapest city in China to stay in.

The Peking Hotel, 33 Dongchang'an Jie (65137766), is only for the seriously loaded. It drips class, and is probably the most famous hotel in China. Superbly located just east of Tiananmen Square.

Chongwenmen Hotel, 2 Chongwenmen Xi dajie (6512 2211), is about the only affordable place close to the city centre. It is small, pleasant and very close to the subway. (Yn400.)

The Jinghua Hotel, Naneanhuan Lu (67222211), is the best of the cheap hotels, geared to the backpackers who line its dormitories. Good value but very far from the centre. (Dormitories Yn25, rooms Yn200.)

The Fine Arts Institute, 5 Xiaowei Hutong, is a university dormitory that rents out some of its rooms. Cheap, clean, and very central, but a long shot as it's very popular. (Yn75.)

The Beiwei and Tianqiao Hotels, 13 Xijing Lu (63012266), are adjacent buildings, one mid-range, one luxury. The Tianqiao has a good but expensive Japanese restaurant. (Yn200 Yn700.)

The Qomolongma Hotel, 149 Gulou Xi Dajie, (640188220), is an old temple that has been shabbily converted. Service is bad, but worth it for the novelty value and the good location. (Yn200.)

FOOD AND DRINK

Food is certainly one of the highlights of the city. Meals are reasonably priced in even the classiest restaurants, and you can sample superb cuisine from all over China. Local specialities are Peking duck and Mongolian hotpot, a DIY stew involving a pot of boiling stock in the middle of the table and raw ingredients that you dip into it.

The Goubil, 155 Dianmenwai Dajie, serves fast food the Chinese way - delicious dumplings to eat in or take away.

The Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck, 32 Qianmen Dajie, is a huge place, the most popular place in Peking for duck. It's not particularly cheap at about Yn150 per person. Compare Past Misery with Present Happiness, 17 Picai Hutong, is a homely little restaurant in a courtyard serving honest country cooking. The decor is Sixties retro, which in China means pictures of Mao and idealised workers.

The Laosunjia, 5 Jingjidao, Erlong Lu, serves superb Muslim cuisine. The beef dishes are excellent. Wash them down with "eight treasures tea", served with some skill by a man whose spout is as long as his arm.

The Sichuan, 51 Rongxian Hutong, off Xuanwumennei Dajie, is a converted palace where fiery Sichuan food is served.

The Kaoruji, 37 Shichahai, in the northern hutongs, is a pretty restaurant on the banks of Kake Shisha. Sesame cakes are served here instead of rice.

The Gongdelin, 158 Qianmen Nan Dajie, is the only vegetarian restaurant in the city, and worth visiting not just for the excellent food but for the flights of poetic fancy on the menu.

ENTERTAINMENT

The days when entertainment in Peking meant a worthy opera exhorting workers to produce more iron for the glory of the motherland are long gone; modern Pekingers, finding themselves living through comparatively liberal and prosperous times, are much more interested in having a party than serving one.

Peking now boasts some giant discos, best of which is NASA, on Xueyuan Fu in Haidian district, where rap, techno and British pop are the order of the day. For bars, head into Sanlitun, the embassy district, and walk up Sanlitun Lu. The places here are fun though everything is very Western, including the prices. If you want to mix with the local bohemians, head for Beida, the university, and try the dives around the gates. For Peking opera, the Qianmen Hotel (175 Yong'an Lu) puts on nightly, tourist-friendly shows of this traditional art form. There are no such problems in understanding the spectacular acrobatics, which you can catch nightly at the Chaoyang Theatre, 36 Dongsanhuan Bei Lu, from 7.15 to 9pm.

INFORMATION

In China, there is no such thing as a free tourist information service. In London, there is a less than helpful office with a few brochures: call 0171-935 9787. For information on getting to China, or on tours that include Peking, try the China Travel Service (0171-836 9911). For a guide to events in the city, pick up a copy of the China Daily or the Peking Review, available in most hotels.

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