Hippolyte Romain - 2008-07-28
Beijing is a city where the marks of urban gigantism are displayed in a crazy, disorderly fashion. Everywhere are tower blocks, skyscrapers, cranes on countless construction sites erecting towers, polygons and cubes of concrete, sometimes topped by a little roof in the shape of a pagoda or Chinese hat, a reminder that you are still in the capital of the Middle Kingdom.
But although Beijing is a paradise of architectural “lego”, for those who know this secret, sprawling city well, vestiges still remain of the imperial city, with its poetic, winding hutongs (alleys) lined with trees and seemingly tied up by a spider’s web of electric wires. A comparison could be made with the Paris of today. Just as the Paris photographed by Doisneau and painted by Utrillo survives here and there, the Beijing of Lao She – the famous writer who described the city of the 1920s so well – is still discernible in some places. Of course it might require a little imagination, but dreaming also means looking at something in a different way.
The towers of Gulou
To the north of the city, in Gulou, stand two tall towers dating from the 13th century – the Bell Tower and Drum Tower: these will be our simple and essential landmarks for experiencing the very special atmosphere of this district, with its still horizontal architecture, during an early morning or evening stroll. It is in these grey alleys punctuated with red lanterns that most of the Beijing population lived before the great economic boom. Today, senior citizens, modest state employees and small traders still remain.
Near these two towers, a vast waterway is today surrounded by a host of Chinese-style bars, i.e. hastily built and combining flashy modernity with a hint of “blue lotus”. A stone bridge spans the two banks of Houhai, the name of this rather magical park which has something of the Bois de Boulogne or a tiny Venice about it. Here you can hire pedalos with Donald Duck heads or exotic boats. In the evening the nightlife gets going, so feel free to let your hair down.
On foot, because it’s only 20 minutes away, you can then go for a stroll in Nanluoguxiang. This street is the place to be in today’s trendy Beijing. Here you cross paths with loads of foreign students, expats who don’t much like getting lost. The meeting place of a good many journalists posted to Beijing remains the Pass By Bar at number 108 – the place to go for those who dread no longer hearing English or French. Here you can eat fast food such as pizza and spaghetti; goodbye local culture, stick with what you know.
There is a succession of dozens of charming little cafes, separated by clothes or trendy souvenir shops. You can have a full breakfast with bacon and eggs in the morning, and have lunch, dinner or supper here. Numerous gas lamps – very 1900s-Paris style – were recently installed, adding both to the charm and unconventionality of the place.
Beijing, a metropolis where it’s good to lose yourself
Never be afraid of losing your way, the city is very safe and, equipped with your hotel’s business card with the address in Chinese, one of the countless taxis that go up and down the slightest thoroughfare will appear suddenly and take you back to your starting point, no problem. The price is displayed on the meter and the rides are cheap.
So it is essential to walk, stroll and daydream to appreciate this grey metropolis, punctuated only by the millions of red dots of lanterns that hang everywhere, swaying at the mercy of the breeze. If you take Zhangwang hutong and walk for about half an hour, you will reach the vicinity of the Temple of Confucius. At Taotao’s tea house opposite, you will be enchanted by the Tea Ceremony.
Carry on walking and in five minutes you will be at the Lama Temple (Yonghegong dajie), a touristy place of worship with immense repainted Buddhas where, despite everything, a certain fervour prevails. It is sometimes possible to watch verbal sparring matches between lamas – quite heated and far from the Zen spirit. Heading up this avenue, after buying tons of incense sticks, you will reach Dongzhimennei dajie, literally the “street of ghosts”, but above all a paradise of lanterns and restaurants. This place is extraordinary in the evening, with dozens and dozens of shop windows lit up like Christmas.
You clearly won’t need me and my advice to find TienAnMen Square, the Forbidden City or Summer Palace. Every hotel will offer or sell you a map of the city and flag up your choices…
Ideal time of year to visit Beijing: spring or autumn.
Handy tip: always have the addresses of the places you wish to visit with you in Mandarin.
Beijing tourism official Website