Of all the Chinese cities, why Beijing?

Hidden behind bushes is the former home (at different times) of Madame Soong Ching Ling, Duke Gong Qin and the last Emperor of China Pu Yi.

Part three

By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly

If you have to choose one place to visit in China, where should you go?

Beijing.

This is not just my recommendation. Experienced tour guides have all suggested that Beijing is the city to travel to if you have limited time. Beijing symbolizes modernizing China. Its transformation is an ongoing process, and every year is different. The city is an interesting blend between ancient and modern, East and West, capitalism and communism.

Let’s say you only have a week. In that week, you can cover many significant areas of the capital city. My first trip to Beijing in 1981 was part of a 21-day tour. It was barely three days, yet I was surprised at how much the guide had managed to squeeze into the itinerary. I saw the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Ming (Emperors) Tombs, Gate of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, People’s Great Hall, Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall and a dinner at the famous duck restaurant, Quanjude.

This year in October, my husband and I were on our own. We loved every minute of it. Without a tour guide, it was much more relaxed. Led by our instincts and a sense of adventure, we had the freedom to sightsee, eat and shop at our leisure. We had five days with concrete plans.

Here are 10 tips from our recent Beijing trip:

1. Get hotel deals

After the Olympics, you can find great deals for hotels in Beijing if you’d just ask. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott. You would not believe it. The new four-star hotel only charged $120 a night. Our stay included breakfast, snacks after 4 p.m., free use of a fax machine, Internet access and a collection of daily newspapers. The dinner snacks provided so much food that I was full before I even got to dinner. Be sure to ask about the deals, because if you don’t ask, you won’t get all these freebies.

2. Beware of taxi drivers who claim they don’t speak English

Taxis are the best way to travel within Beijing. Be sure to carry your hotel’s business card with you just in case the taxi driver speaks little English. He can still take you back to your hotel that way. According to some locals, if he says he doesn’t know how to get there or that he doesn’t speak English, it’s probably because your destination is too short of a drive and does not earn him enough money.

Luckily, I speak Mandarin and glared at those taxi drivers so they knew I understood their reason for not taking my business.

3. Be adventurous with food

All types of great regional Chinese cuisines are available in Beijing. Be bold and try something different. It’s such an education for me to meander into eateries. We walked into this Shaodung restaurant when no one was there. The food turned out to be outstanding and the prices were reasonable.

4. See Wangfujian

The historical Wangfujian Street is a 20-minute walk from the Opera House. “Wangfu” means wangfu royalties and “jian” means a drinking well. Built 500 years ago, the well was a source of water for 10 royalties living in the district. Now, all the fancy hotels and malls are located around that well. One of them is the grand Beijing Hotel. We dined at the hotel for lunch. It was an East-meets-West buffet for about $40 per person. It’s worth trying for a chance to see a historical and remodeled institution.

5. See the Summer Palace

Although we were at the Summer Palace two decades ago, it’s still a desirable tourist attraction. The tour guide only allowed us half an hour at the Summer Palace on our last trip, but you should allow at least two hours for this palace. It has a man-made lake (half the size of Lake Union) for the Empress. A huge stone boat was built for her so she didn’t get seasick sitting in a small boat. The mud from the ground was used to build up a hill with a longevity pagoda on top.

History classes discuss the Empress’ corruption. Tourists now get to catch a glimpse of her ancient glamour.

The palace is also close to our hotel and Xinhua University. The campus may not be grand like a U.S. campus, but it was where activist students sowed the seeds of revolution years ago.

6. See the last Emperor’s house

Have you seen the movie “The Last Emperor”? In the movie, the emperor was taken from his childhood home and put on the throne in 1908. This year with my husband, I visited the house he was born in. The last Emperor of China was named Pu Yi. He lived with his father, Duke Gong Qin, for a short time before being taken. In 1963, their house was converted from Duke Gong Qin’s palace to the home of Madame Soong Ching Ling, the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, a national father of China.

My husband and I enjoyed visiting renowned museums that were formerly the homes of historical figures and of authors we’ve read in our childhood. Going to these places is like being able to experience a part of history.

7. See the 798 Art District

Built by the Russians in 1902 for warehouses, the area has now transformed into high-price art studios for contemporary Chinese artists. At first glance, the district looks like it should be in Europe rather than in China. Artists used to stay there for the low rents. However, after a fire, the rent went up and the district became one of the hottest areas in town.

8. Don’t forget the famous bars and spas

If you like to drink, Beijing is famous for many nice bars with festive atmospheres. Your hotel desk should be able to guide you. My husband and I don’t drink, so I opted for a massage. China has many cheap but luxurious spas. They cost between $15 and $50.

9. Bargain while you shop

What made my trip special was all the shopping I got to do. In less than an hour in each place, I was able to bargain incredible merchandise into my bags. I bought clothes, gifts for the newspaper staff and gifts for friends. I also found auction items for many charitable organizations in Seattle.

In small shops, aim for a 60 percent price reduction. However, my friend, a Beijing local, said to me, “You should take me with you. I can get you to pay even less.”

10. Plan ahead

Hainan Airlines has a direct flight from Seattle to Beijing. It’s so convenient. Other airlines, such as Northwest Airlines and Korean Airlines will take you there, too, but they do stop at one city before they get you to Beijing. Airfare is really low right now due to people cutting back on traveling. Now is the time to act. Don’t wait to buy your ticket. ♦

Assunta Ng can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

Built 500 years ago, Wangfujian was a well that was a source of water for 10 royalties. Nowadays, tourists eagerly congregate over where the well used to be.

A decorated porcelain gunboat sits peacefully in a pond in the 798 Art District.

A longevity pagoda can be seen with the Summer Palace. The lake is a manmade lake, and mud from the ground was piled up to make the hill that the pagoda sits on.

A terra cotta soldier statue holds a flame like the Statue of Liberty. In its arm is a tablet that reads, “The Declaration of Universal Human Rights.”

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Photos on flickr