A year on from the Olympic Games, Beijing has been born again. Once cited as amongst the most polluted cities in the world, not only has the Middle Kingdom’s capital cleaned up its act, but together with extensive urban re-engineering, it has emerged with a slick new veneer and new found confidence.
Travel tip: Beijing is extraordinarily big. Fortunately taxis are plentiful and ridiculously cheap- just don�t expect drivers to speak English. Save hassles- and getting lost- by having your hotel address and destination/s in Mandarin and don�t get into an unregistered taxi.
Wake from a heavenly slumber inside 400 thread-count cotton sheets at the Opposite House Hotel, pick of Beijing’s new wave of boutique lodges. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kumar, the 99-room property on up-and-coming Sanlitun Road best sums up the new Beijing: modern and self assured. Minimalist rooms have floor to ceiling glass walls with automatic black out curtains, oak wood floors, Tibetan-inspired BaYanKaLa toiletries and Ploh linen. The dramatic lobby is a gallery of contemporary Chinese art, with bi-monthly installations and permanent pieces by Pamela See and Li Xiao Feng. There’s a slice of Australia too- the General Manager is Melbourne-born Anthony Ross, who flew to hotel stardom with his Azure lodge in Queenstown, New Zealand. Clean up in your wooden bath-tub or under the rain-shower and then mozsie down to the ground floor for breakfast- fresh breads, yoghurt, and spicy fruit compotes.
The Opposite House has double rooms from RMB1950 (AU$350 @ RMB5.5 to the AUD) including mini bar and breakfast; 11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District; +86 1064176688; www.theoppositehouse.com
Jump in a taxi and head to the Confucius Temple, surrounding which are some of the few residential hutongs spared the blade of a bulldozer during Beijing’s pre-Olympics quest to modernize the city, and now ironically, are hot property. These ones are highlighted by some of the city’s last Song and Ming Dynasty-era pailous (archways) and stone tablets, including one requesting riders- in several different minority languages- to dismount their horses in respect to Confucius. Wander the neighbourhood’s leafy streets, identifying the status of former residents by the intricacy of their court-house gates. If you are in Beijing on the weekend, the Opposite House, together with the Beijing Cultural Heritage Society, offer guided hutong tours free for guests.
Mapping yourself in-front of the Lama Temple, a few minutes’ walk east from where you started, turn south and stroll along Yonghegong Dajie, turning right onto Gulou Dongdajie and continuing until you reach the Drum Tower, a edifice which once marked the centre of the Mongol Empire, ruling Beijing during the 13th century. Clamber up the tower’s stairs for great views over the surrounding hutongs and then enjoy a moment with these few remaining buildings from Beijing’s ancient past at the Drum and Bell Bar (drinks for two, AU$5; 41 Zhonglouwan Hutong).
Continue south along Dianmenwai Dujie until you reach Jingshan Park, a small hill shaped with earth excavated from the next door’s Forbidden City moat and which offers exceptional views over the old palace. You will need a full day to explore the Forbidden City, so continue right instead, skirting the palace’s plum red walls and moat shaded by weeping willows to reach Tianamen Square instead. A vast and empty square, it was here 20 years ago that the world watched in horror as students came under fire for protesting for political reforms. It is around 6 kilometers from the Confucius Temple to Tianamen Square.
Next stop is Qianman 23 (formerly known as the Legation Quarter), a cluster of stone cottages and former home of the American Embassy, a few minutes’ walk from Tianamen. Recently gentrified, it’s now an up-market space hosting an array of fancy galleries, shops and restaurants, including Maison Boulud (23 Qian Men Dong Da Jie; +86 1065599200; www.danielnyc.com/maisonboulud.html; lunch for two, excluding drinks, AU$60). The first Asian-based diner for French-born Daniel Boulud, whose New York restaurant, Daniel, consistently ranks amongst the world’s best, sent shock waves through China’s gastro-crowd when he opened this property last year. Choose one of the great-value set lunches, like poached white asparagus with a tarty egg vinaigrette for starters, swordfish with cspetzke pasta and onion tomato confit for mains, and tiny cheesecake filled profiteroles for desert.
Recharged, jump in a taxi and head out to the National Olympic Sports Centre to google-eye at the ‘Bird’s Nest’, or National Stadium and home to last year’s opening ceremony. The spectacular latticed cube by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron received almost as much attention as the Olympics themselves. Next door is the National Aquatics Centre’s bubbly ‘Water Cube’, designed by a consortium of Aussie architects; two of the many architectural dazzlers that have helped to reinvent this city.
Back into a taxi now zoom out to the Dashanzi Art District (otherwise known as the 798 Art Zone) about 20 minutes drive, to take in a snapshot of China’s booming contemporary art movement. Make your first stop the new Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (4 Juixianqiao Road; +86 10 84599269; www.ucca.org.cn; open 10:00- 19:00, closed Monday; tickets AU$3), set up by Belgian couple Guy and Myriam Ullens as China’s first privately run non-profit gallery and a platform for non-commercial artists to develop their talents. Other notable galleries in the neighbourhood include Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery and 798 Space. Art aficionados may prefer driving 10 minutes further to Cao Chang Di, a newer, cooler art district which recently sprung up as a reaction to the growing commercialism of Dashanzi.
When you have had your fill, jump back into a taxi and head straight down the highway to the ritzy new Park Hyatt, whose sleek 65th floor bar, the China Bar (2 Jianguomenwai Street; +86 1085671234; www.beijing.park.hyatt.com; Drinks for two AU$25), has 360 degree views of the city and bird’s eye view of Rem Koolhaas’s Twisted CCTV tower- yet another of Beijing’s whimsical architectural delights. Order a Tsingtao beer, established by German colonists in the port town of Qingdao in 1903 and now the national brew, and watch the sun set over the adjacent Fragrant Hills.
Head back to the city centre for a wander around Wangfujing Snack Street, a night market selling all manner of tidbits- including scorpions on sticks, a local delicacy. Don’t eat- the dishes that won’t make you squirm are still of poor quality. Instead roll over to the Grand Hyatt, opposite, and their Made in China restaurant (1 East Chang-An Avenue; +86 1085181234; www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com; dinner for two, excluding drinks, AU$90) which specializes in Beijing’s must-eat treat Peking Duck. Cited as the best in the city, reservations are essential, as is they only cook duck to order. Team your fatty foul with northern specials, like Beijing cabbage with chestnuts and saffron and ‘pot-sticker’ pan-fried dumplings.
Bursting at the seams, head back to Sanlitun Road to nightcap in one of the many new bars that are springing up across from the Opposite House, or in the hotels own thumping bar, Punk.