A young girl poses in traditional costume at Jingshan Park, an artificial hill behind the Forbidden City and the highest point in Beijing

Beijing state of mind

China’s capital is becoming a doorway to the Orient for many visitors who come to explore a lively metropolis with an ancient history.

A young girl poses in traditional costume at Jingshan Park, an artificial hill behind the Forbidden City and the highest point in Beijing

A young girl poses in traditional costume at Jingshan Park, an artificial hill behind the Forbidden City and the highest point in Beijing

BEIJING  is a schizophrenic city. On a good day, the sun shines down on the hutongs, skinny alleyways crowded with bicycles and washing lines, and the city is illuminated as a series of terracotta walls and monuments that rise up unexpectedly; but on a bad day, a cloud of industrial smog so thick as to be impenetrable can make it hard to navigate.

This is something modern Beijing has become notorious for, and that locals have become accustomed to, but it should not be a reason to forgo a visit.

Once the home of emperors and concubines, Beijing is now populated by officials and China’s young and glamorous; the epicentre of China’s rebellious and progressive rock music scene as well as the CCP headquarters. Time Out Beijing is a useful resource if you want to go out, and international DJs and musicians pass through the city on a regular basis. Mao Livehouse, Dongcheng District, is to the eye little more than a corrugated iron shed, but to the ear, it’s one of the best venues in Beijing, hosting touring groups and obscure local acts. Karaoke (KTV) is China’s most beloved form of night-life and there’s one on nearly every street, so if you want to be your own DJ and spend the night with friends in a padded cell, leave your inhibitions at the hotel and down some baiju, rice wine that sends your body well out of synch with your head, and get singing. Expect to write off the next day.

Beijing is a photogenic mix of parks where elderly people practice tai chi and willow trees grow beside boating lakes (the Beihei Park is particularly lovely); sculptural modern architecture, and frenetic markets selling silk, gemstones, ancient scraps of embroidery, and ceramic Mao busts by the thousands. Panjiayuan Flea Market is one of the best for souvenir shopping, but remember to haggle.

Walking is the best way to see Beijing, which is set out on a grid system and relatively easy to get around. When necessary, take the subway which is quick and easy to use. If your feet are sore after a long day of sightseeing, you can always try reflexology: an ancient form of foot massage supposed to revive not only tired feet but any other part of your body that might be ailing. There are 30 Liangzi Foot Body Massage Centres around the city, but if you can’t find one of these, look out for signs with elaborate and scientific diagrams of feet.

On the outskirts of the city, the Great Wall winds its way across the horizon, a Wonder of the World in different states of pristine and disrepair, as if to fulfil the needs and imagination of each visitor. Mutianyu is most tourists’ destination of choice: there is a cable car up and down, and the stones though worn, are not worn totally smooth.

Beyond Mutianyu, remote and harder to reach, are the more secretive parts of the Wall. Overgrown by wildflowers and bramble, these ramparts slope at steeper angles, footholds are haphazard and it’s a climb just to reach the Wall let alone to make your way across it. The silence and serenity of these sections is fantastical, and are well worth the sweat.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is a popular destination for visitors to Beijing

Designed to keep out Ghenghis Khan and his invading army, the Great Wall protected China from the corrupting influences of external cultures, and there is a sense of national pride in the elegance of what it has preserved, increasingly threatened by Americanisation and the demands of rampant tourism.

China was out of bounds to foreigners for 20 years until the opening up policies of the 1970s, and it is hard not to be captivated by a sense of mystery in Beijing, with its ghosts of former selves: erased, rebuilt, and erased again. From the 798 Art District in Danshanzi, Chaoyang – former East German factories taken over as exhibition spaces by the modern art crowd – to the Forbidden City, once a dynastic palace, now a Mecca for those visitors enamoured by the antiquated. In this city of paradoxes, the more you explore, the less you understand.

Those in pursuit of the spiritual without the time or money to take a train to Tibet, should make their way to the Lama Temple. Built in 1694, China’s largest Tibetan Buddhist temple is an elaborate golden labyrinth that unravels like an M.C Esher design, full of pilgrims and sculptures, tapestries and clouds of incense. The area surrounding it is home to many of the city’s Buddhists, and it is where vegetarians will find an array of monastic restaurants. Aspiring Dharma bums and those with an eye for iconography and turquoise jewellery could spend hours browsing local stores. At night trashcans are set alight with paper prayers, “hell bank notes”, offered to the deceased.

Street food at Donghuamen Night MarketIt is possible to eat for cheap in Beijing and the best way to do this is to try the street food, of which there is a diversity, from that which you’ll be familiar with – spring rolls and sugar cane – to the virtually inedible: live scorpions on sticks. Donghuamen night market is a spectacle in itself, so take your camera. Yang rou chuan’r, lamb kebabs, from Xinjiang province, are a good bet; there are impromptu barbeque stands set up across the city, where you choose your skewers and they will be deep-fried and cooked for you with lots of spices, completely different from the burnt-on-the-outside, raw-on-the-inside amateur grilling at home.  For those with a sweet tooth, check out the candied fruit cocktails, impaled on a kebab stick and widely available.

If you’re concerned about hygiene, avoid the meat options and stick to vegetables and tofu. Look for restaurants with pictures on the walls you can point at if you can’t read the menu, but second guess everything – if it looks like intestines, it probably is. Perversely, restaurants with menus in English are often less interesting, so hole-in-the-wall places, although they don’t look like much, can be more authentic. Cuisine from all corners of the world’s largest country is available in Beijing and if you’re feeling adventurous, this is an irresistible opportunity to taste the infamous spices of Sichuan Province, or yak cheese produced in Yunnan. Roast duck restaurants are commonplace in Beijing, and you can identify them from the racks of carcasses rotating in the windows.

Accommodation is equally varied, with everything from budget backpacker hostels to boutique five star hotels. If you choose carefully, your nights could be spent in an ambient Chinese dream: luminous red lanterns and traditional furniture; and are likely to have a bilingual receptionist on the front desk who can help you with directions.

‘Sitting on the City Walls Courtyard House’, DongCheng District, is particularly good: clean, comfortable and in a central location close to Tiananmen Square. Staying in a courtyard hotel such as this will give you an insight into what Beijing might have looked like before much of it was demolished in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, when there were more hutongs and less high rise blocks.