Local's Guide: Beijing

For many, the prospect of navigating Beijing’s 16,000 square kilometres and 23 million inhabitants can be daunting; But if you like your adventures bold and you are willing to scrap for them, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more compelling destination. 

Let’s start in the Gulou area. Despite a jarring spate of closures throughout 
the youthful area over the past decade or so, the star of Dongcheng District makes for a hotbed of young creatives and their consumption habits and features a brilliantly gritty collection of pokey cocktail bars, restaurants and galleries.

Perhaps the pokiest of all, Sichuanese restaurant Zhang Mama is as good as it gets for homestyle chuan cai (Sichuanese cuisine) in Beijing, not to mention one of the cheapest feeds in the district. However, wait times at this hutong (alleyway) institution are glacial; its 30-odd seats are some of Beijing’s most coveted —but completely worth waiting forever for. The hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork belly) here is all kinds of umami-unctuous while the mala oupian (mouth-numbing lotus root) is a torching reminder of what the Sichuan peppercorn is capable of. Zhang Mama’s menu appears in Chinese only, with patrons required to scribble down their orders in characters. Beijingers are friendly and will no doubt provide a helping hand if they catch you floundering.

In the same district Pangmei Mianzhuang (‘Fat Sister’s Noodle House’) specialises in Chongqing noodles. Another hutong hit, a meal from Pangmei Mianzhuang is faster than at Zhang Mama, and this restaurant is a tickle more capacious, meaning wait times here are usually sub-10 minutes. 

Hidden away not far from Fat Sister’s Noodle House, and in a traditional hutong courtyard, you’ll find the world-first speciality baijiu bar Capital Spirits Baijiu Bar and Distillery. Over on Gulou Dong Dajie, is Temple Bar: spiritual home to Beijing’s thriving punk and metal scenes. Booked by a Chicagoan provocateur who calls himself Chairman WOW, shows here are consistently wild and invariably free. Downstairs is Dada, far and away the capital’s best alternative club. 

You might be feeling wobblier now, so bedtime in this neck of the woods is a no-brainer. Boutique courtyard hotel The Orchid is unbeatable for charm (while featuring one mean East-Mediterranean brunch at in-house restaurant Toast) and is one of my favourite hotels in China, as well as being a launching spot for history-laden sites such as the Bell and Drum Towers, the Lama Temple, Confucius Temple and Houhai Lake, the latter of which heaves and glows with tourist trappings and lakeside karaoke: it’s undeniably fun, in a gross way. For top-shelf atmosphere, though, book one of The Orchid’s beguiling satellite properties; all a couple of minutes’ walk from reception (and the aforementioned brunch).

Just beyond the line of the former city walls, the Sanlitun area offers precisely none of the historical appeal that defines Greater Gulou, operating more as a nouveau playground for the capital city’s wealthier set: it is the physical manifestation of China’s 21st-century fiscal miracle. 

The high-fashion shopping precinct is the yin to Gulou’s yang, home to Beijing’s boujee bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels, and is decidedly more ‘international’ in feel. In the thick of it all, boutique hotel The Opposite House — designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma — is a terrific launching point from which to get luxe downtown. You won’t find better dim sum than at the property’s broodingly debonair Cantonese restaurant Jing Yaa Tang, a sunken former nightclub helmed by chef Li Dong, whose Peking duck is exemplary. For a post-duck drink, Yongli International Service Apartment’s Botany is the apartment bar to end all apartment bars; Frankie Zou’s cocktail skills means a drink here can be the best of the night.
South of here, near the Forbidden City and a certain pickled Chairman, lies the labyrinthine neighbourhood of Dashilan, another warren-like network of hutongs, though with a markedly different feel to those found in and around Gulou. There’s a good week’s worth of exploring to be done here. 

For those doing the Forbidden City-Dashilan double in one run, you’re most likely going to be weak and primed to spend big on wild accommodation. If that’s the case and you’re cool with it, haul your fragile posterior to the Rosewood Beijing and enrobe yourself in sheer extravagance and a rare echelon of service (each suite comes with a dedicated butler). Country Kitchen is a Dongbei cai (Northeastern cuisine) restaurant with superb high-homestyle cooking. Unlike most eateries you’ll find in Beijing, it should be booked in advance, while downstairs executive chef Jarrod Verbiak’s Bistrot B is truly the definitive French offering in the capital. The Rosewood Beijing can also take good care of your Great Wall of China plans, too — just stay away from the soulless rebuilds at Badaling and Mutianyu. I like the wilder sections.

Wherever you end up, Beijing is utterly beguiling. Unravelling its numerous social puzzles will consume you, if you let it — and you should.

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia offers flights to Beijing with its codeshare partner Singapore Airlines/Silkair. To book, visit www.virginaustralia.com.
 

Words by Frank Sweet - Published 14 November 2018
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