Wanderlust: The real Beijing

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Insatiably curious but easily bored, an American friend heading to China recently lobbed a tricky travel challenge my way. How could he experience the best of Beijing without setting foot in a museum or monument? I know the Chinese capital well, having spent my student days exploring its grand Imperial history and narrow hutong alleyways on two wheels. However, his request offered me the opportunity to reconsider this city of awe-inspiring historic sites through its subtler secrets and tangible traditions.

I opted to ease him in via his taste buds. Only since the Qing dynasty fell in 1911 has Beijing’s eponymous, lacquered roast duck been available to the masses. I warn him to abandon any expectation of ambiance in favour of deliciousness at Liqun Duck Restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, +86 10 6702 5681) just south of Tiananmen Square and famous for the secret spices chefs rub on prior to a wood fired oven roasting. Another night, I suggest gazing upon the Forbidden City’s hundreds of swooping tiled roofs over sundowners at the rooftop Yin Bar (The Emperor, 33 Qihelou Dajie, +86 10 6526 5566; theemperor.com.cn). 

At the other end of the Chinese sipping spectrum, I suggest he trek out to the city’s southwest corner where around 900 tea sellers proffer jasmine, oolong and prized Yunnanese pu’er at Maliandao Tea Market (Maliandao Lu, Liuliqiao). It’s within this leafy cacophony I learned to drink cooling green teas from Hangzhou in the summer and that brewing black leaves helps ward off winter’s chill. For a more calming interlude, sip white peony tea at Tranquil Tuesdays (71 Fangjia Hutong, +86 10 6407 1938; tranquiltuesdays.com) a socially responsible teashop staffed by women from disadvantaged backgrounds. If he does not wish to invest in a porcelain teapot, their organic Jade Sword green tea also makes an excellent Beijing souvenir.

Next, I send him shopping for new takes on ancient Chinese ceramics at homeware store Spin (6 Fangyuan Xi Lu, +86 10 6437 8649; spinceramics.com). Owner Gary Wang has stylishly tweaked gourd shaped and zisha clay teapots into contemporary musts. I boldly drop the hint that the knot vase, which recalls the Herzog & de Meuron designed Beijing National Stadium, makes a great gift. 

For younger friends on his shopping list, Beijing offers a rich history of toy craft. He can learn a thing or two about Chinese kite making, which dates back to at least the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) at Three Stones Kite (25A Dianmen Xidajie Xicheng, +86 10 8404 4505; cnkites.com). This kaleidoscopic mini-emporium of hand-painted silk or paper flyers, near the Forbidden City, is owned by the great grandson of the last Qing kite maker. More timeless toy surprises can be found at Bannerman Tang’s Toys and Handicrafts (38 Guozijian Dajie, +86 10 8404 7179) where I always pick up handmade clay Tu’er Ye, the mythical bunny sent down from the moon to bring good health to Beijingers. 

If that doesn’t protect him from Beijing’s pollution, he should consult with the traditional Chinese medical experts at Tongrentang (24 Dashilan Jie, +86 10 6303 0221), the former Imperial dispensary that first opened for business in 1669. This Chinese-style carved wood building is stuffed with three floors of pills and potions even my most modern Chinese friends swear by.

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