48 Hours in Beijing

| Tuesday, 23 Oct. 2012

The Forbidden City is a major Beijing attraction: All photos .

Beijing is a difficult city to explore, and sometimes, endure. But the rewards are far greater than the challenges this Chinese capital can impose. When planning an Asian cruise, don't bypass Beijing with some half-day pre-or-post cruise tour. Or worse, some two-day guided tour where you're shuffled around like cattle and miss the real Beijing. You can see this city on your own.

Schedule two days for sightseeing, shopping and dining. (The Great Wall, a drive from the city, needs its own day.) Here's how to survive, and yes thrive, in this formidable destination. You may only need to visit once but that one stay provides thrills only travel this exotic can deliver.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Beijing has gotten easier to navigate. Most signs are now bilingual, which allows Westerners to ride subways or simply walk about and follow a map. Of course, if you get lost, there's no guarantee you'll find an English-speaking person to assist. If seeking help, ask someone young; this generation is your best bet to speak some English.

READ LIKE THE LOCALS Before departing, visit thebeijinger.com. This great web site (and magazine, distributed to Beijing hotel rooms) covers what's hot and new, from special wine dinners at leading restaurants to festivals and concerts. Its hip vibe, smooth style and tips for Westerners are invaluable.

BEIJING IS BIG It's hard to wrap your mind around it. Beijing is nearly 6,500 square miles and home to more than 19 million people. What appears to be nearby on a map is often miles away. Unless you discern via the hotel concierge that a destination is just a 10-to-15-minute walk, take a taxi. Save your stamina for the sightseeing, as every worthwhile tourist highlight involves hours of walking.

AIR QUALITY On good days, the wind blows the pollution away, resulting in bluish skies and puffy white clouds. On bad days, the air is quite hazy. You might get a slight soapy or metallic taste in your mouth or your nostrils could burn, but these symptoms go away once indoors. That said, the Chinese government is taking many measures to improve air quality, from planting hundreds of thousands of trees, limiting driving, using renewable energy sources and adding natural gas buses.

COMMUNICATION Most Chinese people I encountered outside luxury hotels, stores and Western-geared restaurants spoke little English. Salespeople in touristy shopping malls speak some English, mostly pertaining to merchandise and money.

TAXIS Taxi drivers usually do not speak English. Carry a card inscribed in Chinese and English listing places you want to visit, including your hotel name and address. With this in hand, it's easy to get around on your own. Use only metered taxis; flag them from the street or let the doorman at your hotel handle it. Prices are very reasonable. Note: Many taxis waiting outside tourist shopping meccas are meter-free. Avoid those as the drivers may try to scam you into a high set price.

WALKING Even if the pedestrian green light icon is activated at crosswalks, cross with caution. Cars and buses may not wait for you to finish crossing. When in doubt, cross when locals around you do. Also, maintain your pace; don't stop in a panic if you see approaching vehicles. Drivers (particularly motorbike and bicycle) judge how fast to navigate the crosswalk based on your walking speed.

You might hear a horn beep or a shout in Chinese when walking on a sidewalk. Take heed; it's often a motorbike zooming up behind you. Yes, on the sidewalk. Step aside, quickly.

SCAMS Girls, claiming to be students, may approach you wishing to practice their English. Politely, but firmly, decline. They often stake out spots by tourist hotels and shops and invite you to join them for tea. Then you get stuck with a giant bill.

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SHOPPING

HAGGLING Bargain as hard as you can. Then bargain harder. Vendors expect it. Whatever price you're quoted, offer about 20% of the original. If they don't bite, walk away slowly. They'll call you back to renegotiate. Only when the vendor lets you walk away for good will you know your price is too low.

Use their calculators for bargaining; it makes haggling easier. About the only places you can't bargain is in Western luxury boutiques, hotel shops and government-owned stores. And even then, ask in your nicest voice if that is the best price.

STORES Where to shop? Tourist trinkets are easily secured at the Silk Market (buyer beware; not every scarf is real silk) and the Pearl Market, with hundreds of vendors. Expect to find the highest quality pearls on the fourth and fifth floor of the latter emporium. Beijing's 798 Art District is located in the northeast corner of the city. It's the heart of a growing modern art and culture center. Galleries, artist studios and an art bookstore give it sensational Soho-style.

Wangfujing Street (mostly a pedestrian thoroughfare) features everything from silk stores and arts-and-craft shops to big department stores. It even has a newish Forever 21. People-watching here is awesome.

MUST-SEE SIGHTS

TIANANMEN SQUARE Known as the largest public square in the world, Tiananmen is overwhelming to behold. When standing here, more than anywhere else in the city, it hits that you are really in Beijing. It's a goose-bump moment - an unforgettable highlight.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Tower is at the north end of the square. You can't miss it; it's topped with a picture of Chairman Mao. At the center of the square is the Monument to People's Heroes. On the west side, is the Great Hall of the People, the site for congressional and diplomatic activity. The east side has the National Museum of China and on the south side is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, the Mao mausoleum.

FORBIDDEN CITY Enter the Forbidden City (now called the Palace Museum) from Tiananmen Square. (Watch "The Last Emperor" before you visit to heighten your appreciation and understanding.) The Forbidden City was the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty.

Forbidden City

This vast palatial complex consists of nearly 1,000 buildings built by nearly one million workers between 1407-1420. Still, you can see the highlights in two hours with a good guide. If you haven't booked one with your hotel, licensed ones often offer services by the entrance. The guide will be wearing his license around his neck. Pick one who will let you pay at the end of the tour and who speaks English well. Prices are generally fair. I don't usually bargain here.

The architectural beauty (many buildings were recently restored) and the rich red, gold and green hues are astonishing to behold. The complex is so immense, it's impossible to imagine that just the emperor and his family lived here.

Warning: Your guide may lead you to the gift shop (within the Forbidden City) and say it's your lucky day, the nephew of the last emperor is inside. He's reportedly an elderly master calligrapher who donates his work to raise money for restoration of the Forbidden City. Go online and you'll see that many tourists have different pictures posted of the "nephew" that they took when buying his calligraphy. I've also read that the last emperor's nephew is dead. So, there you go.

And don't get sucked into a tea-tasting at this gift shop. It's easy to get overcharged on purchases here. Ah, China.

TEMPLE OF HEAVEN The Temple of Heaven is located near the Pearl Market - consider this a two-for-one outing. You need only spend a couple hours to get the drift of this majestic site. (Again, best achieved with a guide with limited time.)

Temple of Heaven

Completed by 1420, the Temple of Heaven is a complex of stunning buildings set in gardens and surrounded by double walls and pinewoods.

Its layout symbolizes the relationship between heaven and earth, and the role played by emperors within that relationship. Emperors would come here to make sacrifices and pray for abundant harvests. It's a masterpiece of ancient Chinese culture and the architecture, with tiered conical roofs, is profoundly moving.

WANGFUJING FOOD STALLS Look but don't eat. Located just off Wangfujing Street, these stalls are awesome to explore. Rows of vendors hawk food we don't see back home. Live scorpions and big black spiders. Seahorses, starfish, chicken hearts, squid heads, sheep kidneys, silkworms - they're all here. Expect many such items served on sticks, including the easiest one I can imagine eating - candied apples.

Wangfujing Food Stalls

WHERE TO STAY

In big cities where English is not widely spoken or written, where you stay takes on greater importance. Particularly if you're traveling independently.

I'm all for saving money and booking mid-price and budget hotels in easy cities like London or Auckland, where only a clean safe environment is essential.

But when it comes to formidable metropolises with language barriers and cultural differences like Beijing, I need more.

Top Beijing hotels are cocoons from the, well, craziness outside. Noise, traffic, crowds, unfamiliar sights and sounds - they're assaults on the senses that both exhilarate and exhaust. And the only way to fully enjoy Beijing is to have reprieves.

Five-star hotels also have the best concierges, who ensure your days count. They can schedule guides, transportation or suggest how to go it alone. They know what to see, where to dine and shop. They provide maps and cards that list major attractions, shopping centers and restaurants in English and Chinese to show to taxi drivers.

Their in-house restaurants understand our Western tastes and meet our hygienic standards. (An upset tummy on a sightseeing-crammed visit is the ultimate buzz-kill.)

There are now several luxury hotels to choose from, including Fairmont, The Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, The Peninsula, Raffles and the boutique Opposite House. Four Seasons is opening in November 2012. Any one will take good care of you. Remember, too, Beijing prices are lower in general than in other major cities of the world. So you should find luxury hotel rooms at more moderate prices.

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THE PENINSULA BEIJING My favorite on the above list is The Peninsula Beijing, for many reasons. One, its location. It's in Wangfujing, the center of the city. From here, all areas of Beijing are easily accessible. You can walk to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City - two must-see highlights. This matters, as traffic can be beastly.

Peninsula Beijing Lobby

You can also hoof it to many stores, including arts-and-crafts and souvenir shops and department stores. At night, Wangfujing Street (around the corner) is lit up like Times Square and a fun safe place to walk after dinner.

Two, The Peninsula is beautiful. From the moment you enter the courtyard, you're embraced by service. First you're greeted by white-gloved doormen dressed in a white uniform (including a white cap), who push the revolving door so you don't have to.

The lobby is breathtaking. Such luxury. Every dream designer has a shop in the lobby (or in the Arcade on the two floors below). It's a blast just to walk into Cartier, Tom Ford and other glam boutiques, and ogle such high-end goods.

SLEEPING IN The 525 guest rooms and suites are exquisite, combining modern elegance with Chinese flair. Spotless, they're chockfull of high-tech amenities. Telephones do nearly everything - from opening drapes and controlling the TV to revealing the temperature.

Private Spa Suite

For a splurge, consider a Duplex Suite. The living room and a powder bath are downstairs. Climb the curving staircase to a master bedroom and full bath, replete with bidet. Two-story floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the city skyline.

Duplex Suite Living Room

CLUB FLOORS Club Floor guests are privy to special amenities, including a private lounge. This spacious area is highly staffed; someone is at your beck-and-call in an instant. Complimentary breakfast, tea and happy hour are presented here and displays are bountiful and gorgeous.

Breakfast Fruit Salad with Dragon Fruit

Happy hour is so generous, some guests (particularly those exhausted from sightseeing) call it dinner. (And the money you save can go towards a Club Room.)

Help yourself to fine wines and premium-brand alcohol, and an extensive array of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. Imported cheeses, crusty baguettes, prosciutto-wrapped figs, and smoked salmon mini-sandwich stacks are highlights. Hot dishes could include fava bean soup with seared scallops, vegetable spring rolls and tandori chicken.

Hors d'Oeuvres at Happy Hour

House-made chocolate candies, excellent macarons (meringue-based French cookies) in assorted flavors (love the pistachio) and classic butter cookies complete the happy hour meal. A chef in immaculate whites is often standing nearby, checking every dish and replenishing trays. (Same goes at breakfast and teatime.)

Macarons for Tea and Happy Hour

Breakfast and tea are equally pleasurable. Fresh-baked croissants, good chewy bagels (in China!), cereals, fruit, scrambled eggs and bacon are among many top-rate selections. Come teatime, you won't find better homemade preserves and scones.

SPA TIME If there's any city where you need a spa treatment, it's Beijing. You might be a pretzel from the long flight from the United States, or sore from days of sightseeing, cruising and sleeping in every bed but your own. Whatever the reason, The Peninsula Spa by ESPA is Beijing's true Temple of Heaven, a sanctuary for the weary.

Peninsula Spa

The large fitness center is as modern as any in a New York five-star property. The indoor heated swimming pool, glassed-in for natural lighting, is sheer bliss.

The spa design is sensational. It's a brilliant combination of Zen tranquility and Chinese flair.

Arrive an hour before treatment for preliminary perks. Receive a personalized guided tour, stash your things in a locker and use the thermal suite, with sauna and steam rooms. Help yourself to the ice fountain, for cooling down after a steam.

The relaxation room is just what a travel doctor should order. Choose a custom-made chaise, cuddle under the softest duvet and don the waiting headphones to select music of your choice. At a push of a button, raise the head, lower the legs, up the knees - this chair has seemingly endless settings.

My favorite spa room is the Asian tea lounge. Relax with a pot of fresh-brewed tea, listen to soothing music and just chill.

Massage therapists look like actresses who play masseuses in movies. Think beautiful Asian women with soft melodic voices who move with the grace of models. Yet they have hands of steel.

Therapists use therapeutic-grade aromatherapy ESPA oils and lotions, featured at luxe spas worldwide. They request that you smell three (choices include detox, reenergize or relaxation) and pick the one most appealing. Whatever calls to you is what your body needs, the therapists explain.

Each treatment begins with The Peninsula Tea Ceremony, consultation and a foot buff and bath. I tried a one-hour, 50-minute "Chakra Balancing with Volcanic Stones."

After the tea ceremony and foot bath, I lay down on a table for skin brushing, exfoliation and facial cleanse. I rinsed off in a multi-jet shower in my therapeutic suite. Back on the table for a hot stone massage with blended oils and Ayurvedic infusions. The treatment ended with a deep head massage. I had to stagger back to the relaxation lounge to recover before I could even consider dressing and going to my room.

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HOME SWEET HOME The last reason why I prefer The Peninsula? Its culture. I loathe sounding cliché, but The Peninsula makes guests feel at home. Everyone, from the housekeeper and concierge to doormen, go out of their way to make you feel welcome. And when you are this far from home and in such a different world, no element of a hotel stay is more critical.

WHERE TO DINE Although the dining scene is rapidly changing, Beijing has fewer restaurants that appeal to Western palates than Shanghai. The safest places to eat are in fine hotels or trendy modern European restaurants like Mosto, Temple Restaurant Beijing and Capital M. With only 48 hours, you can't eat everywhere. Try one of the above or such favorites below.

HUANG TING I dined several times at at Cantonese restaurant Huang Ting at The Peninsula during my most recent Beijing visit. The décor alone - based on a reinterpretation of a traditional noble courtyard home - is worth multiple visits.

Decor

It's filled with antiques, many dating from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Walls are constructed from original bricks dating back several hundred years old, and the heavy wooden front door is more than 200-years-old. Ivory and blue silk accents and water features assist in whisking you dreamily back in time.

At lunch, the dim sum is irresistible. The freshest ingredients, expert technique and made-to-order qualities are evident in every bite. From delicately wrapped steamed shrimp to lean barbecued pork buried in fluffy steamed buns, every morsel is a major yum.

Come dinnertime, the décor and menu turn downright magical. Peking duck, wheeled tableside on an elegant trolley, is expertly carved by a glove-wearing server tableside and a menu highlight.

The accompanying pancakes, slightly thicker than at Duck de Chine (see below), add extra texture to the voluptuous duck-in-pancake experience. The meat is fork-tender and the richy-rich skin is extra-crisp and gloriously fat-free.

Chinese Leek Pancakes

One of my favorite soups here is double-boiled whelk (sea snail) soup with matsutake mushroom (intensely flavored, prized fungus) and Chinese herbs. I admit, it sounds dubious but tastes delicious. Made with intensely reduced chicken stock, it's extremely flavorful and tastes, well, healthful.

DUCK DE CHINE Peking duck is this trendy restaurant's calling card. Roasted over fruitwood, it's beyond delicious. The renowned restaurant caters to Westerners and English is well understood. That said, there's plenty on the menu to appeal to adventurous palates.

Whether you or the hotel concierge makes the reservation, ensure that the duck is ordered in advance. Otherwise, you might have to wait for 40 minutes as it's cooked to order.

The presentation process is quite ceremonial. A server rings a gong (silly fun) and a carver wearing gloves wheels the duck tableside. He's a knife whizz, cutting the bronzed caramelized skin and lean meat in seconds.

The pancakes are paper-thin, vessels for stuffing with duck and hoisin sauce. The sauce is homemade, presented by a server, who, with your permission, swirls in garlic paste, sesame paste and peanut sauce. It may not be authentic, but it's delicious.

If you're feeling adventurous, try marinated donkey, duck intestines or duck tongue. Or lobster sashimi and South African abalone. This would be the place to safely do so.

After dinner, stroll into the courtyard and watch the master chefs inside a glass-walled kitchen roasting ducks hanging in the wood-fired oven. It will make you want to sit down and start all over again.

BREAKFAST AT JING JING, located in Lower Lobby One at The Peninsula Beijing, is a breakfast must. It's a fabulous opportunity to experience traditional Chinese morning fare along with Western a.m. staples.

The buffet is just like Beijing itself - gigantic. But its appeal lies in its authenticity and quality. Plus nothing is in chafing dishes; everything is made all morning on the spot in open kitchens. It's like feasting in a home kitchen, albeit a state-of-the-art giant one with a big staff.

Chinese buffet

On the Western side, expect omelets, waffles, pancakes, fine-crumbed muffins, ultra-flaky croissants, pain au chocolat (croissant-like rectangular pastry stuffed with dark chocolate), assorted fruits (don't miss the dragon fruit; white flesh with black seeds), scrambled eggs, sausage and more.

For Chinese fare, expect won ton soup with pork, congee (rice porridge), barbecued pork buns, salted cucumber, pickled mustard, salted red bean curd, salted egg, wild mushrooms, noodles and Chinese leek pancakes made before your eyes.

Cabbage with Barley at Huang Ting

People-watching alone is worth the price of admission. So is the service; spill a drop of coffee in your saucer, and a server comes in seconds with a new one.

CHYNNA The dim sum at Chynna, inside the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, is impeccable. Come for lunch, between sightseeing jaunts. The elegant romantic ambiance and soft music are so relaxing. So are the cushioned booths, into which you will gratefully sink in after hours of walking.

Locals love this place. (On weekends, families abound and it's fun watching what they order.) Dim sum is made to order, but you won't mind the wait; you'll need to rest.

Steamed, baked or fried - take your pick. Ingredients are impeccable. Order the steamed pork buns, freshly baked puff pastry filled with barbecue pork, steamed shrimp dumplings and crispy shrimp rice roll. After sipping copious amounts of green tea, you're recharged for another afternoon of adventure, Beijing-style.

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