Sometimes a place seems to have a soul all its own; mystique laced with energy that keeps you in constant motion wandering from one fantastic spot to the other. Beijing is that kind of city.
Unlike other large Asian cities, Beijing hasn't been desecrated by Westernization. This is a Chinese city, first and foremost. There's just a handful of signs in English, and you can forget about getting a taxi driver who speaks a language other than Mandarin. In Beijing, you get the frenetic pace of progress mixed with remnants of China's long, cultural past.
Having said that, Beijing is at the tipping point: trendy restaurants are on the rise, hawker stalls are moving indoors to clean up the streets and there's even a good saturation of Starbucks on city blocks.
The worst part of Beijing is getting there. You can go to any of the China Travel branches, but make sure you bring proof of your itinerary and hotel bookings when you go. Bring lots of cash, too: all the rates have been raised for the Olympics, so a visa will set you back about $1600 HKD if you're an American like me.
My three-day itinerary included these highlights:
The Forbidden City - Built smack in the middle of Beijing, this compound that belonged to the Emporer is staggering in size. Do yourself a favor and splurge for the audio tour since there are few signs that will explain the history of the palaces and temples.
Green T. - This restaurant is the kind of party girl you hate: the one who is pretty and flaunts it. Green Tea is oh, so pretty, but it's pretentious to boot. Take for instance the menu .... it's written in poetry (I kid you not). However, the place will win you over first with it's food presentations - a tree with small butterflies in it accompanied spring rolls to the table - and then with the food - I'm still dreaming about the spare ribs that were reminiscent of oatmeal cookies. Sounds strange, but so good.
Dirt Market - This large, open air market only operates on the weekends, but it is a bonanza of pottery, art, handicrafts, Cultural Revolution paraphernalia, jewelry and ... well just about anything you can think of. (Brian picked up a pair of binoculars). The name reflects the pricing: it's dirt cheap! Well, at least most stuff is after you've bargained for it. Tell the taxi driver you want to go to Panjiayuan (the Chinese name for the market), and Skip the Silk Market, which is open all week, but has similar goods at three times the price.
Bei Hai Park - Even though Bei Hei is fast becoming the center of where expats eat and party, during the day it still belongs to The People. On the sunny day we were there, some were paddling along the large lake, others were just resting by the banks, while still others were singing opera and swimming in their Speedos like this crazy guy pictured.
798 Artist District -- Located in the Dashanzi district, this artists' enclave is testament to the forward-thinking momentum of the city - although there is a rumor that the area will be shuttered after the Olympics. That would be a shame, because you can spend the better part of a day flitting from shops to galleries to cafes here. The space that houses 798 used to be German weapons factories and there's still a stark, industrial feel to this place that's rich with creativity.
Dumplings - Going to Beijing and not having dumplings is like going to Philadelphia and not having a cheesesteak. These doughy delicacies can be found everywhere, but are best at the cheap corner stands.
Hutongs - Just a few years ago, hutongs, traditional Beijing homes built around a center courtyard, were a dying breed. Construction of hotels, apartments and shopping centers were destroying whole neighborhoods of these classic homes. Thanks to public outcry, however, the hutong is crawling back from the brink of extinction. In fact, many are being refurbished and even rebuilt. Go to areas east of the Forbidden City or near Bei Hai park to experience to hutong.