China’s capital is striding into the 21st century – but there’s still space in the modern metropolis to savour a time when the pace was slower.
Words and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
It’s a city that seems to be forever rebuilding and reimagining itself – there’s always somewhere fresh to eat, to shop, to sleep. Yet Beijing continues to be dominated by its history… a history that is best experienced quietly on foot, in hushed palace side halls and sleepy back-lanes.
At dawn, every day, ceremonial guards enter Tiananmen Square with the grace and precision of a ballet company. They escort the flag of China, the flag that flies not just at the heart of Beijing but at the heart of the entire country.
Whatever the weather, a large crowd already awaits them at the stately flagpole. The guards hook the ‘five-starred red flag’ to the halyard rope and then, with heroic drama, literally throw it into the sky and hoist it high.
Tiananmen Gate (Tiananmen East subway station) stands on the north side of the square and is an austere if iconic backdrop to the morning flag-raising ceremony.
It, and a further two hulking gateways, must be passed through before entering the Forbidden City (en.dpm.org.cn), the six-centuryold imperial palace, now a museum. Sightseers who arrive in time for the doors to open at 8.30am often find the first grand courtyard is almost deserted… for a few minutes at least.
It’s certainly a place of exceptional (sometimes overwhelming) grandeur: imposing halls, timeless craftsmanship, countless passages and courtyards (there are almost 1,000 buildings). It’s so vast that visitors can find themselves alone as they explore a remote side hall or tucked-away corridor.
Leaving by the north gate leads to Jingshan Park, its central hill providing sweeping views of the ancient palace complex and the city, old and new, beyond. From here the road leads on to the Drum and Bell Towers. But it’s time to meander through Beijing’s ancient hutongs: those lanes and alleys that once encircled the Forbidden City and were home to all the trades and professions that kept the city (and especially the palace) running.
Many of these village-like districts have been razed during the past 20 years; of an estimated 6,000 hutongs that existed a century ago, just 600 remain. However, those neighbourhoods that survive retain a unique atmosphere that is a refreshing foil to the city’s traffic-heavy boulevards and bustling malls.
Look out for Nanluoguxiang (Nanluoguxiang subway station), a hutong that has been revitalised with boutiques, cafés and street-food stands. It’s the kind of place where you can find handicrafts and fashion next to ice-cream makers and laid-back coffee shops.
A short amble from the northern end of Nanluoguxiang leads to the Drum Tower (Shichahai subway station), which has marked time since 1272 – easily spotted, and possibly heard. At intervals throughout the day, energetic percussionists beat its array of oversized drums.
It’s a pulse-thumping hike to the top of the tower. The stone steps are shiny, steep and irregular. But the drum performance, and view of the hutongs around, is a breathtaking reward.
Adjacent to the tower, Yaoji (311 Gulou Dongdajie) makes the kind of local food that probably kept imperial drummers warm in the depths of a Beijing winter. It’s famed for chaogan’r, a gummy liver soup, but is also a good spot to slurp up zha jiang mian, thick noodles topped with mince in a salty-smoky fermented soybean sauce. It’s hugely satisfying.
Across town, Huguosi Snacks (93 Huguosi Dajie; Ping’anli subway station) serves dishes that have an equally long history in the city, brought by Hui Muslims from lands far along the epic Silk Road. Signature plates include chaogeda (dumplings fried with pickled vegetables) and baodu (quick-fried stomach). They have cakes to take out too: tang’erduo (deep-fried sugary knots) and a glutinous rice and red-bean roll known as lüdagun (or ‘rolling donkey’) are two classic examples.
To burn off such hearty fare, head over to the Summer Palace (Xiyuan subway station) afterwards: it allows visitors to stay until 8pm from April to October. The palace was the imperial family’s warm-weather pleasure dome, and it is a lovely place to watch the sun go down. The nearby Old Summer Palace is equally romantic: it was the glorious (in part European-style) residence of 19th century emperors, but was trashed by rampaging foreign forces in 1860. The soldiers left the exquisitely ornate buildings, fountains and meeting halls in ruins, but they are still magnificent in all their tumbledown glory.