Beijing and I haven't always had the most stable and loving relationship. He can be loud, rude, crowded, and unaccommodating. I can be intolerant, impatient, and demanding. It does not make for a good combination. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, hence I've always been in love with Beijing so long as I wasn't living in him. The past few days have reaffirmed my affection for the city. I realize most people who read this will never come to Beijing or even desire to visit, however, I think it deserves a top spot on anyone's itinerary who is coming to China or even to Asia. Here are some reasons why I adore this place:
1. The food. While I like to eat Chinese food and love to cook western food, sometimes it's nice to mix things up. Variety is hard to find in Chengde, where I can break down the cuisine into six different categories: local Chinese food, Koreanish food, horrible western wannabe food, food on sticks, hot pot, and KFC. Beijing has much more to offer, literally from A to Z (African to Zhejiang). My first night on the town, my friend Becky and I set off to find Noodle Bar, a much raved about establishment serving, you guessed it, noodles. After some wandering in Beijing's Sanlitun area, we ditched our original plan and settled on Rumi, an award-winning Persian Restaurant that served delectable hummus, kebabs, and bakalava. By Chinese standards, it was not cheap (US$30 for four dishes and two drinks), but it was worth every RMB. The following night we explored the restored hutongs (alleyways) near Beijing's drum and bell towers where we settled on some Yunnan (a province in SW China) food at No Name Restaurant. Tofu wrapped in banana leaves, purple pineapple rice, and spring rolls--the food more closely resembled SE Asian than Chinese. Yesterday we made it to Three Guizhou Men, a restaurant specializing in Guizhou (a small province in southern China) food. Today I am going on a diet, which should be easy considering the few temptations that surround me here in Chengde.
2. The parks. Beijing has numerous parks, many of which can be visited for free. Last week Becky and I stayed at Tiananmen Sunrise Hostel which is conveniently located near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, as well walking distance to Wangfujing Shopping Street. I love this area not because of its proximity to tourist sites, but due to its random areas of green space. The boulevard by the hostel includes a mile long stretch of grass and shrubbery, along both sides runs traffic. Heading towards Tiananmen East subway station, I enjoy wandering through a small park that features a gazebo, stream, bridges, and statues. Parks in China are also great places to people watch; depending on the time of day, you will witness women dancing, men playing musical instruments, and people practicing taiqi. They are among the best places in China to go for free entertainment.
3. Freedom to roam. Another wonderful thing about Beijing is that despite its size, I feel comfortable and safe walking through any area of the city at pretty much any time of day. This is not a luxury I have in my hometown of Milwaukee where there are neighborhoods I am uncomfortable to driving through during the day. Maybe I am being naive, but Beijing seems surprisingly unthreatening for a city of 14 million people.
4. Hutongs. Love them or fear them, hutongs (or "alleyways") are historically significant and found throughout the heart of Beijing, although this is quickly changing as they are being bulldozed away for malls and apartments. A recent article by Time Out Beijing gives some insight into the issue of their demolition. I personally love hutongs and siheyuans (single story courtyard houses found within the hutongs) despite them being somewhat dilapidated--most residences are one hundred years old and oft in need of restoration and indoor plumbing. I find Beijing's hutongs charming, plus they provide a much needed break from the endless clumps of high rises that line Beijing's four lane avenues. I particularly enjoy visiting Nanluoguxiang (click to view a short video of it) an old hutong turned into a hip, though not overly touristy, area of shops, restaurants, cafes, and locals.
5. The shopping. I'm not the girl I once was, the girl who hopped into her Ford Tempo as soon as the 2:40 sounded and sped over to Southridge Mall. Shopping just isn't as fun as it used to be, though in Beijing I somehow find myself reliving my frivolous youth. Beijing has something for everybody. There are countless small, independent shops to scavenge, however their clothes don't always suit my tastes and rarely fit me. I admit I often hit the big name brands which cater more to western needs, tastes, and sizes. Some of my recent favorites include H&M, Zara, and Decathlon. For those interested in cosmetics and smelling good, there are several branches of Sephora throughout the city. I also take my annual trip to Beijing's massive IKEA for house furnishings. Nanluoguxiang is home to some fun and hipsteresque knickknack, souvenir, and clothing shops. A popular among expats is Plastered 8, which offers an array of clever Beijing-themed t-shirts. And of course, I never leave Beijing without stopping at Jenny Lou's, the western grocery store. I need my cream cheese. 'Nough said.