A city guide to the cooler side of Beijing

From factories turned into galleries to a burgeoning crop of sci-fi skyscrapers, the Chinese capital is shrugging off its dynastic past and revealing a cool side

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 21 May 2019, 07:19 BST
Wall painted with Chinese character ‘jing’ (symbolising respect, honour), Wangfujing
Photograph by Giulia Marchi

“I hope you’re hungry,” Evon Chua says with a laugh that sweeps away any suggestion the tour will be a formal affair. “Because we have a lot to get through tonight. A lot.” Hovering at the top of the escalator when I emerge from the belly of Yonghegong Lama Temple subway station, Evon waves and introduces herself, all youthful confidence and stylish demeanour. She’s clad in a coat that, while padded with layers to protect her from Beijing’s evening chill, is faultlessly cool.

For the next four hours, Evon will be my window on a city that sometimes seems wrapped in an unrelenting chill — in politics as much as weather. Where we’re standing — the main subway stop for the Beixinqiao district — we’re just three miles from the Forbidden City, from which imperial dynasties ruled with absolute power until 1912. We’re only metres further from Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese international image was doused in its own blood in 1989. Has much changed? The Beijing Olympics of 2008 was meant to be the event that saw China cosy up to the rest of the globe. But at a time when the increasingly autocratic Xi Jinping has a firm grip on the presidential reins, the country can still appear, to an outsider, to be the unsmiling titan of the Far East.

An unfair preconception? Perhaps. The Chinese capital is a kaleidoscope of 22 million souls, and Evon has much of it at her fingertips. Unfailingly fluent in English, and tech-savvy to the point her smartphone is almost a fifth limb — the ping of her WeChat feed (China’s near-omnipresent micro-messaging app) will echo across the evening — she’s about to show me a Beijing far removed from stereotype. One that’s vibrant, arty, full of secrets, very happy to stay out late and — more to the point, here in Beixinqiao — tasty.

Evon is a guide for Lost Plate Food Tours, a company set up in Xi’an as recently as 2014 that’s since expanded into the other Chinese cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. The concept is simple: engaging jaunts that pick out intriguing eateries and bars, and unveil the authentic China in the process. “We take people to places they might not usually consider,” she explains. “Not restaurants in hotels — they can find those themselves. We go through the doors they might otherwise ignore, or look into but not feel sure about. We take you inside and show you the best things to eat.” She’ll be true to her word. Nine of us — including an American-Serbian couple from Boston and an Australian family — cram into three tuk-tuks for an odyssey that will crisscross the north edge of the centre of the city. These doughty pedal-powered relics will be the sole concession to the China of cliches. They’ll take us to institutions far removed from postcards and travel brochures; there’s Ju En Yuan, where we order chun bing (spring pancakes) filled with chicken, and Xiong Wei Shi Zu, where the re gan mian (hot, dry noodles) has the group gobbling, sighing and talking animatedly over empty bowls.

These are hole-in-the-wall nuggets and Evon, aware that I’ve come to Beijing to write about the city, requests that I don’t reveal their names for fear of others bypassing Lost Plates to follow the route independently. For the most part, it’s a moot betrayal to ‘identify’ them, since most are so hidden in the city’s back-alley neighbourhoods — the hutongs — that it’s implausible for visitors to the city to locate them without her help.

They pulse with life all the same. Yi Dian Xin Jin Wei greets us with a haze of smoke. When my eyes adjust, I grasp that the restaurant deals in zhi zi kao rou (Mongolian barbecue), and is abuzz with Beijing twentysomethings cooking chunks of meat on hot plates on the tables. “This is a hippy-ish hang-out,” Evon explains. “Young people love to come here for unfussy food and beer.” Around me, the conversation is a rolling sea of Mandarin, far beyond the limit of my paltry vocabulary. I let it wash over me as the beef course sizzles.

We end the tour in Peiping Machine Taphouse, a microbrewery in a former factory where hippy is replaced by hipster, and the fug of steak is substituted for 5.1% wheat beers, stripped brick walls and sharp haircuts — gentrification’s calling-card, in all its familiarity. It’s an alliance with modernity that’s also noticeable in Wangfujing, the shopping district at the city’s core. Walking here on a Saturday, I’m much nearer to Tiananmen Square, a little over a mile from the mausoleum where Mao Zedong has glared across the plaza in formaldehyde-eternity since 1977. But the distance feels chasmic in the weekend hubbub — as young Beijing flits in and out of the neon-fronted stores on the main pedestrian drag.

There are Western brands aplenty here, devotees gathered in the glow of their ubiquitous logos. A conga line of teenagers trips down the steps of Dongan Department Store, bags of clothes and trainers knocking at their legs. Four student-age men laugh on a bench opposite. And if some sort of generation gap is visible in the side-alley of Datianshujing — where a street-food market revels in delicacies like grilled scorpions on skewers, and the clientele is discernibly older — then youth reasserts itself inside Wangfujing Bookstore.

Xi is present within — the president’s newest tome of political musings propped on the first promotional display beyond the door. But no-one who enters pauses to peruse it. Instead, they barrel giddily down the stairs into the basement, which is stuffed with eateries. I squeeze into one of the few available seats at Funiutang, a noodle bar, order the house speciality with beef (which is spicy and filling), and watch the swirl of commerce around me — the incessant changeover of customers at adjacent tables, the merry roar of chatter, the waft of an arm as yet another meal is paid for with the swipe of a smartphone.


Gao Xiaowu outside his studio
Photograph by Giulia Marchi


Two blocks to the east, the towering Peninsula hotel looks, at first glance, like it belongs to the austere Beijing of repute. In some senses, it does. It opened in 1989, an aeon ago in a metropolis that knocks down and rebuilds with ruthless abandon. But after a discreet renovation of its own, it has embraced the city’s vivacious undercurrents. Its vast lobby is awash with work by Chinese artists: a bronze sculpture of a grandfatherly figure drinking green tea by Zhang Du; pale, slender statues bowing at the viewer— maybe in deference, maybe curiosity — by Gao Xiaowu. Downstairs, by the spa, a small gallery hosts rotating displays of work by local creatives. “I always endeavour to be outgoing as an artist, and I’m always keen to try new ways of communication,” Gao explains when I meet him at his studio in the north-east of the conurbation. “The exhibition spaces at the Peninsula are special. They’re different from commercial galleries — they draw in people who really enjoy what they’re looking at.”

“The Beijing art scene has really been built in the last 20 years,” he continues. “At first, it grew in pockets, because artists like me wanted to work in groups. But in the last five years, it’s spread across the city. Artists are more versatile. They look for new ways to express their creativity.” The proof of his statement is there in areas such as Jianchang Hutong — where Arrow Factory shows off installations in a former shop — and in nightlife hub Sanlitun, where galleries have started to appear amid the bars. The Opposite House, a recent hotel addition to the district whose sleek facade of green and yellow glass is almost an artwork in itself, displays contemporary works in its atrium.

It’s tricky to find an area of central Beijing that doesn’t have a palpable buzz. When I visit the fashionable locale Nanluoguxiang, with its bars, restaurants and trendy shops, it’s a blur of young shoppers diving into the boutiques: there’s Shengtang Peony with its silk scarves and Make Happy, which sells genteel necklaces. Cafe 16mm, meanwhile, has antique film projectors dotted around its interior. I buy a flat white and eavesdrop on the lovebirds in the next booth, marvelling at how the mannerisms of an argument transcend all language.

The couple in front of me in the National Art Museum the day after are in a happier zone. They’re silent amid the flurry of Sunday in this busy museum — trundling pushchairs, crying toddlers. She has her head on his shoulder as they admire a canvas by Xiao He — a folk painting that peers back to that traditional, pastoral China where flowers flutter and branches hang low. Their grandparents might have fitted that landscape. They don’t. As they turn away, they resemble smart, cool visitors from another galaxy; all future, no past.

Photograph by Giulia Marchi

Q&A: Katja Loher, creator of Seeds of Life at The Opposite House

What makes the Beijing art scene unique?

It’s so energetic — perfect for artistic exploration, with lots of interaction and dialogue between Beijing/China and the wider global art world. I love dynamic young artists like Ye Funa and Cui Jie, and local art galleries like Long March Space in the 798 Art Zone, and White Space in Caochangdi Art District.

What’s your current work about? 

Seeds of Life came about by talking to artists from Beijing. I worked with local dancers to choreograph video sculptures involving the five spirits of the five Chinese elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Where’s your favourite place to hang out?

I base myself in the Sanlitun district, which feels very young and vibrant — so many cool young people dressed creatively, and the city’s most happening restaurants and bars are here, too. I love Mesh, the bar at The Opposite House, not least because the mixologist team there created cocktails inspired by the five elements featured in my artwork. 

Where in Beijing inspires you the most?

The Great Wall is the ultimate place to experience China’s ancient architecture and history. It makes me think of an anaconda descending from the sky, a representation of the origin of life on Earth. I also find inspiration in the city’s old hutongs (alleys) and in the CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas, where you can really see the contrast between the new and old worlds.

798 Art District
Photograph by Giulia Marchi

Getting there & around

British Airways and Air China offer the sole direct flights between the UK and Beijing — both from Heathrow.  

Average flight time: 9hr 50min

Consisting of 22 lines, the Beijing Subway is the easiest way of getting around the city (although there are some gaps in the centre). Tickets from 3 yuan (34p).

The quickest way from plane to city centre is the Airport Express rail link, which runs to Dongzhimen subway stop. Journeys from 16 minutes, depending on terminal; 25 yuan (£3).

When to go

Beijing’s winters (November-March) can be fierce, with temperatures hovering around freezing. Summer averages around 30C. April and May are warm and pleasant.

More information

The Rough Guide to Beijing, by David Leffman. RRP £12.99.

Lum Dim Sum — a Beijing-based blog (in English) with a food focus.

The Beijinger — a wide-ranging website crammed with local information.

How to do it

Cox & Kings offers four-night stays at the Peninsula Beijing, with flights, transfers and a half-day trip to the Great Wall (Mutianyu section), from £1,690 per person.

Find more pictures in our photo gallery:

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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