x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Heart in the hutongs

My kind of place Find the true character of China's capital in its hidden neighbourhoods, writes Shelley Jiang.

A woman plays badminton in the park at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
A woman plays badminton in the park at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Beijing is not like Paris or London, where certain neighbourhoods have grown vivid in literary and cinematic imagination. Most visitors know the city by its landmarks - the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square - monumental, yes, but rather inhospitable. But Beijing is also built on its neighbourhoods, which resonate with history, charm and energy. On the same hutong (alley), there may be families who have lived there for generations, stray cats and an abandoned temple, but you might also find a tiny art gallery, or a boutique full of knick-knacks.

People come to Beijing for the intoxicating sense of opportunity: anything can happen in this metropolis constantly remaking itself in hopes of dazzling the world. What I love most are the things that never change - the pagoda trees lining the old hutongs, their canopy thick in the summer; the blue magpies fluttering from pine to pine in the Temple of Heaven where I practically grew up. The old man who confidently strolls about in matching pyjamas all day, the ladies who address their Pomeranians like they would their own mischievous children, the men who sit on a stoop, late into the night, speculating about the elusive weasels that call Beijing home.

For understated boutique luxury, look no further than the Opposite House ( www.theoppositehouse.com; 00 86 10 6417 6688) by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. This beautiful hotel is the epitome of futuristic minimalism, flooded with natural light and accented with reclaimed wood and glossy metal. The airy, open-plan rooms start from 1,880 yuan (Dh1,021) including taxes, without breakfast.

Many visitors want to experience life in a historic courtyard house nestled in the alleyways of the old city, and a crop of new hutong hotels is there to oblige. Among the newest and most luxurious, Graceland Yard Hotel (www.graceland-yardhotel.com; 00 86 10 8328 8366), is set within a former Buddhist temple, with soaring ceilings and exposed beams. None of the eight rooms (from 1,500 yuan [Dh812] including taxes) are exactly alike, though they share the same bold decor - think four-poster beds, sculpted and embossed Buddhas, carved wooden lattices and mosaics.

At Spring Garden Hotel (www.springgardenhotel.com; 00 86 10 6303 4232) you can sleep on traditional hardwood beds once favoured by the aristocracy, surrounded by golden wallpaper painted with lotuses. Set in an intimate courtyard house some 500 years old, the eight rooms, which cost from 1,380 yuan (Dh748), are arranged around two small gardens that are lovely in the summer. The humbler Banqiao 4 (www.4banqiao.com; 00 86 10 8403 0968; from 738 yuan [Dh400] including taxes) has cold tile floors and simple decor, but the view from the terrace of the terracotta roofs of the surrounding courtyards is fabulous.

The classic way to get around is by bicycle. Lots of places, including stands outside many subway stations, offer rentals starting at 20 yuan (Dh11) per day. Nearly every street has bike lanes, and while cars may observe traffic rules lightly, they are also accustomed to cyclists darting about. Stay alert and you'll be quite safe - there's nothing like zipping past a line of jammed cars.

Try a bike ride around the Forbidden City, the perfect way to get a feel of its sheer size. You'll also get a peek at "the Egg", a performing arts complex designed by the architect Paul Andreu, and the Imperial Palace's corner watchtowers - especially beautiful at sunset, when they are reflected in the moat. From here, you can turn north and explore the historic hutong neighbourhoods around Houhai ("Back Lake") and the Drum and Bell Towers, or head east to Dongsi, where the alleys are humbler and less gentrified. Within the hutongs, it may be best to park the bike and walk: you'll notice all sorts of little architectural details adorning the courtyard houses, and stumble upon quaint little cafes and shops. The subway is speedy and efficient, with additional lines opening every year. The gleaming new Line 4 whisks you up to the university district and the Summer Palace in no time, while Line 8 links the city with the Olympic Park.

An amazing thing happens every afternoon in Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park, just north of the Forbidden City. Dozens of people gather informally to sing their hearts out behind the hill, warbling everything from old revolutionary tunes to pop songs from the Eighties. Some are better equipped than others, armed with accordions, sheet music and thermos flasks, but all of them are enthusiastically talented. A few old men wander from one group to another, belting out a ballad with each troupe. As you stroll the grounds, the music never fades, but blends together in an harmonious cacophony. Supplementing these impromptu choruses are people playing hacky sack or dancing, and clusters of people engaged in uproarious conversations - and matchmaking for their absent adult children.

Let's set this straight: the emperors of China didn't dine particularly well but their nobles did. Thus, imperial restaurants serve rigidly aesthetic, bland (and expensive) morsels once nibbled on by emperors and only tourists are lured here. You can do much better at Najia Xiaoguan (00 86 10 6568 6553), tucked behind the LG Towers near Yong'anli subway station, which pays homage to the exquisite cuisine of the Manchu ruling class of the Qing dynasty. Almost everyone orders the crispy honey prawns at 38 yuan (Dh21), but you should also try the stewed venison, mashed lamb, "eight banner eggplant" and dates stuffed with glutinous rice. Make a booking at least three days in advance or arrive early and be prepared to wait.

Beijing is also a wonderful place to savour the flavours of China's diverse regional cuisines. Try Jun Qin Hua (00 86 10 6404 7600), near the National Art Museum, for the spicy, sour flavours of Guizhou province, or Jinfu Yanbang (00 86 10 6819 6222), north of the Purple Bamboo Park, for innovative Sichuan cuisine - unlike anything else you'll ever have. For Beijing duck, go nowhere else than Da Dong (00 86 10 5169 0329), a more glitzy restaurant in the historic granary complex of Nanxincang, where the birds are leaner than average and delightfully crispy (198 yuan; Dh107 each).

Made in China has taken on new meaning beyond cheap electronics and household goods. Young designers who have come of age in the prosperous Eighties and Nineties have opened dozens of boutiques to showcase their clothing, jewellery, ceramics and more. Try Wudaoying Hutong and the Nanluogu Xiang area, where bric-a-brac celebrating socialist imagery and handmade crafts are also popular. One of my favorite clothing shops, W.S.F.M (www.wsfm.com.cn) combines traditional fabrics and embroidery with modern cuts, creating elegant pieces that are colourful and bold without being overtly ethnic. It has multiple outlets.

The awful tourist tat at Silk Street Market and Pearl Market. Yes, they're cheap, but will you really wear that glittery "Polo" tee more than once? All the stalls sell the same terrible knock-offs, most of which is just like stuff you can buy at home. Plus, ever since they realised that foreigners are terrible bargainers, the staff have become rude and pushy - an unpleasant experience all round.

Beijing's thriving contemporary art scene. There are rumours that it may be short-lived but in Caochangdi, you can still currently find several outstanding galleries consistently putting on well-curated shows, including Three Shadows Photography Art Center, F2, Galerie Urs Meile, and China Art & Archives Warehouse, run by none other than Ai Weiwei, the artist and agitator. Go before it's gone - as visitors to Beijing soon learn, change is the only constant.