Beijing by Motorcycle Side-car
Frenchman Yves du Parc, Vice President and General Manager ofBeijing Sideways, parked his motorcycle on the street and showed up on time (no traffic jams for the motor bike) to meet at my hotel. He sized my helmet and adjusted my lap belt in the side car of his Chang Jiang (literally "the long river") motor bike, took my photo, and hopped onto his seat. Then he turned the key in the ignition, and we were off. I had traveled through Beijing many times before, mostly in the back seat of a taxi, but this was my first motorcycle experience ever! I was thrilled to feel the wind on my face as we zipped through Beijing's new Central Business District or CBD and I got up close to the phenomenal new skyscrapers. I snapped photos of The Park Hyatt tower, the Jianwai Soho Center, and the copper-colored Reignwood Building connected to the Fairmont Hotel by its distinctive “Sky Bridge.” I marveled at the Prospect Center, one of Beijing’s new “green” buildings, and The Place retail complex with its 820x98 ft. LED “Skyscreen” that is suspended from six stories (80 feet). We whisked past the China World Trade Center, the country’s tallest building, and the and the CWTC3. I was blown away by Reem Koolhaas’ CCTV building, a non-traditional arch-like tower with the nick name “Boxer Shorts.” I shot blurry, moving photographs of the SOHO Guanghua, intriguing with its white panels sloping at various angles and circular windows sitting next to other colorful circular panels, all enhanced by street level semi-circular entrances and doorways. Speaking loudly over the street noise, Yves explained how SOHO stands for “Small Office Home Office,” and Guanghua Lu is the area’s major east-west thoroughfare.
We continued past the Ancient Ming Dynasty Observatory (circa 1442), now called the Ancient Astronomical Instruments Display Hall, situated at the southeast corner of Beijing's Jianguomen Bridge and on to the hutong alleyways of the ChongWenMen district, named for the gate that was once part of Beijing's city wall but was torn down in the 1960’s to make room for the Second Ring Road. We drove through the Gulou hutongs in the area of the Drum and Bell towers—one of the oldest monuments in Beijing—as well as the most famous hutong, Nanluoguxiang. We also explored Beiluoguxiang, Fangijia hutong, and Dongsi liutiao. We slowly motored through a food market hidden in a typical old hutong on Liuxie Street, a few hundred yards south of Tiananmen Square. Taking the motorcycle through the hutongs was truly a highlight. We got up close enough to actually watch old men playing Mahjong or checkers; kids tossing balls, eating ice cream from street vendors, or riding around in toy tractors; and old men and women just walking around in their pajamas, as they view the streets as their yard. In fact, the streets were so narrow that we got stuck behind a small van (which wasn’t supposed to be there) that could not turn one of the street corners. Yves got off the motorcycle to help hand turn the van with some of the residents. This actually turned out to be a great way to meet the locals.
Following the hutongs, we drove to a Pearl Market called Hongqiao. We parked the motorbike and hopped off. Inside, we meandered our way through the stalls with vendors shouting to me in broken English about some great deals on their handbags, shoes, and household items. An escalator to the third floor led us to where discount pearls and pearl jewelry are sold. Proceeding onward to a back corner stairway, we headed up one more level, where only the finest pearl jewelry was for sale. Another small entrance provided direct access to a “secret” rooftop terrace and garden. It was a glorious, private, panoramic view of Beijing, with the CBD in the distance to the west and a clear view of the main tower of the 600 year-old Temple of Heaven to the east. We could also see the southern Chinese Gate of Tiananmen Square.
I thought the rooftop garden was the conclusion of the tour, but I was wrong. For next came a lovely ride along the Houhai Lakes, north of Tiananmen Square, which had been dug in the Yuan Dynasty (14th century) to berth barges from the Grand Canal and bring goods from around China and beyond to the Emperor in his nearby Forbidden City. The leafy, once-Bohemian neighborhood, now lined with chic and trendy bars, boutiques, restaurants and tourist Pedi-cabs, was just a drive-by en route to our last attraction, the NCPA: Beijing Opera House, affectionately called “The Egg.” Here, we once again parked the motor bike and got out to take a closer look. Newly completed in 2007, the 130,000 square foot, ultra modern elliptical dome of titanium and glass seats 5,452 people in three halls. It was designed by French architect Paul Andreu, who surrounded it with an artificial lake. Lit at night, it provides a dramatic contrast to the nearby 1959 formal Soviet-style Great Hall of the People, designed by Zhang Bo, where legislative and ceremonial activities are held.
This two-hour tour was all I had time for, but Beijing Sideways also offers full-day and over-night motorcycle side-car trips to the Great Wall, which include hiking and a first-quality French picnic atop one of the wall towers. Here, Canadian Jacques Mc Neil, found it so romantic that he told me he actually proposed to his girlfriend atop the tower—far away from the tourist throngs.
Beijing Sideways has five full-time “Insider Guides” and two part-time guides. They speak English, French, Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, German and Chinese. They have taken honeymoon couples to groups as large as 80 conference participants. So far, their oldest guest was 86, but they have even taken six-month-old babies on the city tours.
Beijing Culinary Safari
British food writer Tom O’Malley came to Beijing in September 2008 to learn the Chinese language and the language of Chinese food. In March 2009, he became the dining editor of the local English-language daily, The Beijinger, and in June 2010, he left to pursue his freelance career and to begin offering culinary safaris around Beijing. Tom explains that because Beijing is a Political Center, it is a melting pot for all the provincial governments and their cuisines. Each government’s capitol headquarters brought along its own regional chef, who set up a restaurant in the hotel in which the provincial diplomats stayed. In a short time, provincial food exploded around the city, and now residents and visitors can enjoy food from every corner of China, right in Beijing. In fact, there are over 40,000 restaurants in the city!
Tom encourages visitors to explore the rich diversity of ubiquitous street food snacks called Xiao Cho or “little eats,” which have been available on Beijing streets for hundreds of years. It is the Beijing Muslim minority or “Hui,” who are responsible for many of these snacks that are not well known overseas. They are mainly located around Niu Jie, meaning “Ox Street,” where there is a colorful Muslim market selling lamb dumplings (since they don’t eat pork), all imaginable parts of sheep, sweets made of sweet sticky rice and lots of vegetable and lamb hot pots.
Hutong area restaurants are brightly lit, and drinking is a big deal. Locals enjoy a vodka-strong rice wine liquor called Bai Jiu (literally “white alcohol”) that is very cheap—about $2 for a half liter. There is lots of shouting and throwing of lamb sticks on the floor. In general, the restaurants in Beijing’s hutongs can offer some of the best food in the city, and a whole meal can often cost just $3 to $4. However, in order to make sure that the place is clean, it’s often a good idea to get a recommendation or go with a guide like Tom. When I dined with Tom and several other food writers this August, we ate at Qin Hua, on Meishuguan and enjoyed: tossed dry-rice noodles, pickled vegetables with black sesame-stuffed sticky rice balls, sour chilies, fried bamboo shoots, Guizhou style Laziji chicken with taro cubes, sour chili fried sea bass, and sour tomato soup—all for about ten dollars per person.
Upscale restaurants with big name chefs are also a growing trend, and it seems every hotel in Beijing has its special weekend Champagne brunch. Tom recommends the Westin Financial Street as the best. Additionally, while it’s not so easy to find a good Beijing signature Peking Duck, there are a few good locations, and Tom has some suggestions.
Time for Tea
Joel Schuchat hails from Montreal’s Jewish quarter, where he observed a “bizarre infatuation with Chinese food.” After finishing culinary school, he headed straight for Asia, and ended up in Beijing to learn more about Chinese food, language and tea. In 2005, he began a tea import-export business, through which he really got to know the ins and outs of “Maliandao,” Beijing’s tea district. His tours were a natural outgrowth of this; “There are so many stories to share, so many different angels. How is tea priced? How it is sourced? How should it be paired with food?” Joel tells me he likes dark chocolate with robust green tea.
Joel helps guests select tea, educates them on properly tasting teas, and offers behind the scenes insight into the tea growing regions of China and the world. He even talks about the history of tea, offers facts about the tea tree, as the single source for all types of teas worldwide, and introduces medical details such as weight loss and caffeine content.
Generally, the tour begins at 10 am at a tea shop that specializes in unique and famous green teas from a region in Anhui province. Afterwards, Joel guides guests through several of the main tea buildings to check out what is or is not going on. From here, they end up at another smaller location that specializes only in one type of Oolong from Chaozhou city, Guangdong province. After a few dozen shots of tea, everyone is usually starving, so they head for lunch. Once everyone is done with lunch, they continue walking towards the largest tea wholesaling building and stop at the last location to taste a few more of Joel’s favorite teas. By 3-3:30, everyone has had enough tea, and they are left alone to browse the shops, and Joel shows them who and what to trust in the area.
For lunch Joel takes them to a hidden North-Western Fujian restaurant run by a lovely family. The place is a gem in the rough, hidden amidst the huge tea market. Says Joel, “You can’t find it on your own, and guests often leave after marking the GPS coordinates on their cell phone.” They source many of their ingredients from their hometown on a weekly basis. Even though the place is completely nondescript, even a bit grungy, the food is just exceptional quality, and its nice to be able to blow people away with food on a walking tour that doesn't specifically have food as its focus. The tour, including lunch, costs less than $35 per person.
Hiking and Biking, Art & Outdoors
Australians Naomi Skinner and Scott Spencer founded Bike Asia in Guangxi province, China in 2003 after years of experience working in adventure travel. This January they will launch Beijing and Great Wall stand-alone trips, in addition to their longer country-wide travel programs. One interesting bicycle theme tour explores the Guan Yuan Pet Market. Other theme tours visit the homes of a couple of the old masters with a look at their private art, antiques, and furniture collections, while still others travel through the hutongs or visit the HouHai Lake region or explore and interpret the Forbidden City in terms of its Feng Shui. Bike Asia also drives guests out to a remote location of the Great Wall for a three-hour Great Wall bicycle trip.
Additionally, Bike Asia is launching several full day arts-oriented car or van trips. In the morning they will explore Beijing’s modern architecture and in the afternoon they will visit the 798 Arts District where participants will actually meet a couple of the local big name artists.
One particularly popular Bike Asia’s guide has his own small hiking and biking business. Hong Gao is a local Beijinger, in his mid-30s, who lived in Silicon Valley, California for several years working in IT. He decided to come back to China, and actually rode his bicycle from Beijing to Vienna. This experience led him to be interested in tourism. In addition to biking through the hutongs on his own, Hong offers a 6.2 mile Dragon Backbone Night Walk along the Central Axis of Beijing; the Beijinger’s Temple of Heaven, showcasing the lives of ordinary Beijingers—explaining their morals and visiting the world heritage Temple of Heaven with a traditional Chinese exercise session—and anIce Hiking tour in winter only. Hong was also recommended by the Opposite House, Beijing’s chic and boutique Swire Hotel.
Zach Chen is a Chinese American, native of Chicago, who was a Wildland Firefighter in Idaho and is now one of the principal guides for another company, Beijing Hikers. Beijing Hikers offers scheduled (8 to 30 participants) and private hikes in and around Beijing. Some of their unique hiking locations include: cultural studies of temples in the countryside, a hike to a cave where people hid out when they were fighting the Japanese during World War II, a Chinese New Years’ hike including a dumpling making contest, and a Valentine’s Day hike to a hot spring resort. Another Beijing Hiking Leader, Sun Huijie is a fine artist and photographer, and she leads art related hike/tours to museums, galleries and public art spaces.
All these tours truly reveal a unique side of Beijing, demonstrating what a fascinating city it is. Scott Spencer of Bike Asia summed up the real reason to visit Beijing and take part in one or more of these experiences as follows, “China is probably one of the most dynamic places in the world at the moment. There is so much happening it is difficult to keep up. The contrasts couldn't be more dramatic with the modern China to the little changed rural areas we visit. Culturally it is a puzzle that is a delight to try to solve knowing that you never will. The landscapes and cycling are relatively unknown and incredibly impressive. I enjoy myself everyday.