I love markets. Shopping in Chinese markets is an absolute experience where you’ll find everything you could ever need or want, plus things you never even knew you needed or wanted, in all ranges of prices and qualities. Of course, if this is your first time in Beijing, it’s your right of passage to experience the Silk Market (秀水街Xiùshuǐjiē) but it has become more of a tourist trap, and the best bargains can be found elsewhere. The Pearl Market (红桥市场Hóng qiáo shìchǎng) is quite touristy as well, but definitely the place to go for pearls, as the name suggests. I bought 5 pairs of pearl earrings as presents which I got for a bargain by the way! A less touristy market I would suggest is worth a visit is called 77th Street (77th 街购物中心77Th jiē gòuwù zhòng xīn), which, is an underground market located toward the West of the city. This caters more to the younger Chinese crowd with many different stores – including Korean clothing brands, bric-a-brac, cute stationary, cactus gardens and other odd but enjoyable little shops. It’s more a market with a mall type feel to it. The Zoo Market (动物园服装批发市场Dòngwùyuán fúzhuāng pīfā shìchǎng) is a massive building next to Beijing Zoo which has definitely got the potential to find good bargains if you feel up to trailing around the different floors and haggling a lot! However, 77th Street has more of a chilled out vibe. Lastly, Panjiayuan (潘家园 Pānjiāyuán), the antiques market, remains one of my favourites. It’s not just a market; it’s more like a street museum where you can buy the exhibitions.
One tip for keen bargain hunters: a little Chinese can go a long way! Bargaining is all a game and don’t take the whole process too seriously. Have a laugh and decide in your head how much would you really be willing to pay for what’s on offer before you start negotiating. But be warned, some of these sellers are too good at their job and will have you leaving their shop with a whole lot more than you’d bargained for! Depending on the market, as little as 10% of the asking price is what some of the goods go for!
Beijing also has many shopping malls in every district selling Chinese as well as International brands. Gone are the days of getting your parents to ship you over some better fitting trousers! All the malls are large, air-conditioned and pleasant when it’s too hot or rainy. I would say though, shopping malls the world over are pretty similar apart from the choice of restaurants in the food court and perhaps the odd squat toilet. You can now find all of your favourite brands from H&M to Adidas, and Sanlitun (三里屯 Sānlǐtún) village is a major shopping complex which hosts events and concerts from time to time.
One of my favourite things to do in Beijing is get lost in the Hutongs (胡同Hútòng). If you’re visiting Lama Temple or the Drum and Bell towers for example you should allow for a little extra time to explore. In fact, I would suggest just one afternoon have no other plan apart from walk around and get lost in old Beijing. There are no sky scrapers and a lot of the original architecture has been preserved. The streets are full of Beijingers going about their daily lives. For those of you who fancy yourself a bit of a photographer, every street corner has a potentially breath-taking photo worth capturing. There are some fantastic restaurants you would never read about on the internet but could just happen upon by luck e.g. table barbecued mutton leg. I passed one shop where tanks and tanks of fish and crustaceans were awaiting to be bought and the owner was sleeping. All of a sudden on of the fish, as big as my arm, made a bid for freedom and jumped out of the 2 metre high tank. The owner woke up, grabbed the net next to her and caught the flapping fish with not so much as an eyebrow raise. I was in hysterics which made her laugh, but more at the fact I was shocked than that her fish was a rogue escape artist. I guess she was just used to it but I feel like this story is quite indicative of the random scenes you may capture on a mini hutong detour.
Jingshan Park (景山公园Jǐngshān gōngyuán) is by no means a hidden gem, it’s a very obvious gem. It’s worth mentioning, however, as after a long day exploring all the nooks and crannies of the Forbidden City you may be inclined to give Jingshan Park a miss. Do not do that! The not so overly-taxing climb to the top grants you an amazing view of the whole of the Forbidden City. It’s truly the stuff of profile photos. While you’re up there why don’t you finally dress up in some emperor robes, buy some Mao-morabilia and try a red bean ice lolly.
798 Art District
798 Art District (798艺术区798 Yìshùqū) is something a bit different and requires a bus to get too so is less well visited by tourists. A former military factory complex, this is one for the arty types as you’ll find galleries around every street corner boasting unique exhibitions from Chinese and International artists. However, you don’t have to even enter the galleries to get your fix as walking around the area you’ll see many examples of graffiti, sculptures and quirky buildings which will capture your interest. There are also many nice restaurants and kitschy boutiques to be found for those not as keen to go gallery hopping. And a bonus is that the area is a pedestrianised zone, it’s the small things in life.
After spending quite a lot of time in the city, a day of blue sky warranted a trip somewhere in the outskirts. A friend and I decided – after reading one of those online lists “25 places you won’t believe exists” type thing – to visit the Guyaju caves (古崖居Gǔ yá jū) situated in the North-West of Beijing. We chose to get the bus there which was an experience in itself. The “queue” had disbanded as soon as the bus turned the corner and it was everyman for himself as we pushed and shoved into the bottle neck door of the bus. My friend got a cheer from a group of old men for making it on in front of some of the pushy locals! Then we had to sit on the floor the whole journey there (around 2 hours) next to a lovely local gentleman who pointed out the great wall, that’s a pretty unique commute, as we passed it on our journey and helped us find our next bus. Some other fellow bus riders donated us their newspaper so we could use it to sit on.
So, it’s a bit of a pain to get to by bus, but you can rent a private car and it probably wouldn’t be too expensive. Once there you have amazing views of the surrounding mountain side and there were hardly any tourists. The caves themselves were spectacular! It is unknown the exact reason they were built or who lived there. The best thing is that they’re completely open up to clamber about inside so if you’re not afraid of the dark or spiders, then you can explore right inside these mysterious dwellings. Definitely worth a visit if you have a little more time and want to see something a little less touristy and out with the city. We even managed to score a lift back all the way to Beijing from a group of Beijing locals out on a company bonding trip! After our 4 hour door-to-door car journey we had made friends with a designer who worked for the Miss China pageants who offered us to come and try on some outfits with her and with the company boss who offered to take us out to eat “real Beijing delicacies” next time we were free!
It’s these kinds of unexpected and unplannable encounters which makes me so enamoured with Beijing!
Marissa Wilson, a teaching intern from Winter 2009 Teach & Travel China; was placed in Zhejiang on a 6-month teaching internship; a student in Medicine from Glasgow University; currently working in London as a doctor