It would be easy to feel intimidated by Beijing. I imagine the culture shock of China’s sprawling capital could pose a challenge for even the most seasoned traveller – and I was a first-timer with only three days in town.
But with a handy central base, invaluable tour guides and an itinerary mixing tourist hot-spots with off-the-beaten-track gems, I was able to enjoy a glimpse of what this high octane city – home to more than 21 million people – has to offer.
My group were based at Shangri-La’s Hotel Jen, an upmarket but unpretentious hotel with a relaxed, hip vibe in a skyscraper in the middle of the pulsating Central Business District.
On arrival we enjoyed an informal dinner at the hotel’s San Wu Tang restaurant, where specialities included a classy take on Beijing pancake, and braised pig trotters that the more adventurous in our group tried and declared delicious.
After a comfortable night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast (a mix of classic western options with fresh noodle soups and steamed buns) we were joined by Chris Che, a tour guide from Bespoke Beijing, for a cycling and walking tour of the city organised by Hotel Jen.
Being a typical Brit, I wouldn’t normally consider paying for a guide when I could do a substandard job myself, but being in Beijing for so little time it was a wise option. Che was a fountain of knowledge and also offered an insight into living in Beijing today.
We cycled through the city’s narrow hutongs, a maze of small streets and lanes, crisscrossing between tree-lined ancient courtyards. Of Mongolian origin, the hutongs go back almost 800 years and living conditions in many remain basic, with one bedroom and no private bathrooms. Rapid modern development in Beijing has seen many of the alleyways demolished, cutting their numbers from thousands to just a few hundred. Some have now been given protected status – “Not soon enough, but better than nothing,” said Che.
After a scenic cycle around Houhai Lake, we stopped for lunch at Nan Men Shuan Rou, a traditional hotpot restaurant where diners cook their own food at the table. Presented with an array of meat, seafood, tofu and a wonderful selection of Chinese mushrooms, we enjoyed dropping our choices into the boiling water for a minute, then dipping them into a delicious peanut-based sauce with red chilli and garlic.
We then journeyed on to the East Gate of the Forbidden City, where our guide became invaluable as there was little written information around the site. The palace served as the imperial abode for 24 rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties and their entourages and now welcomes about 15 million visitors a year – which has led to a policy of capping the number of ticket sales at peak times.
We spent about two hours walking from one side to the other, through the impressive imperial gardens and great halls, in awe of the ancient buildings.
If a cycle trip like ours isn’t enough to stretch your legs, back at Hotel Jen is what may be the city’s largest gym, The Trainyard. Split over two floors, it has exercise machines, a 25-metre pool, reformer pilates studio, mixed martial arts space and even a boxing ring.
As a short-stay tourist, another perk was the hotel being able to organise authentic experiences for our group, including lunch at local farm restaurant Tian Xian Gu Huai. This is run by a wife and her eccentric husband who shared stories of his inventions (including a bed made entirely of bricks to alleviate back problems) as well all the medicinal thinking behind each dish they had prepared.
Our group also enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s Beersmith Gastropub, which served a mix of Western and Chinese style dishes and where we were joined for beer tasting by New Zealand brewmaster Tom Ashton. The in-house craft brewery attracts a mixture of Beijing urbanites alongside hotel guests.
The next morning, our driver navigated us though the insane Beijing traffic to the Great Wall – one of those sights that really should be seen first-hand. Our expert guide Connie Yiang (who has guided film stars including Matt Damon and Samuel L Jackson) took us to the Mutianyu section, built by soldiers and prisoners from the sixth century. Here it is less crowded than some other parts of the wall as it is a little further out (about an hour and a half from the centre of Beijing.)
We walked for about a mile, with the misty late morning sun making the journey feel even more atmospheric and special.
On our last day, Yiang took us to visit 798, the city’s artist district. A sprawling complex of decommissioned Mao-era military buildings funded by the Soviet Union and designed by East Germans, it is now home to a growing cafe culture and hipster style eateries and is popular with the city’s bohemian community. I especially enjoyed pottering round some of the more traditional artist workshops, which proved perfect for picking up tourist trinkets.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to Tiananmen Square, where the tanks rolled in 1989, although we found no reference to this. After marvelling at the enormous crowds queuing for Mao’s mausoleum, we went in to see China’s most famous leader for ourselves – a 20-second glance.
Another Beijing must-do is Peking duck, once imperial cuisine and arguably the city’s most famous dish, so for our final dinner we opted for The Horizon at Kerry Hotel, where the traditional wood-fired duck was delicious.
After a packed trip, it was a treat to get a great night’s sleep flying business class with Air France, back to Edinburgh via Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Thanks to the cocoon seats that recline into fully flat beds, I was able to snooze for six hours midflight after enjoying Michelin-starred cuisine.
Back home after a whirlwind few days I felt grateful for the help of the hotel and tour guides, who gave me a tiny insight into some of the hidden charms of this remarkable city.
Launched in 2014, Hotel Jen offers ten vibrant hotels in some of the best locations across Asia Pacific. Hotel Jen, Beijing http://www.hoteljen.com/beijing. Rooms start from £100
Air France has ten weekly flights to Beijing from eight departure points across the UK (Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, London Heathrow, Manchester, Newcastle, and Southampton) via Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Fares start from £412 in economy, £917 in premium economy and £1,970 in business class, including taxes and charges. To book or for more information visit www.airfrance.co.uk or call 0207 660 0337.