I’m delighted to welcome Qi Zhai, “self-proclaimed urban hippie,” to notabilia!
After spending five years working as a peon of capitalism, Qi resigned from her job at an investment bank, relegated her worldly possessions to a storage unit on Singapore’s Keppel Bay, and hit the proverbial road by plane, train, and automobile. Since 2009, Qi has made her home in Beijing, the city of her childhood. She also writes a weekly column for China Daily and is persistently trying to make a living as a freelance writer for English publications in Asia and abroad. Check out her blog and follow her on Weibo.
In Qi’s own words: “I’m a self-proclaimed urban hippie—a former columnist, a yoga teacher on the weekends, with a somewhat serious job in finance during the week. After living, studying, and working abroad for 20 years (in Manila, Palo Alto, New York, Singapore) I “came home” to Beijing. Everyday I find myself rediscovering the city of my childhood, in all its parts old and new. I love zipping around on my scooter in the summers, and crashing the occasional embassy pool party; in the late fall, I like to head out of town for a hike in the hills; by winter, it’s prime season for ice-skating on Houhai Lake, followed by a steaming meal of hot pot after; and, in the spring, Beijing’s many hutongs (old alleyways) come alive with the colors of peach blossoms.
“Although the typical visitor’s itinerary—with history-heavy excursions to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, or Tiananmen Square—is meaningful, I like to share the city’s living history through its neighborhoods and quirky “only in Beijing” things with travelers.”
Over to Qi…
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Brunch is not a particularly Chinese, or at least not northern Chinese concept (the southerners have their dimsum I suppose), but there are a handful of hidden gems along Wudaoying hutong near Lama Temple. At Vineyard Café I enjoy a western-style brunch in a very Chinese setting—a converted courtyard home filled with light and air. A bit further into the hutong, past the shops selling Beijing hipster staples (retro Communist-era khaki green “Serve the People” messenger bags, thick frame glasses, old school Feiyue sneakers), Saffron serves up slightly fancier, Spanish-style cuisine.
Duck de Chine in the converted factory yard 1949 is my choice for Peking duck. The ambience is classy—suitable for a gathering of friends, or for a business dinner—and the duck delectable. The Cantonese chefs here also make mini egg tarts that are among Beijing’s best. The adjoining restaurant, Noodle Bar, is also a choice venue for a quick-and-simple lunch with Chinese characteristics. The clean design, sparse menu, and ambient lighting, with an open view of the chef hand pulling noodles, make this the perfect spot for a comfortable lunch for one, or an intimate meal for two.
I relish the chance to take visitors to Hua’s Restaurant at night. At their biggest branch on Ghost Street (where many a night owl ends up after a big night out for its 24-hour dining options), the main courtyard restaurant is just one of eight different settings for diners to enjoy. At the main courtyard, you can book a table with a view of the nightly show where truly impressive (and not cheesy) performers exhibit traditional Chinese arts, like mask-changing, acrobatic tea-serving, and noodle-making.
For something a little different, I like to go to the Xinjiang Red Rose for a dinner and show. Imagine munching on giant Uighur lamb skewers, downing beers, while watching belly-dancing (perhaps a perversion of some of the true cultural elements in western China, but oh well, sometimes a little cheesiness is permissible) or listening to live music performed by Xinjiang and Han vocalists and guitarists.
Hotpot is something I can’t live without, especially in the blistery winters. My hidden gem is Diancaoxiang, a Yunnan-style joint sitting atop 3.3. Order a traditional Yunnan sour soup base and add in a host of southwestern specialties—mushrooms and green vegetables—along with the usual lamb and beef ingredients. The best part? Choosing from a dozen dipping sauces here, ranging from flower-scented sesame paste to plain old soy and vinegar.
There’s no shortage of fine dining and international fare in Beijing. Among my favorites are Bei (an award-winning “North Asian” fusion restaurant located in the basement of stylish boutique hotel, Opposite House) and Maison Boulud (although the food is stellar, the setting is even more majestic).
The Sanlitun neighborhood is, in my opinion (as a resident), the best place for shopping and going out in Beijing. Steer clear of the glitzy malls—Sanlitun Village and Sanlitun North—which specialize in over-priced brands that you can buy for cheaper anywhere else in the world. Instead, visit Yaxiu Market, which is both a visitor’s must-see and a local’s go-to place for random essentials. Smaller and less-touristy than Silk Street Market, Yaxiu sells everything from cheesy traveler’s souvenirs, to functional gear at bargain prices (“Columbia” ski pants), to quirky accessories (winter tights in rainbow colors for S$3 a pop).
There are a number of tailors enticing shoppers at Yaxiu with their next-day service in making bespoke suits and dresses, but my favorite is J&Y Tailor. Run by a husband-wife team in an unassuming shop on Xingdong Road, they can turn around dapper three-piece suits in less than a week starting at S$120.
For more “serious” buying (say, winter furs or creative outfits for a costume party), I turn to 3.3, where local designers and enterprising buyers who scour China’s vast apparel manufacturing world bring high fashion pieces to their discerning shoppers, or Tianyi Market (in west Beijing), another of Beijing’s many wholesale markets. I once scored a gorgeous fox vest at 3.3 for S$300 and put together a few stewardess outfits for a party from pieces scavenged in Tianyi.
Visitors would also get a kick out of the Houhai and Gulou neighborhoods, where hipster and retro stores line the streets. Worth checking out: Plastered T-shirts, selling kitsch and tongue-in-cheek shirts bearing nostalgic logos.
Surprising to many visitors is that Beijing actually has a great café culture. Because the city is inhabited by many journalists, photographers, and other scrappy creatives, complimentary wi-fi and the freedom to stay as long as you like with ordering just one drink are acceptable café behavior. In Sanlitun, The Bookworm is the place to go for smoothies, a lending library, and cultural-literary events, like film screenings and readings by local and visiting authors. The Bookworm also puts on the annual Beijing Literary Festival every spring, which has attracted, in the past, acclaimed writers, like Peter Hessler. In the Gulou neighborhood, Café Zarah offers a cozy atmosphere and rotating photography exhibits.
Pollution and the weather are two common complaints about life in Beijing, but it’s easy to escape by joining Pacific Century Club, where I like to suntan by the glass-roofed heated pool, soak in the jaccuzzis, or exercise in the filtered-air gym all year round. Once a week on Sunday afternoons I teach a vinyasa class at Beijing’s pioneering hot yoga studio, Om Yoga 42, in Lido. Owner Sophia (who is married to the dashing Financial Times’ bureau chief) has exquisite taste and the place—with its carefully selected flower arrangements and teas—feels more like a spa than a sweaty granola spot.
While healthy eating and healthy living preoccupy much of my time, I still like to let loose with a big night out sometimes. On these occasions I like to start the night at cavernous D-Lounge, which feels a lot like a New York Meatpacking District lounge, for good cocktails. From there, the night usually disintegrates into silliness that only Beijing can offer. Russian pole dancers and a little person bouncer named “Brother Rong”? Chocolat club in the Russian neighborhood has it. Blingy-tacky chandeliers and Chinese bottle service (whiskey mixed with red tea)? Latte is the place. For a less crazy night, I like to chill at Fubar, which is hidden behind a “secret trap door” tucked in the back of a glorified hotdog stand (a hotdog restaurant, in fact) at Worker’s Stadium.
There’s no shortage of advice in travel guides and once in a while I, too, like visiting the historic sights. But mostly I like to do things that allow me to discover the “real Beijing.” A romantic Chinese date would include rowing a boat on the lake at Beihai Park and walking hand in hand beneath weeping willows. Scooting or biking around the shady lanes around Ritan Park’s embassy neighborhood is a respite from the heat in the summers. And in the fall and spring, Beijing Hikers is a great way to explore greater Beijing. The group organizes rugged treks in the suburbs, around the Great Wall and other lesser known places.
Complain as Beijingers may about the “unsightly” modern structure commonly known as “The Egg” (National Center for Performing Arts), I love that we now have our own venue for performances. Every January, I get dressed up with my girlfriends and go watch the gathering of renowned ballet dancers at the International Ballet Gala in Beijing. 798, the arts district, has become somewhat commercialized now, but it’s still fun to visit for a half-day when the weather is nice (just avoid the weekend crowds). Further north is Caochangdi, a loose collection of photography and art galleries that are deemed—by the haughty artsy crowd—to be less commercialized than 798. Among Beijing’s many temples (and Chinese New Year temple fairs), I find the smaller ones easier to navigate—Dongyue Temple is my favorite, for its strangely morbid display of scenes from the underworld.
Biking or scooting are how the real locals getting around. The subways are increasingly efficient and clean, but only if you near a subway stop, which isn’t the case for most people in this sprawling metropolis. Buses can be helpful over short distances, but to really get from Point A to Point B, you need to carry around a copy of the Beijing Public Transportation guide (a mini tome) and know how to match up the historic neighborhood names with the new ones. Avoid until truly experienced in the ways of Beijing.
(Additional credits: Photographs by Qi Zhai; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)