The best of Old Beijing

Forget the flattened hutongs and experience the city's living history

Experience a sexier side of Buddhism

The Lama Temple (25RMB) may be a popular scenic spot now but, before the 20th century, few were allowed in without paying a bribe to the notoriously money-grubbing hooligan priests. They were so infamous for mugging visitors that an early guidebook advised tourists to carry a pistol. Still, the masses thronged to see the extraordinary annual ‘devil dances’: lamas in death’s-head masks would hurl themselves into the crowds, cracking long whips to clear space for dancers , dressed as Tibetan deities, to exorcise evil spirits from the city.

These days, it’s a bit more sedate – no pistols required – but the Tibetan gods are as energetic as ever, albeit in brass form. A look inside the temple’s two treasure halls (found on the east and west perimeters) reveals statues of the gods indulging in implausibly positioned sexual congress with smaller females; even buffalo-headed Yamantaka has managed to attract a play mate. Sadly, five larger figures, supposedly once used to teach emperors the facts of life, have long been prudishly draped in yellow silk shawls, to prevent visitors prostrating themselves in front of the gods of desire in all their nude glory. There are plenty of other authentic sights to take in, such as the gilded Buddha of the Resurrection (Maitreya), carved from a single sandalwood trunk, that rises up through all three stories of the surrounding hall.

Get a taste of history

It’s damn near impossible to find a fine-dining restaurant that serves up those authentic Old Beijing flavours, but thankfully we managed it: Beijing Palace, located on Chaoyangmennei Dajie, will satisfy the most demanding Beijinger. This listed historical building is tastefully decorated with Qing Dynasty antiques and serves up food from the delicious (ma doufu, mung bean pulp, 20RMB) to the demanding (congshao tuozhang, scallion with camel feet, 98RMB).

A local might baulk at the lack of his beloved baodu, boiled tripe dipped in sauce, but their gelatinous yuanbao fandan (Muslim-style fried tripe with coriander, 36RMB) is a fine replacement. We also like the majiang mian, a bowl of sesame sauce noodles (15RMB), served with a side of vinegar to cut through a potentially rich taste. The classic ma doufu is powerfully flavoursome but so light it almost melts in the mouth. To finish a memorable meal few get to experience, the nailao (imperial yoghurt, 10RMB) is a chilled dessert that, for those who delight in the delicate, is almost worth the trip alone. There’s a second branch in the Marco Polo Parkside Beijing Hotel on Anil Road.

Find authentic curios in Dashilar

In a city as transient and changeable as Beijing, it’s not easy to find authentic, non-branded products – much less stores that have been around for hundreds of years. Not unless you know where to look, that is. You can make a good start in Dashilar, which has been humming with activity (and, frankly, smells) for some 600 years. By the end of the 19th century, it was the city’s most renowned district for delicate jade, squawking chickens, decorative toys and even Western goods such as suits, tobacco and medicine. Though it’s now so gentrified even a humble brothel is hard to find, the area is still the heart and viscera of the old city.

The streets and hutongs here are lined with time-honoured shops offering top-quality silks, cloth and food; stores such as the renowned Tongrentang Pharmacy, where secret medicinal recipes of the Qing court are hoarded, and Liubiju, which pickles and preserves everything from sweet radishes to meaty field snails. But the greatest find of all is Zhengyang Shuju, a small shop piled high with books and maps detailing the city’s fascinating history. There’s a small number of English-language books, too, and owner Cui Yong will, if asked, showcase his private collection of beautifully rendered antique maps. Six generations of Cui’s family have lived in the building, and the proud Beijinger often holds court here, discussing stories of times past with thick-accented local characters.
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Dongcheng Library’s fifth floor houses a large collection of books on Beijing history, culture and politics, as well as photo albums and artworks of the capital’s hutongs and famous sights. A decent number of books are in English and other foreign languages.

Marvel at Buddhist ceremonies

Sonorous, stirring chanting and the gentle tinkling of bells echoes from within the temple hall. Inside, monks in flowing saffron robes direct converts through their ancient rites of passage with countless prayers and circlings of the sacred chamber. Thought to be the oldest temple in the ancient capital, Fayuan Si (Temple of the Source of Buddhist Teaching) is a picture of tranquility. Its initiation ceremonies are open to the public and take place at 10am every Saturday; they are a joy to witness, albeit from a respectful distance.

Eventually the monks file back to the attached Buddhist academy, but some linger with friendly volunteers in a guest room, to the left of the main hall, to answer questions. If you’ve been particularly moved by the ceremony – and just happen to have ten yuan, two photographs and a passport in your pockets – you could even convert.

Even outside the ceremonies, the temple grounds are a delight, with sombre monks cycling around or putting down food for the flocks of twittering sparrows that perch on the numerous lilac trees – visit in April to experience their famously gorgeous fragrance. After these sights, the temple shop is a pleasant surprise, stocked with oil lamps, lotus candles and traditional Buddhist robes.

See sword-wielding, gun-toting ballet

Once the heartland of Old Beijing folk culture, Tianqiao was a large open area where acrobats wheeled and flipped through an astonished crowd, while storytellers created worlds and wily conmen worked their illicit trade. Sadly, many performing arts struggled to survive the turbulence of the last century – but Tianqiao still remains home to ballet, one of the few officially sanctioned arts. To see a communist-flavoured performance, check out the Red Detachment of Women on Friday 9, at Tianqiao Theatre (100-600RMB). A sleek spectacle of dramatic lighting, vivid scenery and fervent, gun-toting, sword-swinging girls, the show – which only occurs every few months – is well worth seeing.

Meanwhile, Mandarin speakers can get a taste of the classic teahouse theatre experience with a night of crosstalk at De Yun She (40-200RMB). A comedy two-hander, these shows typically entail one performer exasperating the other with malapropisms, implausible stories and broad vulgarity. The venue’s 300 seats are filled with a vibrant local crowd hooting its appreciation in between nibbling on local snacks delivered to tables by a marvellous, gurning cook.
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Changyin Ge, the Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds, deep within the Forbidden City (40RMB entry, plus 10RMB for Changyin Ge), is a spectacular, three-storey teahouse-style theatre. Alas, there are no performances, but a scale model shows how trapdoors and hidden passageways allowed actors to descend between stages for the Empress Dowager’s amusement.

Uncover the wild world of folk arts

If Tianqiao’s red ballet and crosstalk didn’t sate your appetite for cultural history, then a trip to the (free) Xuannan Cultural Museum is in order. A shrine to the geniuses, revolutionaries and showmen who defined the carefree, chaotic spirit of the old city, this oddly overlooked museum (you won’t see it mentioned in any guide books) is a spirited – if slightly propagandist – way to get a taste of old-time entertainment.
There are exhibits on Peking opera and the New Culture Movement, and a large model of the old Tianqiao area looking suitably chaotic, but our favourite part is the section on the Eight Eccentrics of Tianqiao, a rag-tag troupe of performers that included ‘Humming Nose’, who specialised in the nose flute, and ‘Limber Donkey’, a man dressed in a natty donkey costume. Limber’s attention-craving wife would ride him, trying to entertain onlookers with popular songs, while her steed would stumble, fart and throw her around. Still, better than a fellow incompetently mimicking Michael Jackson in Sanlitun, we think.

Prove your mettle with street snacks

Want to prove you’re a real Beijinger? Then chow down on the hair-raising local specialities found at Huguo Si Jie. Running half a kilometre west from the Mei Lanfang Memorial Hall, this dedicated food street features some startling concoctions, including the notorious douzhi (fermented mung bean juice) and pungent chaogan (stir-fried liver). The legacy of some wildly popular temple fairs held at long-gone Huguo Temple, the street’s impressive selection of vendors offer food at varying prices.

The most noteworthy eateries here are two large halls (both named Huguosi Xiaochidian), situated either side of the street, which serve takeaway halal meat and local snacks. But the pleasure is in prowling the street, peering through steamy windows and spying such appetising treats such as nailao (unfermented milk yoghurt), which comes in a profusion of fruit flavours, or the unexpected pleasure of rice noodles in a snail-stock soup.

Pick up genuine hand made crafts

Are you a little suspicious about the origins of those cute souvenirs you see in the shops around Nanluoguxiang? You probably should be. If you want to ensure the hands making your gifts are attached to craftsmen, not underpaid factory workers, you should definitely swing by Baigongfang Handicrafts Museum.

Part preservation project, part bazaar, Baigongfang was set up to keep the ‘eight consummate handicrafts of Beijing’ alive, and allow master craftsmen to sell their wares. You’re welcome to watch them fashion stunning gifts, from imperial carpets to carved jade statues, for family and friends, or – if you’re feeling creative – learn a trade yourself (800RMB for a class of up to ten; book one week in advance). Be warned, however, that not everything here is hand made, so you’ll need a good eye to avoid paying over the odds for your purchases. Among the rarefied crafts, such as kite making, paper cutting and calligraphy, are oddities such as maohou – in which cicadas are painted to resemble tiny monkeys, then arranged in vignettes.

Step inside the head of a firebrand

Of all the capital’s writers, few have been as subversive as Lu Xun (1881-1936). A writer, critic and activist, Lu wrote the infamous ‘Diary of a Madman’, which used cannibalism as a scathing analogy for China’s antiquated society. The 1918 short story – the first in the Chinese vernacular – supposedly inspired the hot-blooded intellectual revolutionaries of the May Fourth Movement (see ‘Take a walk on the wild side’, below).

Head to the hutongs north of Fuchengmen Dajie, where you’ll find his former home, now adjacent to the Beijing Lu Xun Museum. This quiet setting contrasts sharply with the fearsome invective of its former resident, and contains an overwhelming collection of photographs and writings by the father of modern Chinese literature.
Leaving, you might notice an other-worldly sound from overhead; look up to see a flock of energetic pigeons, equipped with whistles – a penchant of Beijing pigeon fanciers for hundreds of years. The surrounding alleys are well worth exploring; a few hundred metres north, a shop selling Old Beijing knickknacks provides some rare finds.