Day 1: Cultural Beijing

See emperors' homes, Mao's mausoleum, awesome antiques and gruesome snacks

The great man’s remains lie in the prosaically named Mao’s Mausoleum where, each day, peasants in their thousands make the pilgrimage from all over the country. You join the rabble, and after toiling in line for what feels like days, you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the revolutionary’s embalmed body, before being unceremoniously shuffled out by an irascible guard.


You go to witness the baffling contradictions of this country: to know that you are in an authoritarian state, to understand that though the man is dead, his influence lives on. You go to stand in line with the pilgrims: working men with their bodies gnarled from their earnest labour in the sun; young, urbane women shielding their more delicate dispositions with parasols; children tugging impatiently at their mother’s skirts, nagging them to buy white flowers (10RMB) to place on the casket.


Here, a peasant looks as if he wants to spit on Mao’s casket, but perhaps it’s just his inconsolable anger that so great a man had to die. Here, two wealthy businessmen, bow reverentially at the foot of Mao’s statue – the irony lost on them. Mao’s benevolent face does adorn each and every banknote, after all.

Your next destination: Walk! You should be able to see the entrance to the Forbidden City from the mausoleum.

The Forbidden City is a permanent fixture on any Beijing bucket list. Yes it’s busy (go on a weekday if you can) and yes it’s huge, daunting and difficult to navigate (Forbidden City is no misnomer; purportedly 980 buildings over 1.5 square kilometres) but it’s also China’s largest and best-preserved site of historic buildings. It is, absolutely, worth the headache and sore feet.

Enter under the portrait, and Mao’s watchful eye, into the first of many concourses. From here you can go up to the balcony of The Meridian Gate – the historical setting overlooking Tiananmen Square from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of The People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 – now China’s National Day. The view alone is worth the extra cost and hassle (15RMB; you must first check any bags before going through a thorough security).


Alternatively, walk straight, through another tunnel to another concourse, where you can buy you tickets to the Forbidden City proper (60RMB; automatically activated audio guides available in 35 languages for 40RMB, no deposit required). How long you spend here depends on your level of interest: you can saunter through and soak it up in a couple of hours or make several day-long return trips and still not cover all of the myriad halls, galleries and gardens (some of which – such as the Treasure Gallery – require an additional fee; most are around 10RMB).

Just make sure you go through the imposing Hall of Supreme Harmony, the 600-year old structure is the largest in the complex as well as one of the most ceremonially important. Look out for the imposing Dragon Throne – enough to make an emperor of any man.


As you leave cross the road (using the pedestrian underpass) and enter Jingshan Park (6.30am-9pm; 2RMB). Climb the hill to the pavilion at the top – affording a spectacular bird’s eye view of the majestic maze you've just trawled through.

Your next destination: You could walk it in under forty minutes. Alternatively, walk back to Tiananmen Square and take the subway – Wangfujing is one stop east of Tiananmen East Station.

Wangfujing Snack Street
Much like London’s Oxford Street or New York’s Fifth Avenue, Wangfujing Street holds a strong pull for Beijing visitors without having any discernable qualities aside from plenty of luxury brand shops – and the largest Apple store in Asia. The street was one of Beijing’s first major shopping streets after former-leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s and has remained an inexplicable stalwart since.


Still, it’s infamous Snack Street is worth a visit on its own merit – a real treat for the eyes, ears and taste buds. Walk under the colourful archway at the south end of Wangfujing Jie to find a 200 metre, lantern-lined stretch of stalls selling some jaw-droppingly odd edibles. Here you’ll find still-alive-and-crawling scorpions on skewers (25RMB), snakes (thankfully dead) on skewers, starfish, seahorses, cicadas, cocoons and myriad molluscs and crustaceans; all on skewers. But these are mostly for the benefit of the adventurous out-of-towners.


You’ll find most locals chomping down on less exotic, infinitely tastier nosh; fried or steamed dumplings, spring rolls (8RMB) or candied fruit on sticks (10RMB). Hawthorn berries, a crisp, tart local fruit, dipped in sugar much like a candy apple are a particular local favourite. Oh, and that rotten stench that pervades the strip is chou doufu – or ‘stinky tofu’ – a pungent dish of fermented bean curd that tastes a lot better than it smells. Think of it as the Chinese equivalent of blue cheese and tuck in!


Your next destination: Head four stops east on Line 1 from Wangfujing Station to Guomao Station. Transfer to Line 10 and head three stops south to Panjiayuan Station.

This outdoor flea market is a real Aladdin’s cave of antiques, art and beautiful ethnic jewelry and crafts from China’s many minority groups – mostly hailing from the country’s western provinces.


Eventually you'll come across rows and rows of merchants with their handmade crafts – passed down family lines for generations – laid out on blankets on the floor. Vibrantly-coloured, embroidered cloths and tapestries (large blankets from 200RMB) arrest the senses, as do the hand-hammered, ornate silver head pieces from Guizhou province’s Yao ethnic minority (from 50RMB), which jangle and dazzle brilliantly in the afternoon sunlight.


As for antiques, there’s a smattering of the usual Cultural Revolution memorabilia as well as antique porcelain, furniture and various artifacts. Chipped ancient fragments of pottery are sold next to bronze statues of Chairman Mao, next to stalls selling antique grandfather clocks and gramophones from the days of the Republic of China (1912-1949): a real hodgepodge collection, handpicked from thousands of years of a tumultuous history.

This is one of the more ‘authentic’ market experiences you’ll get in Beijing. Unfortunately this also means you may encounter a few shady characters – keep your valuables close. Getting between the two: A taxi (around 20 minutes) is probably quickest to Gui Jie.

Your next destination: A taxi (around 20 minutes) is probably quickest to Gui Jie.

Gui Jie only awakes about an hour before sunset, when it becomes one of Beijing’s most photogenic streets. Around then, the thousands of red lanterns lining the street light up, the sidewalks swell with crowds and wafts of spice fill the air. The road is actually called Dongzhimen Nei but is known locally as Gui Jie or ‘Ghost Street’.


Over a hundred restaurants offer a colourful range of Chinese cuisine from Peking Duck to Sichuanese hot pot (a boiling pot of spicy broth in which you cook your own meat and vegetables), and stay open all night for good-time, drunken eats.

Some establishments are a little kitsch: popular Hua’s Restaurant (花家怡园四合院店) feels like eating in a circus tent due to its acrobatic shows and fish ponds, and the tucked-away Yingxiong Shanzhuang (英雄山庄) takes its kung fu gimmick pretty seriously. Best for a little of everything might be the buzzing Xiaoyushan (小渔山), which offers a wide geographic range of Chinese gastronomy and even pour their own micro-brews.


But wherever you go, you’re in for an authentic taste of China along Gui Jie.

Not for you? Have a look at our Park life and Peking opera or Shopping and partying itineraries