One Day in Beijing, Delta Air Lines by Thomas O'Malley


You've got a day to spare in China's capital. What to do? I wrote this bite-size travel piece for Sky, the inflight magazine for Delta Air Lines. 

The new pays little heed to the old in Beijing. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid’s remarkable Galaxy Soho office complex writhes and flows like an alien starship mere blocks from tumble-down grey-brick hutongs, Beijing’s original residential architecture. The older generations waltz in the Imperial parks, but the young get their kicks at mirror-walled nightclubs around Mao’s triumphalist Worker’s Stadium. Here is a city in the thrall of reinvention, determined to play a defining role in the 21st century. There are few more fascinating places to be right this very moment.

EXPLORE: Discover the gentrifying Dashilan district before everyone else does. Southwest of Tiananmen Square, the warren of hutong alleyways here are a compelling mix of throwback mahjong dens and pioneering hipster cafes. Try the homemade hawthorn cookies at Spoonful of Sugar, or classic Peking duck at Deyuan.

STROLL: Strewn with Imperial ruins, the rambling gardens and lakes of the Old Summer Palace are one of the most peaceful corners of the capital. Abandoned for more than a century after British and French soldiers razed it to the ground in the Second Opium War, it was opened to the public in the 1980s, the government electing to leave it unrestored as a park of remembrance.

CRAFT BEER: Great Leap Brewing is the granddaddy of Beijing’s craft beer scene, sating thirsty Beijingers (since 2010!) with brews that harness Chinese ingredients like Fujian tea and Sichuan peppercorns. Their original location, in the former library wing of an old courtyard house, has a lovely yard. Newcomers Jing A, resident at Big Smoke Bistro, are also worth your time.

REV YOUR ENGINES: Whizz between the old and the new in a vehicle that straddles both. Tour company Beijing Sideways offers 2-hour city jaunts aboard a People’s Liberation Army motorcycle sidecar. Based on a 1920s design, and produced up until the 1980s, it’s one of the longest-running production vehicles ever.

Video: Climb China Central TV Tower Today! by Thomas O'Malley

Beijing's tallest structure, the Central TV Tower was built in 1994 way out west in Haidian district. Marooned in a middling low-rise neighbourhood, it's an anomaly - probably some district official pulled a lot of strings to get it built, but the development never followed.

It is, I recently discovered, a stop on the China tour group circuit, with its kitsch revolving restaurant and panoramic outdoor viewing deck. The problem is, you're a bit too far out to spot any of Beijing's big sites, aside from Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, and the suggestion of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City by a long empty block in the distant heart of the city.

I paid a visit recently on a February afternoon to write a blog for Bespoke Beijing. A few folks I'd canvassed  didn't even acknowledge it as the tallest thing in China's capital city (It's 75m taller than China World Tower 3, the tallest skyscraper but not the tallest structure).

What I found was an endearingly kitsch throwback to a simpler (?) time in Beijing a decade and a half before the city's 'coming out' on the Olympic stage. In the car park, a reel playing on loop over loudspeakers was so daft I recorded it on my phone. The next day I used the photos and a bit of video I'd shot to put together this jokey promo-reel type video.

Should I Visit Beijing... Ever? by Thomas O'Malley

According to this WSJ blog, Chinese state media revealed that inbound tourists to Beijing had decreased by 50% in the first three quarters of 2013, with air pollution the prime cause. 'Airpocalypse' in Jan '13, when the PM2.5 particle count reached dizzy new heights (albeit briefly), was reported around the world. Since then, bogus stories like the public  TV screenings of sunrises to satiate smog-addled citizens have added to the city's woes, picked up on by global news outlets that frankly should have known better. Throw in infuriating visa red tape, rising prices, the language barrier and occasional food scandal, and that cheap package holiday starts to look even more appealing. So, with all this in mind, ask yourselves... should I visit Beijing?

I wrote the words that follow for a travel guide back in 2011, but I'm convinced it all still stands (though prices have gone up a bit). Beijing isn't a reliably pleasant city for travellers. There are lots of capitals with prettier architecture, more walkable streets, better museums, green spaces and entertainment. But it's Beijing. You don't come for the cafe culture and farmers markets. You come because you're curious, adventurous, and perhaps a little bit reckless. So, with that in mind...

9 Reasons Why You Should Visit Beijing

Six ring roads, four – no wait - FIVE million cars, air pollution off the charts, rampant urban development, an indecipherable language, and ever more KFC branches. Well, that’s one way to look at China’s capital. What about hundreds of miles of ancient hutong alleyways, the steam and sizzle of 40,000 eateries, a world-beating contemporary arts scene, some of Asia’s best hotels, layer upon layer of tumultuous history … not to mention a certain Great Wall and Forbidden City? At the vanguard of China’s breathless charge to super power status, Beijing is staking an indefatigable claim as the new stronghold of global power and influence in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating, infuriating, thrilling place to be, right this very moment. If nothing else, make sure you can look back and say, “I was there”.

1. BECAUSE YOU CAN! | The myth persists that the language barrier is an insurmountable hurdle. “Pi!” as the locals would say. (It means “nonsense”– it literally means fart.) With a phrasebook to point at, a smile and a sense of adventure, you’ll have a hugely rewarding trip and discover China’s capital at your own pace. Since the Olympics in 2008, subways and buses have English route-maps and announcements, most restaurants have at least a picture menu, and even basic Chinese-run hotels usually have a member of staff who knows enough English to point you towards the nearest Peking duck.

2. RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY | Beijing’s major avenues are broad enough to park a column of tanks side-by-side with room left for a bicycle or ten. But veer down any side alley and you’ll find the hutongs: grey-brick, tree shaded lanes where the old boys play chess in their pyjamas, where caged birds out-sing car horns, and fruit hawkers, knife sharpeners and coal merchants still peddle their wares from roving bicycle carts. The beating heart of Beijing, the hutongs are where traditional residential architecture juts up against the demands of a modern urban infrastructure - and frequently comes off worse. The moral? Visit soon. Despite the preservation orders, nothing is sacred.

3. HAVE YOU EATEN? | Forget everything your local Peking Palace has taught you. Alas, you won’t find “deep fried chicken balls” in China. You will, however, find infectious delight in a populace so stomach obsessed, the phrase “have you eaten” is simply a way of saying hi. From the mouth-numbing surprise of lamb hot pot to hearty, pork-filled buns eaten on the hoof to Beijing’s centuries-old signature roast quacker, delicious discoveries await. And all the icky stuff you might have heard about – dogs, snakes, bugs – worry not: that’s all down south. Beifangren (northerners) don’t suffer any of that tripe. Although they do love tripe.

4. LAOWAI! | Whether it’s gossiping grannies minding infants trussed-up like arctic explorers (though note the split trousers for drafty toilet relief), or rag-tag rubbish collectors picking up after the man-purse toting nouveau riche, Beijingers in their multitudes are as fascinating a cast as you could wish for. And most of the time, you – the ever intriguing laowai! – (foreigner), will be the star of the show.

5. A REALLY GREAT WALL | Full disclosure: you can’t see it from the moon and it’s not one long, unbroken “stone dragon” sprawled the length of the country. But Beijing’s Ming-era Great Wall, snaking across saw-tooth peaks an hour north of the city, is sheer, pant-wetting eye candy. Best of all, it caters to every energy level, with touristy battlements fitted out with cable cars, hand-rails and – yes - even a thrill ride, to off-the-beaten-track, gravity-defying hikes for the serious enthusiast.

6. ANYTHING BUT SPINELESS | Beijing’s compass-perfect layout unfurls chess-board style from the zhong zhou xian, the all-important north-south spine that has for centuries marked the spiritual middle of the Middle Kingdom. Dating back to the rule of Kublai Khan, it takes in the majestic Drum and Bell Towers, hops over serene Jingshan Park and into the Forbidden City, then southwards through vast Tiananmen Square, over the Great Helmsman slumbering in his mausoleum, under Qianmen Gate and on to the incomparable Temple of Heaven. That’s some prime tourist real estate.

7. STATE OF THE ART | Chinese contemporary art has gone mega global in recent years, but its spiritual home remains the sprawling 798 Art District on Beijing’s outskirts. Once an East German electronics factory, inside its cavernous warehouses is where superstars like Huang Rui and Ai Weiwei first set up shop in the 90s. Today, though rampantly commercial, it’s a must-visit gaggle of domestic and internationally backed galleries, arty book shops and boho cafés.

8. ECONOMIC MIRACLE | Yet to come close to Hong Kong or even Shanghai in the price stakes, you need part with only a little in Beijing to get lots in return. Here’s the price of some everyday essentials, converted to GBP for added wow. Subway ride: 20p. Bowl of delicious Shanxi noodles: 50p. 600ml bottle of Tsingtao beer from local shop: 35p. 10km in a taxi: £2.40. An hour foot massage: £6. Call it a tenner for the lot. Bargain, eh?

9. WATER CITY | What Central Park is to New York, the breezy lakes of Shichahai and Beihai are to Beijing. Surrounded by Taoist temples, royal mansions and neon-festooned beer bars, Shichahai promotes restful wandering by day and boozy fun by night. To the south, Beihai boasts pedal boats, classical Chinese gardens, and perched on an island at its centre, the magnificent Bai Ta, a 40 metre-tall Buddhist shrine of white stone.

First impressions of Beijing (or Chairman Mao vs Princess Leia) by Thomas O'Malley

The most wonderful, intoxicating part of travel is the strangeness. The unfamiliar sights and smells, the brand names on bottles and billboards that hold no sway over us - it doesn't even matter where you are all that much, as long as it's somewhere else and somewhere new.

So being asked to write about Beijing, a city that's been my home for over five years, from the perspective of a new arrival is a tricky proposition.  I attempted to do so in a 'Travellers Tales' feature for ABTA, the magazine of the UK's leading travel association, but I reckon it's fairly clear the author ain't no noob.

Actually, on my first visit to Beijing in February 2008 I kept a basic diary (on a Word doc - thanks, original Asus Eee PC 701 - best travel laptop in history, but that's another post right there). So it's pretty easy for me to open it up and see what my actual first impressions of Beijing were / are. Here are some:

On Tiananmen Square:

  • Old men flying kites (sadly they don't allow this any more)
  • Police rescuing a kite from a tree (I can't remember this or even imagine it)
  • Chairman Mao had the same haircut as Princess Leia (yeah, kinda...)
  • China is the spiritual home of the megaphone (I guess there were lots more megaphones in general use back then)

On the Lantern Festival (15th and last day of Chinese New Year):

People come on to the streets at night to set off snaking trails of firecrackers and fireworks as loud as mortars. Sounds like a warzone, with the distant crack of guns, thump of shells and the ratatat of machine gun fire. The air is thick and choking with firecracker smoke (as if Beijing's pollution wasn't bad enough already...) and the streets are covered with shreds of charred red paper and empty fireworks boxes. All of which is dutifully cleaned away without a trace by the following morning.

Interesting to see the pollution was something I thought about then (3rd day of the trip). People claim it's worsened over the last few years but I'm inclined to think it's about the same - more that the awareness has grown.

On the train to Harbin:

Sinking cans of Harbin beer at 5 yuan a pop in the dining car, all frilly tablecloths and dusty old Christmas decorations, with Police Academy 2 playing noisily on the flat screen Chinese TV on the wall. Groups of Chinese men including police and young soldiers played drinking games and getting sloshed as the conversations got louder and more animated. “I  have one car, he has two cars, etc"

I can't quite believe that Police Academy 2 was playing on the TV. In 2008.

Singapore Airlines Magazine: Soul of a City by Thomas O'Malley

This 13-page cover feature was for the April 2013 issue of Silverkris, the inflight mag for Singapore Airlines. It's all about Beijing's zhong zhou xian - the central axis that takes in the Drum and Bell Towers, the Forbidden City, Coal Hill, most of the former Imperial City and a big swathe of the capital's most fascinating historic and cultural real estate.

Props to Shanghai-based photographer Charlie Xia who rode the rails up to Beijing to shoot some incredible pics for the article. Sad we didn't quite get to meet up and share a craft ale in Great Leap Brewing.