Beijing

Glutton's guide to Peking duck, part 2 by Thomas O'Malley

Beautifully bronzed duck, a steamer of papery pancakes, julienned veggies and sticky soybean sauce. Yep, it’s Beijing’s signature quacker. Tens of thousands of ducks are roasted, carved and gobbled up daily in the city’s kaoya dian. But where to eat ducks fit for an emperor?  Where to find the best Peking duck in Beijing? Read part 2 of this guide and find out. (Missed part 1? read it here.)

Dadong, Beijing's Duck Maestro

E3-I1.jpg

Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing. +86 10 5169 0329. 11am-20pm.

The closest northern China has to a bona-fide celebrity chef, Dong Zhenxiang, (aka Dadong) has taken the art of duck roasting to dizzying new heights. ‘Big Dong’ (he’s exceedingly tall) first started developing his idea for ‘superlean’ roast duck whilst working as a chef in a rival duck restaurant. Roasted for longer than tradition dictates in specially conceived spherical ovens that focus the heat, about twice the usual amount of fat is rendered off each Dadong duck (238 RMB) resulting in a crisp, lacquered skin and a less oily bite (many prefer this lighter method; purists have complained it is too dry – whatever the case, it means you can eat more before getting full, which is surely a good thing).

An estimated 800 ducks are roasted daily at Dadong’s trio of restaurants, but this branch is the most interesting, overlooking the restored Ming dynasty imperial granary, called Nanxincang. The brightly lit dining room is rarely less than heaving with locals and tourists rolling overstuffed duck pancakes or choosing from any of the 200 creative dishes that comprise Dadong’s tome-like menu. Whatever you choose, the nightly queues are still all about the duck, so be sure to book ahead.

Suggested dish: Thorny Sea Cucumber, 238 RMB

3D-A-1-600x411.jpg

Forget about roast duck (for a moment, if you can) - sea cucumber (haishen) is the dish that has won Dadong most recent acclaim amongst Chinese foodies. In his restless pursuit of killer recipes, Dadong studied under a Beijing chef called Wang Yijun, whose signature was a dish of stewed sea cucumber with scallion. Dadong’s take on the dish is suitably bling: the finest thorny sea cucumber from Kato in Japan is rehydrated for several days then stewed and served with braised spring onion and a zingy lemon sorbet. Looks scary but tastes sensational (honest), with a curiously spongy texture and lingering richness.

Insider Tip: Getting to Grips with Dadong’s Menu

3TA-1-500x636.jpg

Dadong’s ‘Artistic Conception of Chinese Cuisine’ is an astonishing piece of food literature – certainly the biggest menu this eater has ever thumbed through. Over 200 dishes fill the tome, each supposedly photographed (very elegantly) by Dadong himself. Most dishes have a little background story or historical nugget attached - a reflection of Dadong’s preoccupation with time and place in his pursuit of a contemporary Chinese cooking style.

With such a fusion of ingredients, flavors and techniques on display, bewilderment is a common reaction. What on earth to order? Dadong clearly has a great love for restaurant theatre, so I’d suggest trying some of his showy “house innovations” (marked on the menu) like ‘noodles’ made from lobster meat with a Beijing zhajiang sauce, geoduck clam sashimi (it’s served inside a giant ice globe) or the fillet of kobe beef (blowtorched from raw at your table, naturally.) Go quackers.

Duck de Chine, Cantonese Flair

E4-I1-600x800.jpg

1949 – The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District. +86 10 6501 1949. 11am-2.30pm, 6-11pm.

Obsession. The word doesn’t begin to describe the lengths father-son chef team Peter and Wilson Lam have gone to in their pursuit of the perfect Peking duck. “We ate nothing else for nine months,” Wilson told me. The Cantonese chef duo reckons they’ve cracked the formula: 2kg ducks, culled at between 43-45 days old, roasted for exactly 65 minutes over 30 year old date tree wood (imported from neighboring Shanxi), and then left to rest and drain for 10 minutes. Got all that?

Each roasted bird (RMB 238) arrives into the dining room to the chime of a gong, as chefs in slate-grey robes set about carving it into about 120 perfectly proportioned slices of divinely rich skin and lusciously moist meat. Simply put, the skin here (and it’s all about the skin) is more aromatically sweet and perfumed than any other. Don’t tell the locals, but these southerners are beating Beijing at its own game.

E4-I2-600x392.jpg

The restaurant itself is the centerpiece of ‘1949 – The Hidden City’, a neo-industrial lifestyle complex built out of a former factory. A rarity in Beijing, it’s both beautifully conceived and modest in scale. Quite possibly the finest Peking duck restaurant, well, anywhere. And to this eater at least, the best Peking duck in Beijing.

Suggested dish: Duck liver terrine on toast, 168 RMB

4D-A1-500x751.jpg

One of the world’s premier delicacies, foie gras (fatty goose or duck liver), is a divisive food stuff. Some claim that gavage (force-feeding to engorge the liver) is cruel; others say that the birds, with no gag reflex in their throat, don’t mind at all, thank you very much.

Well, you might be surprised (dismayed?) to learn that Peking ducks are also force-fed. It’s not to fatten the liver; rather to give that all-important layer of fat beneath the skin, and bring the duck to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. I’ve witnessed tianya (literally ‘fill the duck’) at a farm outside Beijing – the process is over in seconds and doesn’t seem particularly cruel.

So you might think of this terrine as foie gras ‘light’ - velvety, creamy and delicate, but with a milder, more balanced richness. A tip – when it’s served, wait five minutes before eating it just to ensure the dish is up to room temperature.

Insider Tip: Designer Duck Accessory

4TA-1-600x374.jpg

Peking duck is nothing without its sauce. The signature condiment here owes more to Cantonese cooking than Beijing’s traditional sweet wheaten paste, and it’s made with over 30 herbs and spices, many medicinal. A bit of theatre enhances it further as the waiter drizzles on sesame and peanut paste, whirls it together into a spiral pattern and sprinkles over some crispy fried garlic. “It’s not as strong or salty as the local duck sauce, and it has more layers of flavor,” reckons its creator, Chef Lam. Well, he would say that, but I’m not arguing. And the best part is you can buy a jar to take home.

4TA-2-600x450.jpg

Speaking of another kind of sauce, Duck de Chine has the dubious honor of housing China’s first Bollinger champagne bar within its trendy, loft-like innards. It’s the perfect pairing apparently, the crisp bubbles cutting straight through the rich meat. It’s not cheap mind you, at around 1000 RMB a bottle. But I’ve found the more modestly-priced Prosecco (closer to 250 RMB) does the job admirably.

Made in China, a Five Star Duck Experience 

5E-I1-600x399.jpg

Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1 East Chang'an Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing. +86 10 8518 1234. 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30-10.30pm.

In the belly of the Grand Hyatt nestles this glam temple to duck-roasting, one of the finest purveyors of Peking duck in the capital. Executive Chef Jin, from a proud line of gruff, tough Beijingers, is from the old school, and his birds, meticulously sourced, prepped, roasted and carved, conform strictly to the Quanjude tradition.

Presentation is impeccable; Made in China serves a separate dish of skinless breast meat, which you’re supposed to eat wrapped in a pancake with scallions as a prelude to one with ‘the works’. The ducks here (RMB 238) really do display a perfectly balanced yin and yang of crisp, lacquered skin and yielding, ivory hued-meat, and the homemade pancakes are non-sticky with a delicious elasticity.

5E-I2-600x399.jpg

Grab a table close to the open kitchen to watch Jin’s team at work – some of these black belt roasters have been slinging ducks for over twenty years. It’s quite a dance, and the aromas that fill the dining room are intoxicating.

Made in China go through about fifty ducks a day, and they’re so fastidious about the final product that they even eviscerate and dress the birds themselves. So as you kick back in contemporary dining splendor, spare a thought for the luckless lackey in the service kitchen working his way through a trolley load of plucked Peking plumpers.

Suggested dish:  Signature Kungpao Chicken, 98 RMB

5D-D1-500x375.jpg

This guide takes it for granted that you’ll order the duck, but more is the fool who doesn’t get extra fowl, as the saying probably should go. This much-loved Sichuan dish (gongbao jiding) is a staple on menus around Beijing, and probably the single dish most recommended to foreigners by the Chinese, on account of its lack of bones, surfeit of peanuts and sticky-sweet sauce.

At Made in China, a new dimension of texture and taste is achieved with the addition of macadamia nuts and deep-fried, mildly fragrant chilli peppers. Best of all, the sauce is lip-smackingly flavorful without being too cloying.

Insider Tips: How to Eat Peking Duck

5TA-600x399.jpg

“Three stages and they’re all important!” Head Chef Jin assured me when I asked him to school me on the technique and etiquette of eating Peking duck. You should always begin by taking an amber shard of duck skin and dipping it in sugar. Brittle and oily, it gets the palate sparking. Tender breast meat next (no skin), folded into a pancake together with scallions and a little sauce. Oh mama. And here’s a tip: you’re supposed to use the veggies as a sort of paintbrush to apply the sauce on to the pancake.

Thirdly, the works: pancakes crammed with moist leg meat attached to treacle-hued skin, cucumber, tangy sauce and just a little minced garlic. “The trick is to roll them small enough to eat in one mouthful”, says Jin, “to get the full taste profile.”  Decedent, delicious, and ever so calorific. Does a tastier mouthful of food even exist? Doubtful.

Click here for part 1 f the guide and discover the history of Beijing's signature quacker.

Glutton's guide to Peking duck, part 1 by Thomas O'Malley

Beautifully bronzed duck, a steamer of papery pancakes, julienned veggies and sticky soybean sauce. Yep, it’s Beijing’s signature quacker. Tens of thousands of ducks are roasted, carved and gobbled up daily in the city’s kaoya dian. But where to eat ducks fit for an emperor?  Where to find the best Peking duck in Beijing? Read this guide and find out.

2TA-2-600x399.jpg

Peking duck is no flash in the pan. The first recorded mention of roast fowl in China dates back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties around 500 AD. In the 14th century it was an Imperial dish, reserved for royalty. Like many such delicacies, it’s likely the recipe was later smuggled out of the Forbidden City by cooks or servants, finding its way into well-heeled residences and restaurants.

The history of Peking duck restaurants in the capital goes hand-in-hand with the city’s laozihao, which means something like ‘time-honored brands’. Quanjude and Bianyifang are the two most famous brands in duck roasting, both of which you’ll learn more about later on.

The ducks that grace the tables of China’s capital derive from the white-downed ‘Pekin’ breed. Bred and raised on small-scale farms in Beijing’s northern suburbs, they are blessed with an instinctive gluttony, and reach slaughter weight – usually 2.5kg – after just 40 days. In the late 1800s, nine of these were exported from China to Long Island, New York. Today 95% of ducks consumed in the US are direct descendents.

Hausente-600x400.jpg

A bit different from the ‘crispy duck’ eaten in Cantonese-style restaurants around the globe, proper Peking duck should have skin that’s both brittle and yielding. Getting there is a meticulous and time-consuming process, which you’ll learn more about on the tour. And when it comes to eating, aesthetics are paramount. As a rule, ducks are carved tableside in view of diners. It’s an expected piece of food theatre, part of the rhyme and ritual of eating a dish dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

So grab your chopsticks and get set to gobble your way through the history and evolution of China’s best-loved dish, from the earliest laozihao that are still going strong to today’s maverick chefs, who are reimagining Beijing’s signature dish for increasingly cosmopolitan diners.

Know Before You Eat: Some restaurants (like Quanjude) allow you to order ducks by half, but generally you’ll get the whole bird, which will feed at least two people. All restaurants listed in this guide have menus with dish photographs and English translations, so language won’t be a problem.

Bianyifang, Beijing's "Oldest" Eatery

E1-I11-600x450.jpg

77 Xianyukou, Qianmen East Street, Chongwen District, Beijing. +86 10 6713 2536. 11am -9pm. 

The city’s oldest surviving restaurant chain, Bianyifang Kaoyadian was established way back in 1416 during the reign of Ming emperor Yongle. Bianyifang, which means ‘convenient to all’, is said to have started life as a takeaway outlet on Mishi Hutong (Rice Market Alley) about a mile east of this location.

A branch of Bianyifang has stood here on Xianyukou (Fresh Fish Crossroads) since 1855 … until the bulldozers arrived for the 2008 Olympics and razed what was one of the most vibrant – albeit rundown - commercial districts in the city. In typical Chinese fashion, the original maze of alleys and eateries has since been rebuilt from the ground-up, re-opening in spring 2011 as a tourist food street complete with piped music and Disney-style facades. Bianyifang is back on its old perch (pun intended) – bigger and shinier than ever.

It’s truly a beast of a place, a mock Qing frontage leading to 7000 square meters of restaurant supposedly able to serve 1000 covers at a time. Inside, old and new collide. In the grand lobby a gold plaque reads simply ‘1416’, whilst off to the side a flashy holographic display recounts the history of Bianyifang and roast duck.

Suggested dish: 1416 Peking Roast Duck, 140 RMB 

1D-A-1-600x450.jpg

Bianyifang developed what’s called the ‘closed-oven’ technique for roasting duck, whereas almost all other restaurants now roast over an open flame, pioneered by Quanjude (the next eatery in the guide). In practice, Bianyifang’s archaic method seems to result in the duck skin being a little softer and the meat juicier and ever so slightly pink. You also get a higher ratio of meat to skin – good for carnivores.

1D-A-2-600x451.jpg

Bianyifang also predates the pancake rolling method of eating Peking duck. Traditionalists stuff the juicy duck meat inside a small sesame wheat bun called a shaobing. A few slices of succulent duck sandwiched in the doughy bread is a delicious little mouthful, though rather filling and admittedly less popular than the pancake method, so the menu does give the option of both types of accompaniments.

Insider Tip: Glutton for mutton

ITA-1-600x450.jpg

A large Muslim Chinese minority (the Huimin) has lived in the Qianmen area of Beijing for 500 years, and their halal habits have fueled the rise of lamb or mutton as just about Beijing’s best loved meat. To give your table an authentic mutton touch, order this dish of premium lamb breast from the great plains of Inner Mongolia, slow-roasted and served in strips topped with crispy skin.

ITA-2-600x450.jpg

The serving method is particularly novel: the cooked lamb breast is heaped to one side of a tray used for tea ceremonies, surrounded by petite steamed breads (called mantou) and a spicy, savory dipping sauce. On the other side are little cups and a teapot filled with tart berry juice, which you should drink after eating to cut through the oil-rich lamb.

Quanjude, Good Enough for Nixon

E2-I1-600x375.jpg

14 Qianmen West Avenue, Chongwen District, Beijing. +86 10 6302 3062. 11am-2pm, 4.30-8.30pm.

What we think of as Peking duck today can mostly be traced back to Quanjude. Founded back in 1864 by a poultry dealer named Yang Quanren, the restaurant pioneered the idea of cooking ducks by hanging them in open ovens over the wood of fruit trees to impart a perfume into the skin, and eating the flesh wrapped in thin wheat pancakes (called heye bing).

The ducks here do tend to be slightly more clumsily presented than the very finest in town, which irks when you’re already paying a tourist premium (198-239 RMB). Mind you, I’ve never had a bad one, and over the years Quanjude’s distinguished birds have been eaten by everyone from Fidel Castro to Richard Nixon.

E2-I2-600x451.jpg

These days, coach-loads of domestic and foreign tourists flock to what has been named one of the 500 best brands in China. Inside, you can count on a bright, brash ambience and brisk service - but worth it if only for the numbered certificate of authenticity you receive with each duck. As a kitsch souvenir, it’s up there with an “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt.

The giant branch at Hepingmen, opened in 1979, is the undisputed flagship – seven floors, 41 dining rooms and endless acres of Quanjude’s trademark communist-chic red and gold décor. They don’t often do small (or subtle) in China. Best of all, its walking distance from Tiananmen Square, so you might like to take in the flag lowering ceremony in the square at sunset than take a stroll southwest to the restaurant for dinner.

Suggested dish: Duck heart dumplings, 36 RMB

2D-A-1-600x450.jpg

Quanjude lays claim to the idea of using every part of the bird to create a multi-course, ritualized feast. This ‘duck banquet’, mostly served in private rooms to VIP guests, is possibly a little extreme for the uninitiated, comprising duck feet with mustard, spicy gizzards, intestines done myriad ways and even the drained fat emulsified into a soup broth.

But if you order the duck heart dumplings (jiaozi) off the regular menu, you won’t be disappointed, much less grossed-out. Ground duck hearts are mixed with garlic, soy and spices, wrapped by hand into little doughy crescents and boiled in a large cauldron of water for about ten minutes. Served with dipping vinegar, the mild, meaty filling and pillowy skins are the food equivalent of a nice warm hug.

Insider Tip: How to Make Peking Duck

Want to learn the secrets of one of the world’s greatest (and most fussy) dishes? OK, here goes. First … the slaughterhouse. Ducks should be EXACTLY uniform in size and weight when they arrive, and after being carefully plucked and eviscerated, a bamboo rod is inserted into the ribcage to keep its shape.

In the kitchen, compressed air is pumped into the duck between the skin and the fat layer, inflating it like a medieval football. This will help keep the skin crisp in the oven, and enable the fat to render more efficiently.

2TA-1-600x399.jpg

The ballooned ducks are then doused in boiling water, the skin visibly tightening, followed by a basting of mai ya tang - molasses syrup that will help impart the characteristic bronze luster to the skin.

After two days of drying (again, for the crispy skin), hot, date-infused liquid is poured into the duck cavity, which is bunged up. This is the really clever part. Full of fruity juice, the meat will steam gently from the inside as the flames in the oven lick and crackle the skin.

2TA-2-600x399.jpg

40 to 55 minutes later (after a bit of basting in the fire) the ducks are removed from the oven using a long pole called a yachang. De-bunged and drained, they’re ready for carving. Bon apetit!

Read part 2 for more restaurants, dishes and tips!

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

1-IMG_3290.jpg

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.