Ten more things to love about Beijing

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Everybody knows about the amazing sights and sounds one can encounter on a trip to Beijing. But beyond the obvious, many and varied attractions of the capital of China, there are plenty of other reasons why a visit to the city formerly known as Peking should be on top of any travellers agenda.

Everybody knows about the amazing sights and sounds one can encounter on a trip to Beijing. But beyond the obvious, many and varied attractions of the capital of China, there are plenty of other reasons why a visit to the city formerly known as Peking should be on top of any travellers agenda.

1. Sensational systems

While there are plenty of things not to like about the Chinese government, you can’t fault their flair for systems. Flying into Beijing there was a special arrival form dedicated to swine flu control. We had to indicate our seat number while also stating our address and contact details for the next seven days. The theory goes that if somebody on the plane was found to be ill, those who were in close proximity to the patient could be located, and quickly. Ingenious and quite successful by all accounts. The first case of Swine Flu was diagnosed in Sichuan and within 12 hours the authorities had tracked down 185 people in Beijing who had been on the same plane.

2. Easy transport

In terms of getting around, you would rather be a tourist in Beijing than Auckland. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, the bus system is logical and works well (especially outside peak hours) and the subway has to be the easiest in the world to use. The bilingual ticket machines are simple to use and single trips (there are no zones, unlike London’s slightly devious system) start at 2 Yuan [$0.40] – officially the cheapest in the world.

3. Wean yourself off Facebook

Finding yourself bogged down by status updates? Feeling the pressure to constantly update photo albums? Wondering when you will see a real friend again? It could be time for a Facebook detox and Beijing is the perfect place. Your trip becomes a real holiday as it is literally impossible to get access to your book of forgotten faces. Imagine the freedom you feel, the nostalgic enjoyment from writing a postcard or a letter and the fact that upon your return you will have a whole swag load of stories to tell, rather than recounting tales already told.

4. Celebrating blue sky

This may come as a surprise, but Beijing seems to celebrate the quaint pleasure of a blue sky more than most. Granted, this is partly because it doesn’t happen every day, but things are improving. Published each day in newspapers and websites, it is the simple measure of the level of smog and pollution, which also serves as a nice reminder of the simple things in life. They managed over 80% in 2009, up from 71% in 2008 and just 40% back in 1998. Basic controls, like taking your car off the road once a week depending on the first number of your licence plate have definitely helped.

5. Hutong nights

There are plenty of tours available through the Beijing fascinating Hutongs, where life is in a time warp compared to the rest of this bustling, fast paced city. These neighbourhoods of narrow streets and alleys with lines of traditional courtyard residences are particular to Beijing. There are also more and more courtyard hotels and hostels springing up in the middle of Hutongs, which allow a unique look at ordinary everyday lives, something most tourists often crave. It can seem a little intrusive but it is really not.

6. See into the future

During your visit you can mingle with the boffins of the Beijing Futurists Society. They promise that you can learn more about the age of singularity, artificial intelligence, and the future of everything from art to the nature of language. The thriving expatriate scene also has theatre sports workshops, book clubs and speed dating nights – which presumably are as bilingual as you want them to be.

7. Concert mania

There is a bustling music scene in the capital these days, with something for all tastes and preferences. From punk metal to R & B, Beijing Brit Pop to Motown tribute bands it seemed like all the bases were covered. There was a suprising amount of German groups, with names such as ‘Subway to Sally’ and ‘Letzte Instanz’. Beyonce brought her Bootylicious charms to Beijing during the month I was there and perhaps of even greater appeal, American rock legends Skid Row, (does anyone remember ’18 and life’) who disturbingly looked exactly the same as the 1989 vintage, were also in town.

8. Safety

After three extended trips made between 2001 and 2009 the overriding impression is that Beijing remains a very safe place for visitors. Crime against visitors seems very uncommon and obviously the very heavy penalties play a part. While you will want to keep your wits about you as you would in any foreign city there definitely seems to be a lack of opportunistic or petty crime, which is always positive.

9. Shopper’s paradise

Forget Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris or all those other famous consumer destinations. Beijing is where it is at in terms of being able to buy anything and everything. If there is something out there that might be subject to demand, there will be supply. Personal favourite – the his and her’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson pipe set for the ultimate in British cool.

10. Mean cuisine

You will be spoilt for choice like possibly never before when it comes to dining options in Beijing.

Don’t feel like Chinese food – take your pick from African, American, Brazillian, French, Japanese, German, Fusion, Indian, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Russian, Singaporean, Spanish, Vietnamese and Thai.

There are also steakhouses, tea houses, vegetarian establishments, pizza parlours and deli sandwich bars. There are plenty of cafes – including a Kiwi-inspired place that offers ‘flat whites’.

When you do want to go local, you just can’t miss. Selections include Cantonese, Contemporary, Hot Pot, Hunan, Imperial, Xinjiang (Muslim), Sichuan, Shanghai and Yunnan.

Oh, and there are at least one hundred restaurants specialising in Beijing Duck, should that be on your wish list.