What else to do in Beijing

By Nancy Tan
This item appears on page 12 of the January 2013 issue.

I took my children and grandchildren, 10 of us, total, to China, June 18-30, 2012. T.E.I. Tours & Travel (Pleasant Hill, CA; 925/825-6104) made all the travel and hotel arrangements for us except for the international flights, and we were extremely happy with their services.

We paid a land price of $2,195 per person, which included two nights in Shanghai, a 4-night Yangtze River cruise, two nights in Chongqing and three in Beijing. Internal airfares added $545 each. (The group flew home from Beijing, and my husband and I stayed for three more days at extra expense.)

Our group had a guide for most of the days in China but spent our time in Shanghai and one of our days in Beijing without one.

Since most of our group had visited China before, I tried to include some experiences not on the usual itinerary, especially in Beijing. A clean and safe city with a simple-to-use subway system and inexpensive taxis, Beijing is a great place to explore on your own. Here are some of the things our group tried.

• Included in one of two guided excursions we took in Beijing, a calligraphy lesson (arranged by T.E.I.) was one activity that everyone in our group, ranging from age 13 to 70-plus, named as an unexpected highlight.

This lesson took place at the Guo Zi Jian & Kong Miao, or Directorate of Education & Confucian Temple (Dong Cheng Qu; phone 010 8401 1977). This was the facility where imperial examinations took place every four years during ancient times, until abolished toward the beginning of the 20th century. These examinations were the means by which the common people could enter into imperial service and rise in society.

In the courtyard were many stone steles inscribed with the names of those who had passed the examinations. The Confucian Temple was toward the back of the complex of buildings.

Our teacher was excellent. 2012 being the Year of the Dragon, he gave us a list of characters that represent “dragon,” ranging from the archaic to the present simplified form. We each chose our favorite character to practice, culminating in a final rendition onto a fan embellished with the seal of the institution — a wonderful souvenir.

• Across the street from the calligraphy facility is a Chinese vegetarian buffet restaurant, Xu Xiang Zhai (A 26-1 Guozijian Dajie, Beijing, 100013; phone 010 6404 6568). The cost was around $15 per person.

There were, easily, over 100 choices of vegetarian dishes. Some were made to simulate meat dishes in appearance and taste, though our group preferred the “undisguised” dishes. There was also an astounding array of desserts, Chinese and Western.

• In the same neighborhood, Yonghe Lama Temple (12 Yonghegong Dajie; phone 010 6404 4499 — Subway stop, Yonghegong Station. Open 9-4:30. Admission, RMB25 [near $4]) is a very large Tibetan Buddhist temple with beautiful buildings and statues. We spent over two hours there taking in the architecture, statuary and the locals worshiping.

The area was quite colorful, with vendors of incense for the worshipers plus shops selling statues of Buddha and other religious objects.

• Beijing seems to be filled with malls or, at least, it seems that way in the downtown area. Each mall has a food court where, usually, you can just point at the displays and order. The numbers of vendors are usually staggering and the prices really reasonable. The cost of a steamer of dumplings or a bowl of noodles can be as low as the equivalent of $2-$3, so it wasn’t a big deal if we didn’t like what we ordered.

Some food courts require that you buy a prepaid card, but that’s easily negotiated, and they refund whatever amount you don’t use.

I don’t mean to imply that meals in China are cheap in general. One of our meals, a birthday celebration at a trendy restaurant in a mall, cost over $100 per person. I suspect that most locals eat mostly at food courts.

Supermarkets can be found in the basements of some malls and department stores. The one we visited, in the basement of a department store half a block west of the Chongwenmen subway station, was huge, with every food item imaginable in great quantity.

Not only was it fun to look at all the products, but it was a great place to stock up on drinks and snacks, since the selection was good and the prices were low. Many of the name brands from the US come with a local variation, such as “Hot and Sour Spicy Fish Flavor” on tubes of potato chips.

• In some of the malls there are hair salons. A shampoo and blow dry took only 15 minutes on a walk-in basis and cost about $3. I really enjoyed the good head and scalp massage that came with the shampoo. If I could find a similar service at home for this price, I’d never wash my hair, myself, again!

About taxis — we found taking taxis from the hotel to other destinations much more convenient and reasonably priced than the return trips. It seemed that taxis secured by the hotel ran on meters.

Returning, we were never successful hailing a cab that was driving on the street. We found cabs waiting around curbs, and the drivers asked outrageous prices, such as RMB80-RMB100 (near $13-$16) for a trip that had cost only RMB15 outbound.

When heading to a mall, we usually took a taxi because malls looked the same as the surrounding buildings and could be difficult to identify. We then either walked or took the subway back. A subway ride cost RMB2, or about 30¢.

Fresno, CA