Cond´E nast travElEr /
Day 1 (Saturday):
ake it from someone who has navigated China’ssprawling capital by subway, bicycle, taxi, and rick-shaw: By far the most efficient way to sightsee is by carwhen traffic is light—which is over a weekend—with adriver who drops you off at one end of a sight or street andpicks you up at the other, so you needn’t waste time back- tracking. If you land in Beijing on a Friday, you can recoverfrom your transpacific flightwith a good night’s sleep andstart your itinerary at the op- timal time: Saturday morning.Your hotel? For ambience ona budget, try the Hotel CôtéCour SL (86-10-6512-8020;hotelcotecoursl.com; dou-bles, $168–$268), a 14-roomproperty in a traditional court-yard compound once inhabited bydancers and musicians of the imperial court.If you’re up for a splurge, however, consider the ChinaClub Beijing (86-10-6603-8855; thechinaclubbeijing.com; junior suites, $385), an elegant members-only club in anantiques-filled courtyard-style sixteenth-century palace.Only a few elite tour companies—Abercrombie & Kent,for instance—have access to eight impeccable suites thatare furnished with old-fashioned traditional canopy bedsand freestanding tubs.So it’s Saturday morning, you’ve slept through the night(thank you, melatonin), and it’s time to throw yourself into the historic center of Beijing, right? Wrong. On Saturdaymornings, the Forbidden City—the imperial palace com-pound that was off-limits to the masses for 500 years—iscrammed with domestic-Chinese tour groups, each groupwearing matching baseball caps and scurrying after theirflag-waving leader. They tend to diminish the majesty of theMing dynasty courtyards that served as the seat of govern-ment until the last emperor abdicated at the start of the twentieth century.
So save the Forbidden City for thisafternoon, once the crowds have thinned, and headinstead to the Capital Museum, which at 9
.will be virtually empty.
The Capital Museum(86-10-6337-0491; capitalmuseum.org.cn) is a brand-new airy architecturalknockout filled with innova- tive 3-D displays that intro-duce you to Chinese cus- toms and traditions. Youneed only 90 minutes thereand to visit only two floors.On the second floor is a time line that tells you what was happening in Beijing at the samemoment as key events in Europe and the United States, soyou can put China’s history in context. On the fifth floorare reproductions of Chinese homes and street scenes.Both will magnify your appreciation of everything elseyou’ll see in Beijing.Now that you can envision how locals have lived for cen- turies in Beijing’s traditional residential alleyways—called
—you are ready to explore them yourself. Haveyour car drop you off at Liulichang Street—a boulevard of antiques and curio shops south of Tiananmen Square. Walk
How do a traveler’s best-laid plans get foiledin China? Let me count the ways. First, there’s the rise of the country’s enormous and newly traveling middle class, which has caused manypreviously charming spots to become overrunwith domestic tourists and overbuilt for themass market. Second, things in China changeovernight—structures go up, neighborhoodsare bulldozed, the government rewrites therules—which means it’s tough to get accuratelogistical information or trustworthy opinionsas to what is worth doing and what’s beenspoiled; guidebooks are out-of-date as soonas they’re published; and advice from anyonewho has not been to the specific destinationson your list within the past few months is notreliable. Third, there’s the pollution, whichwrecks views and curtails your enjoyment of the big cities that the typical China itinerary isheavy on. Fourth, the Chinese tourism infra-structure inflicts a government-dictatedmass-market agenda that is not very appeal-ing to the sophisticated traveler. Get withinits clutches—as happens on the average tour,including private ones—and you will wasteconsiderable time at ho-hum places, navigat-ing them in a way that is not optimal, with de- tours for forced shopping, meals at generic tourist restaurants, and layers of middlemenextracting as much money as possible fromyou along the way.Sound dreadful? But wait, there’s more. Sayyou’re an independent traveler with limited time who wants to experience a smart comboof China’s highlights as well as its off-the-beaten-path gems. Since a car is vital and foreigners arerarely allowed to rent one, most travel plan-ners will set you up with a private car and driv-er, plus an English-speaking guide, in each of thedestinations on your itinerary. These guideswill make or—if you’ve chosen the wrong trav-el planner—break your trip. Normally, guidesin China are trained to lead you to what thegovernment has determined will interest you,as opposed to what will actually interest you.They are conditioned to be highly inflexible and to pad their pitifully small paychecks with kick-backs from stores (thus the forced shopping)and with gratuities from you (which is why it isnot uncommon to feel emotionally manipulat-ed by them). So where do you find a China travel planner with up-to-date information, re-liable taste, special access, and flexible, custom-er-friendly guides who understand what ispleasing to the eye and authentic rather than a tourist trap, and how do you avoid lines andcrowds and pick the restaurants, shops, and ac- tivities that are worthwhile?
Man visios o Bijin ak a
o b ickshaw in h Ho Hai aa, b hscan fl QuIte tOurISty. Insad, walkhoh h aa na Lilichan S
o’ll scobbls paiin shos, ocs dlivin podc,and sidns ppain lnch osid (h a of-n no indoo cookin o plmbin faciliis).
Bin o cama oDa Don roas Dckrsaan so o cancap h chfs a wokin h kichn and o sv slicin p h ma a o abl as if in achooaphd danc.
Fo h solion, s pa 100. >>