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9 places in Beijing that look nothing like Beijing

Lose yourself (or even find yourself) at these oddball locations

A baby Bavarian castle at Beijing World Park

Château Laffitte Hotel

Where am I?
The beautiful Château de Maisons-Laffitte, in the Parisian suburbs.

Impossible, I took a Didi here. I'm definitely still in Beijing.
Okay, maybe you are. But, Toto, we're not in Chaoyang anymore. We've followed the yellow brick road all the way out to Beijing's northern Changping district, to the Château Laffitte Hotel, an excruciatingly faithful reproduction of architect François Mansart’s 17th century Baroque marvel. After developing a dangerous infatuation for the original edifice, moneybags property tycoon Zhang Yuchen decided that splashing out 50 million USD to build one of his own was the only reasonable solution to such lust.

Using original blueprints and over 10,000 photographs, his army of minions painstakingly replicated the château brick-for-brick, decking it out with identical installations of crystal chandeliers, intricate wall murals and pristine marble floors. But for Monsieur Zhang, this level of opulence simply wasn't enough; upgrades were made by adding essentials that Mansart had so erroneously forgotten to include back in 1630, such as a moat, a golf course, a wine museum and, oh yeah, two more châteaus to flank the centrepiece. Hotel guests can also baroque their socks off and luxuriate in the spa or enjoy the palatial grandeur of the Presidential Suite for a cool 12,800RMB a night. Vive la Replica!

Take Line 5 to Tiantongyuan North; taxi required from there.

Moscow Restaurant

Where am I?
You're loading up on a belly full of borscht in the Russian capital.

Pretty sure I got off the subway at Beijing Zoo, what's the catch?
Okay, we lied again, but an evening’s dining at Beijing's first foreign eatery is your express ticket to the other end of the Trans-Siberian railway. Set in a cavernous Xicheng ballroom, the Moscow Restaurant has prided itself on its ostentatious Soviet aura ever since opening in 1954, with elegantly embellished high ceilings, robust emerald pillars and grandiose lighting fixtures creating an atmosphere that harks back to a time when the winters were cold and the wars even colder.

While its hearty spread of comfort food might not be the kreme de la Kremlin, the accompanying, balalaika-shreddin' folk performances and, of course, copious amounts of vodka make for an enjoyable and authentic Russian experience, sure to pull an iron curtain between you and the Beijing reality beyond its doors.

Beijing Zoo (Line 4).

Longqing Gorge

Where am I?
Floating down the Li River in Guilin, southern China.

No I'm not, I'm riding an escalator up a mountainside and, dear God, when will it ever end?
Well, no time soon as, at 258 metres long, it's the world’s longest outdoor escalator and it's right here at Beijing's Longqing Gorge, just an hour and a half away from the city centre. Did we mention it's shaped like a dragon? Once you've completed your passage through the beast's fiery digestive system, you will be met by the impressive and imposing vista of the Gucheng River carving through jagged sugarloaf mountains. But if immense natural beauty, river cruises and reptilian escalators aren't sufficiently high-octane for you, worry not thrillseeker, as a variety of activities are on offer to help you score that adrenaline fix, including bungee jumping, rock climbing and animal petting.

Buses leave from Deshengmen bus station, near Jishuitan (Line 2).

Central Perk

IMG_3166 (1)

Where am I?

Manhattan. Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA.

I'm happily married with a stable job.

Then maybe Beijing's very own replica of Friends' beloved dive caf isn't the place for you. Tucked away on the sixth floor of the modern Chaowai SOHO, it's got the famous sofa, the dingy lighting and even and a half-decent mockup of Chandler and Joey's man-cave apartment next door, though it’s all just a little bit stuck in second gear. The place has become a sort of shrine for megafans who gather around the TV set, which plays – you guessed it – Friends, all day, every day.

Chaowai SOHO, Dongdaqiao (Line 6).

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Xuanwumen

Where am I?
Making a church-hopping stop at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, somewhere in Western Europe.

It's got TV screens on the front of it – I'm definitely still in China.
Oh, you're sharp. Pews are at a premium inside this Xuanwumen church, but rest easy modern pilgrim, Chinese iMass is broadcast out front in full surround sound – a contemporary counterpoint to its intricately carved Baroque façade and stained-glass windows. Regardless of your beliefs, a trip to the church makes for an intriguing escape from the boxy Beijing jungle. One of only four remaining European-style churches in the city, the site has been a place of Roman Catholic worship since 1605, though the centuries since have been a bit of a roller coaster ride, with various emperors, earthquakes, fires and rebels periodically tearing it down; the current structure dates back to 1904, making it the oldest church in the city. Sunday services are offered in English.

Xuanwumen (Lines 2 & 4).

99 Yurts

yurt 1

Where am I?

You’re in a yurt on the grassy plains of Mongolia.

I'm on the concrete plains of Beijing, but yes, do tell me about the yurts.

Bought from Mongolian and Kazakh families and transported to Haidian district, the 68 yurts that make up the cosy dining rooms of the 99 Yurts restaurant offer an adventurous escape on a frosty winter's eve. While they might not be so good at counting yurts, the authentically Mongolian staff, their authentically Mongolian dances and throat singing create what feels like just the right ambience in which to carnivorously devour a whole roasted lamb. Be sure to sample some Mongolian dairy delicacies too, with various cheese and yoghurt-based dishes available, as well as free-flowing milk tea.

Babaoshan (Line 1).

Rendinghu Park


Where am I?

The gardens of Tivoli's Villa d'Este, just north of Rome.


Well, sort of. When it had a little makeover back in '95, Xicheng's Rendinghu Park did take the Renaissance beauty of the Italian gardens as its inspiration, though it does lack the obvious grandeur, protruding mountains 'n' fountains and the odd UNESCO World Heritage rating here and there. Nonetheless, the sculptures, statues and archways that line the lawn near its south gate are a welcome change from your average pagoda and amusement-laden concreterie. And what’s that you say? Actual grass, that you can actually sit your actual bum on? Yes, rejoice in the majesty of being able to sit on grass at many spots surrounding the lake on the park's northern side.

Andelibeijie (Line 8).

Beijing World Park

Where am I?
Literally everywhere you've ever dreamed of going.

Honey, they shrunk the Pyramids!
They sure did, and a bucket-list-busting 108 more of the world's wonders and most-loved landmarks, all scaled-down in both size and splendour for you, the would-be globetrotter. Since opening in 1993, Beijing World Park has allowed millions of visitors to cross the Golden Gate Bridge in a matter of seconds, careen through the not-so-Grand Canyon and play president in front of the off-White House. The USA: done.

Heading east, you are presented with the unprecedented opportunity to take in a questionably colossal Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower in one panoramic pivot, before moving onto Red Square and the Taj Mahal, via a quick camel ride at the Great Pyramid of Giza. You can even culturally appropriate yourself silly by dressing up in traditional garments of nations various and posing for photos that will fool your friends and make your family jealous. With entry a mere 100RMB, it may leave you wondering why you ever forked out for that Rome trip back in '07.

Dabaotai (Fangshan Line).

Former Foreign Legation Quarter


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Where am I?

Belgium, France, Britain, sod it, I don't even know any more.

I'm tired of this game too.

Okay then, so you're in the Former Foreign Legation Quarter, home to 11 diplomatic dens of yesteryear, and just a stone's throw away from the east of Tiananmen (though throwing any form of missile round there’s probably a bad move). In its 19th century glory days, the quarter and its embassies were the laowai's own Forbidden City, off-limits to all Chinese, but how the tables have turned – the majority of the buildings are now occupied by government divisions and not open to the public. However, a saunter down the tree-lined Dongjiaomin Xiang is a refreshing architectural stroll, with highlights including the pillar-fronted former American Citibank building (now the Beijing Police Museum), the single-storied former French Post Office and the ornate St. Michael’s Church. The narrow, shaded park that splits Zhengyi Lu and runs up towards Chang'an Road also makes for an excellent stop-off with a distinctly European feel.

Chongwenmen (Lines 2 & 5).

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Tue 27 Aug
Rendinghu Park is actually quite an esoteric find. What strikes you most is the thought and care that has gone into the wide selection of trees, shrub and plant in thoughtfully themed and balanced ways, from evergreen pine to seasonal. It also boasts the rare and unusual feature of a fair number of Beijing blackbirds that might remind you of old or new England, and even low flying martins threading their flitter tips in their slow meander through the trees. They will even rise to a matching pair crescendo like a single hand clap as if swapping food, then fly close to a statuesque watching human face before veering away. Notable for having so many happy seeming birds. And many oldsters taking their retirement closer to nature's return while young mothers hold their babes high and point to the dancing butterfly or dragonfly.