If you're trying to escape the tourist-beaten path in the heart of Beijing, head to one of these lesser-known tourist destinations instead: discover some real vintage markets and communist propaganda, visit a temple that's not the Temple of Heaven or the Lama Temple, dig out your binoculars and do some bird-watching, check out a tomb or two and much more.
Track down Communist kitsch
There are 'markets' (state sanctioned), and then there are markets. Panjiayuan market is hardly secret. The open-air ‘Antique Market’ along the Southeast Third Ring Road offers a veritable bounty of knick-knacks and antique oddities. Put aside any far- fetched dreams that that porcelain dish actually has survived since the Ming Dynasty and you’ll be happy enough with gorgeous replicas that really are only found so easily in China.
But rip yourself out of the official Panjiayuan market and, on early weekend mornings, head a block south where you’ll find an informal, unofficial street market – and we're talking a real market – running south along Huawei Nanlu. The whole scene has a super casual flea market, yard sale atmosphere; roll up your sleeves and get ready for some hard bargaining. Vendors are selling everything from housewares and decorations to clothing and shoes. It might not look like the Ming Dynasty but it’ll certainly have Communist kitsch flair, a guarantee of authenticity and agreeable prices at under 50RMB for most items.
Beijing's Time Chase Tour
Communist propaganda still exists. Yeah, no s**t – it’s all over the city, we hear you say. But wait, we’re talking about the vintage stuff from Mao’s era. Bespoke Beijing’s Time Chase tour features two original pieces of Maoist propaganda in their original locations, and they’re quite the treat. Swing by the eastern end of Fuxue Hutong, where you’ll see Lei Feng’s iconic mug still plastered (tattered, but there) on the south wall. At 65 Dongsishisitiao, there’s an uncovered portion of Mao looking real regal. You’ll have to step into the residents’ courtyard so be respectful, but the faded image, and all its embedded history, is something to see.
(Re)Discover ancient China
Wedged between the shadow of Galaxy Soho and the ritzy Jinbao Jie, Zhihua Temple has been quietly going along with its business for over 500 years. It’s a gem of a find, smack in the middle of the city. Constructed by the emperor’s favourite eunuch Wang Zhen in 1444, Zhihua has been well known as a centre for traditional court music since its inception. Short-but- impressive performances occur twice daily (10am and 3pm). Performances are free with entry, which is 20RMB. A permanent exhibition, with excellent English translations and photographs, gives a detailed history of the temple. Ancient Chinese music is actually totally off-the-hook, believe it or not.
Poly Art Museum
Everyone’s seen the hulking glass and concrete facade of New Poly Plaza (not to be confused with old Poly Plaza, of Poly Theatre fame, directly across the Dongsishitiao station roundabout) but few know that it contains one of the city’s best – if hardly its biggest – museums. Backed by state money, Poly Art Museum's mission has been to acquire and protect Chinese relics, including 3,000-year-old bronze vessels, some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing and some stunning bronze animal heads that were looted from the Old Summer Palace in the Second Opium War and have since been returned.
It's time to get crafty. Just a short way from the Temple of Heaven, Baigongfang
– literally ‘The Hundred Crafts Workshop’ – might seem like the ideal place to pick up some decor for the home, but it is much, much more than that. Set up to protect Chinese crafts that are in danger of extinction, Baigongfang harbours master rug weavers, model makers, glass blowers, tapestry makers and many more. They might even teach you a thing or two, if you ask nicely…
China hasn’t always had an easy relationship with foreigners, but there are places in Beijing that show how they have been accepted and even celebrated by the city. One such example is Zhalan Cemetery
. This small but attractive location contains the graves of 88 Jesuits who opened up scientific and cultural dialogues with China in the 1600s. It’s the perfect place to reflect on China’s changing attitudes towards the West (perhaps while sipping on a latte from Starbucks), as it has been alternately attacked and protected according to changing political winds.
Tian Yi's Tomb
You'll have a ball with history at this location. The tomb of Tian Yi
, China’s most celebrated eunuch, doesn’t get as many visitors as the Forbidden City, the epicentre of Beijing’s eunuch history for many. Which is a shame because it remains the only fully preserved eunuch tomb in the city, with all its pomp and carvings intact. There is also a Eunuch Culture Museum at the site for added cringey entertainment.
Explore the great outdoors
Wild Duck Lake
In Yangqing County lies the 'birding capital' of urban China – the protected wetlands of Wild Duck Lake. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more perfect oasis of tranquillity and natural splendour anywhere in Beijing. Once you're past the duck-feeding wharf at the entrance gate, most visitors stick to pedalling rented four-person quadricycles around the largest of several lakes, leaving the reed-lined pools and marshes of the rest of the park blissfully deserted.
Birdwatchers can expect an abundance of waterfowl, while those simply in need of peace and quiet can enjoy a picnic by a pool teeming with carp, or in a tiny wooden lodge with a view of the distant Purple Mountains. Come early and spend a full day wandering the pathways and experience a kind of serenity you didn’t know was possible in Beijing. Well worth the 50RMB entrance fee.
If you want to get serious about your birding, the unsung Miyun Reservoir northeast of the city centre is, unexpectedly, a premier location. These massive, manmade wetlands boast a wealth of wildlife. In the spring and autumn, the reservoir’s bird- watching hits world-class standards as it’s smack in the middle of the East Asian flyway for migration. In fact, over 100 species have been spotted in a day during peak season.
As of April 2015, the best birding spots are around the northern and northeastern shore of the reservoir. Two locations in particular are frequently visited by birding pilgrims: Houbajiazhuang and Bulaotun. Both are free to access. Take a look at the website for more info and a comprehensive guide to the area.
Black Bamboo Park
Thanks to a disagreement between locals and foreign botanists, Black Bamboo Park
is known as Purple Bamboo Park (Zizhuyuan
) in Chinese. But whatever its name, this is a lovely alternative to the more popular and touristy parks in the city, even in winter. Pair it up with a visit to the nearby Wanshou Temple (6842 3565), which contains the Beijing Art Museum, for a relaxing day out.