Sipping on tea and reading old books is so cliché (but not if it’s in a tiny Pagoda)
The second branch of well-respected Qianmen antique Zhengyang Bookstore, run by owner Cui Yong, this Xisi location shares a courtyard with the small Pagoda of Monk Wansong.
Originally built in the Yuan Dynasty, the Pagoda was inaccessible in modern times until the construction of subway Line 4 in 2007 lead to the demolition of buildings surrounding it. Last year, Zhengyang Bookstore moved into the space. Books for sale date back several decades, and while the majority of volumes are in Chinese, a small selection are English language.
Bring a bit of cash as price tags aren’t bargain bin level – plan on RMB50-150 (Dhs29.50-88.70) a book – but it can be well worth it. Tea is sold for RMB68-108 (Dhs40-64) a pot and can be sipped leisurely at tables in the tranquil courtyard. A small exhibition room displays old photographs of the site, with historical descriptions
Adjacent to Zhengyang Bookstore is Zhuanta Hutong, which is said to be the oldest hutong in Beijing. Dating from the Yuan Dynasty (1267-1368), it’s known as the earliest recorded alley and thus the foundation of Beijing’s famous hutongs. Renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun lived at No 84 from 1923, which is why the hutong was ultimately preserved rather than demolished like many of its compatriots – not because it was, say, incredibly historical in its own right or anything.
A members’ club that’s actually legal (and cool)
This intimate members’ club a few doors down from the raucous Great Leap #12 Brewpub might be one of our favourite secrets. Opened in 2005 by husband-and-wife team Wu Jianxin and Sarah Morgan-Wu as a platform for creative and engaged community members, Qingping Huiguan’s gorgeous two-storey space is at once comfortable and refined, accented with reclaimed, roughly hewn wood, elegant latticework screens and slate flagstone floors. While it’s fundamentally a members’ club, it’s a lesser-known fact that the secluded outdoor courtyard and first-floor bar is open to walk-ins and passers-by. But wait, wait, there’s more – the biggest scoop is that, although membership to the club itself is fully booked, a separate RMB200 (Dhs118)lifelong membership to the newly launched Mumu Café on the second floor actually allows access to the entire building, provided you dress in the required business attire (which pretty much just means no shorts). Before the café opened, access to the plush members-only area was accessible only by fingerprint access on a terracotta warrior replica. (No, we’re not joking.)
Business in Beijing doesn’t only happen over karaoke or golf
Honestly, anything halfway decent on Lucky Street feels like a surprise. It’s a hot neon mess, but this jam-packed strip of businesses does actually boast a smattering of diamonds in the rough. Japanese bar Mohiki and its restaurant K’s Kitchen are worth a trip alone. The weirdest gem we’ve spotted, though, is Alpha Wing, a combo karaoke bar and virtual golf venture, marked only by an understated sign.
Down a flight of dark stairs, Alpha Wing contains four virtual golf simulators and two adjacent karaoke rooms. Prices are the same for both golf and karaoke – a neat sum of RMB160 (Dhs94) per hour for up to five. While you aren’t able to simultaneously belt out ‘My Heart Will Go On’ while practising your swing and screaming ‘fore!’ at the top of your lungs, it’s a deadly combination we can get behind at any hour. Head to Maiden Voyage, the classy hidden basement bar under Chongqing Spice Girls Restaurant next door. Zig-a-zig-aaah!
The Japanese are #winning at hidden bars and restaurants. Here’s three of them
Ambassador of Chicken Wings (ACW)
From street level, there’s no hint of this charmingly named izakaya that’s stolen away on the second floor of a humdrum office building on the west side of Chaoyang Park. ACW takes pride in its five varieties of fried chicken wings (RMB24-30 (Dhs14-17) for five pieces). Choose from a selection of typical Japanese mixed drinks, or invest in a bottle of to keep behind the bar for future visits.
Bar lori is squirreled away in the lobby of a nondescript hotel off Xingfucun Zhong Lu. Rock up on a weekend night and you’ll likely be one of only a few parties in this tiny, classy bar fitted out with plush, red leather chairs. Owner Oitate Takao mixes up expertly executed drinks at standard prices for the area.
Tucked away in a grey, characterless courtyard of offices in south Sanlitun, Ishikawa has made its name in unagi (roasted eel). Ishikawa touts two styles: Osaka, where the eel goes straight over the coals, or Tokyo, where it’s steamed first before grilling. Lunch sets are excellent value, priced between RMB46-70 (Dhs27-41).
Speakeasies aren’t just for bars… apparently they’re for breakfast, too
Known as Daxing Hutong Miancha, this enterprise can hardly be considered a restaurant. But starting at 6am every morning, you’ll notice a motley crew of schoolchildren, middle-aged office workers and grandparents collected around the red doorway of 7 Daxing Hutong, just off Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie. Everyone has a bowl in hand and is attentively sipping on miancha, or ‘flour tea’. In fact, it has little to do with tea, instead it’s a traditional old Beijing millet and rice flour porridge topped with a thick layer of sesame paste and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
Wander back into the hutong courtyard to the husband-and-wife team’s tiny kitchen (they’ve been running this breakfast operation out of their home since 1994) and make your order (RMB3 (Dhs1.75) per bowl, pay after) before posting up on the street for a hearty morning meal.
Not-so-secret secret bars
This speakeasy-style watering hole opened in 2014 and quickly gained popularity. The entrance on Xindong Lu leads into a small, dead-end foyer. Press the ‘light switch’ next to a bookshelf and suddenly it slides to the side, revealing a cosy interior
with booth seating and 1920s decorative finishes.
A visit here means popping into Stadium Dog at Gate 10 of the Workers’ Stadium. The bar’s name is posted on the awning outside, but once inside the hot dog stand, there’s little sign of it. Head to the back where a lone white button on a grey brick wall begs to be pressed. The wall slides aside, leading into a cavernous space.
Ancient Chinese music? Actually totally off-the-hook, believe it or not
Wedged between the shadow of Galaxy Soho and the ritzy Jinbao Jie, Zhihua has been quietly going along with its business for more than 500 years. It’s a gem of a find, smack in the middle of the city. Constructed by the emperor’s favourite servant, 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 RMB20 (Dhs12). A permanent exhibition with excellent English translations and photographs, gives a detailed history of Zhihua .
Smog capital of the world? Yeah maybe, but there’s also great nature
Wild Duck Lake
In Yanqing county lies the protected wetlands of Wild Duck Lake (Yayahu). You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more perfect oasis of tranquillity and natural splendour anywhere in Beijing. Once you’re past the duckfeeding wharf at the entrance gate, most Chinese visitors, deterred by the long distances involved, 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 RMB50 (Dhs29.50) 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 birdwatching 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 north-eastern shore of the reservoir. Two locations in particular are frequently visited by birding pilgrims: Houbajiazhuang and Bulaotun. Both are free to access. Visit birdingbeijing.com for more info and a comprehensive guide to the area.
Need to know
Air China flies direct to Beijing from Dhs2,286 return.