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Travel watch: Beijing - planet pavement

The City

The overnight bullet train pulls into the station and several hundred passengers pour out into the station. A logjam forms at the exit as attendants ask to see tickets. This first experience with Beijing traffic is followed quickly by a taxi line of more than 100 people, which leads you into morning rush-hour traffic on one of Beijing’s four ring roads.

Emerging from the smog, you find a city bustling with a newfound _ and quite deserved _ post-Olympic air. While reaching to the future with modern mass-transit, rose-lined highways and futuristic buildings, Beijing also clings to its ancient dynastic past in a way no other Chinese city can. Get lost in the labyrinth that is the Forbidden City. Gaze into the sky above the Temple of Heaven. Take a royal holiday at the New Summer Palace. And scale one of the world’s most impressive sites _ The Great Wall of China.

Back in the taxi, one sharp turn off the main road instantly transports you to the China of yesteryear. Bicycles are the main form of transportation and few buildings reach beyond two stories high. These are Beijing’s Hutong. With more and more of these neighborhoods being constructed daily to make room for new high-rise apartment blocks, the battle between old and new is being played out before your eyes.

The gay scene is not as open or thumping as Shanghai, but the increasingly affluent, well-educated and forward-thinking younger generation has carved out a scene that is both accessible and interesting. Indeed, while Shanghai attempts to claim the top spot in China, Beijing refuses to go down without a fight. Some things never change.

The Lay of the Land

Beijing is enormous and most easily accessed by taxis. The Forbidden City and Tianamen Square mark city center, with four major “ring roads” radiating outward. Most hotels, restaurants and sites are within the first two ring roads, with the Summer Palace situated northwest of city center. The Great Wall is roughly 70 miles from Beijing. The remaining Hutong is clustered immediately east and north of the Forbidden City and continues to be the best part of town to find accommodation based on price and accessibility. Major nightlife _ gay and straight _ centers around Sanlitun, flowing north along Sanlitun Street and south into the Worker’s Stadium area.

The Gay

China is definitely not opening the floodgates to equal rights any time soon. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997 and it wasn’t until 2001 that homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses. No homophobic attacks had been reported in recent years. This is probably due in part to the exceptionally low amount of violent crime in China. Beijing, like Shanghai, is one of the world’s safest large cities.

The Gay(borhood)

There is no dedicated gayborhood, per se. Most nightlife, however, is western-focused, meaning that venues tend to be mixed and accepting. Club Destination, however, is the epicenter of Beijing’s gay scene.

The Must-Sees and Must-Dos

While Beijing does have a fairly extensive subway system, you could easily spend hours walking from station to site to station again. Opt for taxis. For about $3 you can ride across the center of town. This is the ideal way to see the city. Grab a map when you arrive. All suggestions are noted in their relation to the Forbidden City, which will be at the center of any map.

1. The Great Wall of China. (Mutianyu, Jinshaling and Simatai access points. Arrange transportation in Beijing for next-day visits.) No site on Earth quite compares to the size and scope of this awe-inspiring masterpiece. Avoid Badaling at all costs unless you want to be chased by touts all day. Mutianyu is an excellent choice for good views and easy trekking. If you have the oomph in you, opt for the daylong, six-mile hike from Jinshaling to Simatai. Bookable at The New Dragon Hostel even if you aren’t staying with them. $45 all-day including round-trip transportation, entry fees, chair lift, zip line and lunch. Departs daily at 6 a.m., returning at 7 p.m.

2. The Forbidden City and Tianamen Square . (City center) The Forbidden City was home to an innumerable number of China’s late dynastic rulers and is the largest complex of its kind in the world. Opt for the GPS-led audio tour, but test it before you wander too far ($4 entry, $6 audio guide). Tianamen Square pours outward from The Forbidden City and while there is nothing in particular to “see,” wander from one side to the other. It is the world’s largest central square. You’ll be able to tell.

3. Mao’s Mausoleum. (South side of Tianamen Square) Mao is embalmed in a diamond-encrusted glass box. Open 8 a.m. to noon almost daily, with frequent closures due to “special reasons.” You can’t bring ANYTHING in with you, so leave it at the hotel or use the locker service across the street. Free.

4. The Temple of Heaven. (Southeast of Tianamen Square) This is where the emperor came to pray for good harvests and make sacrifices to the gods. The round pagoda is otherworldly, as is the three-story marble altar. Don’t miss the echo wall as well. $4 entry, $6 audio guide.

5. The Summer Palace. (Northwest Beijing, just outside the fourth ring road) Where the nobility dealt with the long hot Beijing summer. Set on a lake and nestled into the side of a mountain, the palace is markedly cooler than downtown. Intricate paintings on every surface, as well as the marble sailboat, are gorgeous. $4 entry, $6 audio guide.

6. Jinshan Park. (Immediately north of the Forbidden City) This park is best on Sunday, when Chinese people pour in to karaoke, ballroom dance, sing, play accordion and even attend choir practice. There is nothing quite like it. Make sure to climb to the top of the pagoda for the Beijing’s best view, a panoramic look at the Forbidden City and beyond.

7. Hutongs By bike. (both north and east of the Forbidden City) Rent a bike ($4 for the day) at one of the numerous shops lining the streets around the Forbidden City and get yourself good and lost in the Hutongs. There is an abundance of character and charm on this very different side of Beijing.

8. Houhai Lake. (Northwest of the Forbidden City, immediately west of the Drum and Bell towers) Paddle boats, western food and rooftop terraces line this picturesque lake. Coffee-shop vibe by day, happening bar scene by night, Houhai is where you’ll find Beijing’s nouveau rich on Saturday nights.

9. Acrobatics Show. (Book at a travel agent or through The New Dragon Hostel, where round-trip transportation and admission cost $23.) While there are numerous shows in town, the one featuring Sichuan province definitely stands out. The plate spinning, fanciful bike riding, contortionists and muscular gymnasts will blow your mind.

The Crash Pad

Beijing is like any major city, with the usual selection of chain hotels and local wonders. It is often cheaper to book a hotel room than a hostel. Hotels.com and Asia Rooms offer a wide selection. Here are just a few:

• The New Dragon Hostel, No. 26 Shijia Huton Dongcheng District, Beijing. Two Chinese restaurants nearby, decent rooms, tour arrangement and excellent location make The New Dragon Hostel pretty ideal. Double room with private bathroom, $25 a night. Remember, you can bargain for anything in China, including a hostel room.

• Beijing Oriental Culture Hotel, No. 101 Jiao Dao Kou East Street, Dong Cheng District, Beijing. On the northern fringe of a Hutong, this four-star hotel _ while absent of any real personality _ is clean, has a lovely staff and is equally well-located. $40 per night for two double beds, sleeping up to four.

While Beijing is not China’s shopping capital, it does have its hot spots and soft spots.

• The Silk Market. As you might imagine, this is the place for silk as well as bags, watches, sunglasses and custom-made clothes. Ask vendors inside for their recommendation on high-quality pearls as standards at the Pearl Market have been questionable in recent months.

• Wangfujing Street. (one block east of the Forbidden City) A pedestrian street lined with most of the usual suspects, this is the place to grab antique chopsticks or an Outback Steakhouse dinner. Oh, globalization!

The Eats

International city means international cuisine in every possible way. The best way to eat a delicious meal is to stumble upon a small Chinese restaurant in a Hutong and use pointing and miming to get what looks tasty to you. Here are a few additional recommendations:

• Chinese

• Da Dong. (22 Dongsishitiao, Doncheng District, Beijing, +86-10-5169-0328) Without a doubt the most delicious duck you’ll ever taste. Full presentation service as well as a 300-page menu make Da Dong a must-visit. Free wine while you wait for your table. Quite possibly the best meal this writer has ever had. $18 includes duck and a cocktail.

• The Local. (Everywhere) Look for neon lights and wooden numbered tables, then sneak in armed with a food-translation guide or a wandering eye. Just point to what looks good on other tables. The sweet and sour pork (pronounced: Goo-Laos-Row) is delectable.

• Western

• Element Fresh. (The Village at Sanlitun, Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District) Offering a mix of western and pan-Asian fair, the brunch menu has the most rewarding entrees on offer. Don’t miss the chocolate banana soy protein power shake. It’s perfect after a big night out. $13.

• Blue Frog. (The Village at Sanlitun, Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, +86-10-6417-4030) The best burger in Beijing, even up against Outback Steakhouse. The Sanlitun branch has an enormous outdoor patio perfect for al fresco dining and stargazing.

• Bits & Bobs

• Sanlitun. This bustling bar district is also home to Vietnamese, Mexican and British cuisine as well as several kebob vendors. Get it to go and eat on the street like the Chinese do.

• Supermarkets. This could be listed under Must-Sees and Must-Dos as well. Chinese supermarkets are a tourist attraction in and of themselves. Don’t miss the rice, tea and fish sections. More traditional fare is also available.

• Baozi. Stuffed buns are the perfect breakfast food. Look for big round bamboo steamers. They come in both meat and vegetable varieties. 20 cents per bun.

The Nightlife

If Shanghai has gone for luxurious, Beijing has gone for kitschy cool and affordable. Nightlife _ gay and straight _ cluster around Sanlitun and the Worker’s Stadium Area, with a few hot spots further afield.

• Gay

• Sanlitun

• The Boat. (8 Liangmahe South Road west of Sanlitun North Street) Literally on a boat in the water. Though claiming “mixed scene” status, a hefty part of the crowd is undoubtedly gay. Drinks $4 and up.

• Mesh. (The Opposite House, 1 Sanlitun Bei Rd, Sanlitun) Once just a Friday night gay happy hour, Mesh is now gay seven nights a week. Diverse crowd of locals and expats. Drinks $4 and up.

• Worker’s Stadium West Area

• Destination 7 Gongti Xi Lu. (near the Workers' Stadium) Beijing’s capital of gay. Two floors (that I could find), lounge areas, dance floors, disco balls, DJs and poles to dance on. $10 to $15 cover, depending on the day and featured DJ. Always includes an ENORMOUS cocktail.

• Further Afield

• The Golden Sun Bar. (Golden Sun Commercial Hotel, lower level) Beijing’s best drag shows run Thursday to Sunday, 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. No cover charge. Drinks $5 and up.

• Still OK

• Both the Sanlitun and the Worker’s Stadium area are home to dozens of bars that are all welcoming and have mixed crowds. Try Kai’s and Smuggler’s in Sanlitun for Beijing’s famous $1.35 shots and mixed drinks. Be advised that while it may be coming out of a Jose Cuervo bottle, you’re probably drinking local liquor. But hey, when in China...

The Tips and Tricks

• Bike the Hutongs. There is no better way to see what is left of Old Beijing. Stop off to mime with locals, snap photos or just people watch as the hours fly by.

• Great Wall from Jinshaling to Simatai. This hike is fairly new, running from one wall site to another. While the hike is no doubt strenuous at over six miles, it offers an excellent look at restored and not-so-restored sections of the wall. Crowds are minimal.

• Audio guides. They are offered at all the big sites in Beijing. While excellent sources of information, they don’t always work. Make sure to test yours out before wandering too far from the entrance.

• Taxi, taxi This is definitely the best way to get around in a timely and affordable manner. Always demand they use the meter or walk away. At big tourist spots, “moonlighters” will linger, hoping to overcharge an unsuspecting visitor.