GetMaking on Tour: Hello Beijing!

January 26, 2015

As you may have picked up from our Instagram and Facebook posts GetMaking was lucky enough to recently visit Beijing. It was an incredible trip and I've shared some adventures, recommendations on where to stay, tips and useful links below.

The Opposite Hotel: definitely the place to stay. The foyer, the art, the pool and reception.

Beijing is all about the ring roads - at the centre of the city is the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square and then the 8 ring roads stretch out to the suburbs. It's a navigation thing: you'll want to know where you are staying and going in relation to the nearest ring road. At the very centre of the city is the Forbidden City (tip: watch 'The Last Emperor' before you go) which is then surrounded by a crazy juxtaposition of hutongs (literally 'alleyways') of traditional one storey houses and then amazing modern architecture like the huge CCTV  building in the very extravagant commercial district.

Beijing is huge - pretty much the entire population of Australia in one city - although I thought old Beijing (the area surrounding the Forbidden City and within the 2nd ring road) didn't feel so big as most traditional buildings are only one storey high. That said, there can be a lot of people so even though the buildings are not high the streets can be very crowded. Beijing is an attraction for Chinese tourists as much as for international visitors - to visit the capital is a big deal.

I found people very helpful and accommodating - like most places if you learn how to say hello (Ni Hao!) and smile a lot people help. Always keep a card with your hotel name and address written in Cantonese as it's very unlikely that your taxi driver will speak English, although I had great fun with one driver who tried out all his English phrases on me!

Where to stay:
I spent the first few days staying in a standard chain hotel which shall remain nameless, and only served to highlight the amazing experience of The Opposite House. Very much a design hotel, it is beautiful with big open spaces, careful attention given to textures and light and filled with modern Chinese art from the famous Red Gate Gallery. Check-in was a blissful, streamlined experience. Instead of the usual giant check-in desk with tired travellers on one side and the front of house staff on the other, The Opposite House has a row of simple wooden pillars holding a computer tablet with staff standing nearby - just hand over your passport, take a seat in the lounge and the staff come over to confirm your details: check in is done.

The rooms are elegant and bright with floor to ceiling windows and warm touches of a wooden bath and shower and a wonderful wooden floor with subtle grooves that massage your feet: walking bare foot feels amazing. I was in a 45 square metre studio (the smaller size room) and this was more than enough for two people. All the information you need is on the iPad that comes in every room and the mini bar and wifi are included in the room charge. And the pool: checking out the pool is not normally in my list of must-do's, but this pool can't be missed. A gentle, almost meditative experience: I won't forget floating in this beautiful space with its rich red light, gazing up at the light installation and just soaking in the experience.

Other hotels that were on my shortlist were the Temple Hotel . Very luxe traditional-style and with the only James Turrell light installation in China - of particular interest as the James Turrell retrospective has opened at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. The Orchid Beijing was recommended as a smaller guesthouse in a Hutong, for an authentic but still stylish experience.

From top left, clockwise: Yoghurt drinks, Steamboats cooling in the street, Jainbing being made, Steamboat with meat ready to be cooked, Haw Toffee Fruit, Graffiti in the 798 District, Art in the 798 District and local transport. 

Exploring in Beijing
While there are many cheap and cheerful tours to all the big tourist attractions (such as Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall, Qainmen Street, CCTV tower) I was fortunate to find the team at Bespoke Beijing to show me another side of the city. You can choose from a selection of itineraries or have something created especially for you. Their main difference is the tour is just for you and you aren't sharing your guide with anyone else. I chose the Street Snacks and Market tour and had an amazing couple of hours with my guide wandering through the hutongs, tasting some delicious local snack foods from the market stalls we passed and learning about life in these centuries old communities. It was incredible to think that while we were still in the centre of the city I saw no other westerners and from what I could tell no other tourists during our walk: it felt like I was getting a glimpse into a real slice of life in Beijing without the tourist filter. China is so amazing but can be quite impenetrable for a visitor - fascinating to view but hard to know how to participate without local knowledge. I would never have known how to get off the tourist trail while still being in the heart of the city and even begin to start to try the different and delicious foods that we had.

Make sure you try: 

Yoghurt Drinks: You will see these little white ceramic pots with blue and white paper lids everywhere. They are a yoghurt and honey drink which is delicious, spike the paper lid with a straw and drink while standing at the front of the shop and then hand back the ceramic pot to be reused.

Steamboat: This is a bit like a stock based fondue served in a traditional copper or enamelled pot. Dip your meat and vegetables into the simmering stock to cook then scoop out and eat, it's fabulous.

Jainbing: the worlds best breakfast food/snack. A type of crepe made on a big hotplate with egg, herbs, spicy sauces and pastry, you find these made on the back of bikes or in small shops.

The other stand out was wandering around the 798 Art District. I caught a taxi to the area (maybe 20mins from The Opposite House at Sanlitun) and just started walking, happy to take my chances. I came across some wonderful art - the awesome Li Chen's mammoth sculptures and captivating bronzes from Wu Liang Yan and the ex-factory buildings have their own beauty.

Top Tips for Beijing
- this is not a place for your white cashmere scarf - with the smog by the end of the week that scarf will be grey.
- take shoes that are resilient: you have to survive squat toilets and chronically dusty streets: enough said.
- squat toilets: remember it's BYO tissues and they are as important for sticking up your nose to block the smell as they are for wiping bottoms. And there are never any hooks behind the door for jackets. Practice your pelvic floor exercises and hold it until you get back to the hotel and if you can find handbag sized air freshener go for it.
- there are lots of cheap and cheerful tours, but lash out for an experience like Bespoke Beijing to get a real feel for the city.

Useful Links:
Bespoke Beijing 
The Opposite House
Luxe Beijing App (from the Itunes App store)
The Hutong
Time Out Beijing

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