Things to do on our China trip
March 18, 2010 3:48 AM   Subscribe

We're visiting China (Shanghai, Beijing and Tai Shan) for a couple of weeks at the start of April. Any suggestions for things to do?

So my girlfriend and I are going to China in a couple of weeks. Our itinerary is: Shanghai for a few days, then by train to Tai Shan, then Beijing for a week.

Our plans include the Summer Palace, the Bund, the Great Wall and the top of Tai Shan. Other than that, we're not sure. Any ideas? Especially things that are interesting but not the big tourist attractions.

Us: we're both Australians around 30. I'm interested in eating strange and unusual things (obviously I will try Beijing duck in Beijing, as it's likely to be a bit better than you can get here in Canberra). She's a vegetarian who hates fake meat, though, so if there are any good non-fake-meat vegetarian restaurants around that would be nice to know.

Fortunately, she speaks Mandarin (at what she describes as a good conversational level, although a bit rusty). She's also lived in China for a while, including in Beijing, although that was several years ago and everything is probably different now. My knowledge of Chinese is limited to being able to guess what the occasional sign or menu item says based on a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese kanji (i.e. I will be relying on English).

I've read some of the previous going-to-China AskMes, but the ones I could find are all a few years old so I thought I'd ask again. Thanks!
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks to Travel & Transportation around China (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best Chinese-style vegetarian restaurant in Beijing is Jingsi for my money. They do the fake meat stuff but also plenty of down-home cuisine that's not just substitutes.
One thing to catch in Beijing that you perhaps won't see in the guidebooks is some of the contemporary art museums. I did some translation for one I hadn't heard of before, the Today Art Museum; popped by to give them the document only to find it's a massive newish gallery complex with some interesting displays. Then there's the well-known 798 District.
posted by Abiezer at 3:58 AM on March 18, 2010

If you want to see a little throwback to the cultural revolution and you are into militaria, take the subway to the Military Museum. It's a little surreal in its anachronistic contrast to modern, materialistic Beijing.

Beijing has plenty of actual vegetarian places (go figure in a largely Buddhist country, but fish is often considered "vegetarian" so be ware). For decent, vegetarian fare with a cheap buffet, look across Guozijian street from the Confucian Temple (itself somewhat off the usual tourist trail but near the Yonghegong).
posted by Pollomacho at 4:49 AM on March 18, 2010

Oh, good lord, I almost forgot! Also on Guozijian street near the Veggie restaurant is a must see store. A tiny toy store called Shengtangxuan sells all kinds of hand-made, traditional toys and gifts works of art at very reasonable prices. You will find it by the funny statues out front.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:02 AM on March 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far - I particularly like the look of the toy shop.

I should have mentioned that one of the things I'm looking forward to is finding an interesting part of the city and just walking around for hours, looking at things rather than having any particular destination in mind. I used to do this in Tokyo and it was great fun. 798 District sounds like a really good place for this; any others?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:12 AM on March 18, 2010

Wandering places in Shanghai: Yu Garden/Old Town area, French Concession, Hongkou to the south of Duolun Rd.

Shanghai's not a great place for tourism. For people without any real specific interests, I usually recommend the Frommer's Shanghai in One/Two/Three Day(s) guide, which hits the basics pretty well. Even though you say you're not interested in the big attractions (and yet the Bund is the only thing on your list?), for a first visit to Shanghai it'll give you a good feel for the city.

Also, if you're interested in a reading preview of the city I recommend Hanchao Lu's Beyond the Neon Lights for a good historical view of Shanghai as the common people lived it back during the Concession era. A lot of people like to hype the city's glamorous and scandalous past, but I prefer this Howard-Zinn-type history for its down-to-earth populist angle.
posted by msittig at 6:59 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I lived in China in 2007, I sometimes enjoyed walking around Nanluoguxiang. It's a long street (neighborhood?) with a bunch of hutongs. Some interesting people-watching and hip stores. No idea what it's like now. A few backpacker hostels and the requisite mediocre bars. But, the surrounding blocks are interesting, and worth a wander. Also not far from Houhai Lake, which is lovely.

If you want you can also visit the Olympic complex, I think. It's maybe a 30 minute subway ride from city center.

For a shocking modern commercial experience go to Wangfujing and go inside some of the malls.

For a vegetarian you've got to hit a hot soy milk joint for breakfast. Sweet or salty, with lots of super-fried delights, like 'you tiao'. The milk is called 'do jang'. Street breakfast food is also delish.
posted by acidic at 7:01 AM on March 18, 2010

I was in Shanghai a few years ago on business and thoroughly enjoyed The Bund, especially at night. If you can deal with the constant come-ons from vendors (and prostitutes), Nanjing Road, also at night, is a great place for photography. Lots of Blade-Runner style towering neon signs. I thought the Shanghai Museum was also pretty interesting, and it's said to be a safe place to buy jade (if you're clueless about jade, as I am, and nervous about buying it in the market stalls).

Old Town is a blast for picking up tourist tchotchkes and souvenirs, but get ready for the haggling. I had to make a few runs at it before I was comfortable passing the calculator back and forth for bargaining.

Finally, (and I hear this goes for Beijing as well), any invitations to view the Chinese Tea Ceremony are a scam. Ditto for the "art students" inviting you into the gallery to see the work of their teacher. Either way, you're being set up for some exorbitantly overpriced stuff. Politely decline both.
posted by jquinby at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2010

If you are going to Mutianyu to see the great wall, take the tobaggon ride down. It sounds cheesy, but it's fun as can be. Also, I quite enjoyed drinking a beer atop the great wall, even though the vendors are there illegally.
posted by askmehow at 8:03 AM on March 18, 2010

Go to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu, not Badaling - it's a bit further, but less visited, and the touts aren't alllll the way up to the wall itself. You'll still have to run through a gauntlet of them, but they're mostly confined to the carpark.

To wander around Beijing .. hm. I was there for 3 months last year and I too love wandering, but it's hard to say exactly. I enjoyed wandering around the hutongs round Beihai Park, Sanlitum (the ultra-modern expat area), Wangfujing (modern and commercial, as acidic notes), and the Olympic complex is beautiful and empty at night. The area around the Lama Temple is also rather pretty and fascinating, though may be crowded as it's still a functional temple and not just a tourist attraction.

Remember though that Beijing is huge - she probably remembers that as she's lived there, but it'll take you several hours just to cover the Tianamen Square / Forbidden City area, and the Summer Palace is around 45 minutes by taxi from the city center. And don't trust the published subway maps. Some of the lines haven't been completed yet but they're shown anyway.
posted by Xany at 8:08 AM on March 18, 2010

I really enjoyed the Hot Pot I had in China, so I'll recommend trying that. You can get vegetarian and meat varieties.

Can't think of anything out of the ordinary that I did that I really liked. 798 District was something I hadn't heard about before, though, and I was glad I checked that out.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:24 AM on March 18, 2010

Nan Luogu Xiang has gotten pretty commercialized the last couple of years. Still worth a visit, and the streets around it are still nice, but it's not what it was.

I always liked wandering around Jishuitan (also known as Xihai), an artificial lake connected to Houhai at Houhai's northwest tip. Very quiet, relaxed area; it's gotten a bit gentrified in recent years (apparently a bunch of retired PLA brass moving into the neighborhood), but there are still regular families living around there, and if you go on a weekend morning you'll see oldsters sitting around, fishing in the lake, and jawing at each other while they look on happily at their grandchildren running around.

Seconding Abiezer's recommendation of Jingsi: they do a lot of fake meat, but their straight vegetarian dishes are excellent; I particularly like the 'Zai Su Jin Shen,' which is a crispy dumpling-style wrap of tofu and vegetables. I haven't been to the veggie place pollomacho recommended (despite having lived about a block from there for two and a half years), but it's called Xu Xiang Zhai, and it seems to get pretty consistently good reviews. The Confucius Temple across the street from it has been spruced up a bit, and now sees slightly more tourist traffic than it used to, but it's still worth a visit. Go on a rainy afternoon, if you can:

A friend published a book -- really, a set of cards -- about a year ago called Beijing by Foot, and it may be worth a look -- he knows a lot about the history of the various hutongs.

The area around Qianmen, south of Tian'anmen Square, used to be one of my very favorite places to walk around: it was the commercial and bordello capital of the late Qing dynasty, and used to retain a lot of the old architecture. A lot of it is gone now -- Qianmen has become a Disneyfied version of itself reimagined as a shopping street -- but if you wander through some of the old hutong alleys around there, you'll still be able to find some really nice spots.

Finally: the Great Wall is, well, great, but which section you go to can make a difference. The most common tourist destinations are Badaling, Mutianyu, and Juyongguan. Of these, Juyongguan is the most impressive -- it goes up at a very steep slope, and you can get killer views of the surrounding countryside on a clear day; it's also relatively close to Beijing, so travel time is cut down a bit. If you're willing to put in more travel time (and probably to hire a car -- though some hostels can organize trips), though, I'd strongly recommend going to one of the unrestored sections of the Great Wall. Simatai and Huanghuacheng are probably the two best-known ones; both are great, but my favorite is Jiankou. The place name literally means "arrow-notch," and once you get there, you'll see why: it's a sharp dip in a mountain ridge. The wall is completely unrestored; there are collapsed guardhouses and loose bricks galore. There will probably be more people there once the weather gets nice, but it's a much less-trafficked section of the wall than the others.
posted by bokane at 8:35 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Our itinerary is: Shanghai for a few days, then by train to Tai Shan, then Beijing for a week.

Other people should weigh in on this because I only saw Beijing, but when my friend and I went there several years ago (pre-Olympics), we stayed in Beijing for about seven days. After a couple days sightseeing, we were... frankly, a little bored. Beijing is sort of like the Washington, D.C. of China--a lot of important national sites, a couple really cool buildings, but a little staid and perhaps less compelling than, say, Shanghai/New York.

Again, we only saw Beijing, so that last comparison deserves a large grain of salt. But if we could do our trip all over again, I think we'd spend three days in Beijing and four days in Shanghai or another province.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:08 AM on March 18, 2010

Peking duck at the originating restaurant in Beijing! It was a curse... IOt was my first time having peking duck at all and now I can never have peking duck anywhere else.
posted by cmoj at 11:08 AM on March 18, 2010

Beijing: Red Classics Restaurant.

This has to be seen and experienced if you can somehow manage it. It's like a dinner theatre, except that the stage show is a non-stop musical production extolling the glories of the cultural revolution. Lots of actors and singers dressed as farmers and soldiers in what looked like a moving, living propaganda poster. By the end of the night everyone in the restaurant was drunk and singing along.

Also, the menu was unlike anything I've ever seen. Pigeon, Roasted Ass, and countless other oddities. It was about 30 or 40 pages long and the server kept insisting that we order more, which we did. Eventually they had brought out enough food that full dishes were being piled on top of one another on the table. There were twelve of us and more food than was humanly possible to eat. Final bill, including booze: $12 per person.

I'm not sure how accessible it would be to you, though. I went with some friends and a few locals who knew where it was and we were the only foreigners in there. And taking pictures wasn't allowed, which was a shame.

So if you can find it and get there it would be well worth the trip.
posted by fso at 7:37 PM on March 18, 2010

Shanghai Museum is wonderful, as is this this model of the city, which you can see at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. I regret not having taken the Maglev train and gone through the psychedelic tunnel under the river.
posted by Wolof at 12:14 AM on March 19, 2010

Response by poster: Even though you say you're not interested in the big attractions (and yet the Bund is the only thing on your list?)

Sorry, should have been more clear - we already know about the big attractions, so I came here to find out about the smaller ones.

Great answers. Thanks everyone! I will try to get to as many of these as possible.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:43 PM on March 19, 2010

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