"shanghaied to beijing" hurts my brain
March 7, 2006 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Help me with my China vacation!

So it looks like my SO and I are taking a week off in April and visiting China. Originally we were going to Shanghai, but it sounds like Beijing would be more 'Chinese' and less a big ol' city. Sound like a good plan?

Any unforgettable sites or ones we won't mind missing? Since we're there for a week, what about a day trip somewhere?

Also, what about bespoke suits - you always hear about Thailand and Hong Kong, but can I get the same custom tailoring magic to happen for me in Beijing? It would be nice to leave with some well-done clothing, or have it shipped home to me. Help me out!
posted by soma lkzx to Travel & Transportation around China (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: p.s.: we're both pretty good with languages, and we'll be cramming with rosetta stone until we leave, so we won't be wholly incompetent (only 90% or so).
posted by soma lkzx at 8:14 AM on March 7, 2006

Beijing is really a cool place, but it's certainly not "less of a big 'ol city". Thankfully, most of the important sites to see are rather centrally located. April would be a good time to go, before it gets too hot. A day trip to the great wall would be good, but not Badaling or Mutianyu sections, as they're pretty much totally reconstructed and really touristy. The Simatai section is better, although in ruins in some places. If you like hiking, I suggest going there.

Down here in Shenzhen/Hong Kong, you can get some good suits made for a relatively low cost, but I'd imagine you could find the same in Beijing.

Shanghai is a huge city, but it's also got lots of historical sites. However, having been to both cities several times, I would say that I've always enjoyed Beijing more than Shanghai.
posted by taschenrechner at 8:27 AM on March 7, 2006

the Forbidden Palace and the Great wall are musts for most first time tourists. I recommend you visit the Yuanming yuan, the ruins of an imperial summer palace that is still beautiful and poignant.
posted by subtle-t at 8:30 AM on March 7, 2006

Shanghai has great tailors. If you decide to go there, there's a nice little guide to tailor made suits here. Another plus to Shanghai is that it's close to Suzhou and Hangzhou, both beautiful cities that can be either daytrips or short 2-3 day trips.
posted by subtle-t at 8:34 AM on March 7, 2006

Response by poster: Would Shanghai + Suzhou/Hangzhou be a better trip than just Beijing?

I based my Beijing decision on the idea that after a few days of internet reading, it seemed like Shanghai was more of a cosmopolitan commerce center, while Beijing was more culturally focused. Culture trumps MNC's for tourism!
posted by soma lkzx at 8:42 AM on March 7, 2006

Pearl Market - Real pearls, fake Rolexes, much, much more

Summer Palace (the park in Beijing, not subtle-t's, although that looks good in a different way)

Forbidden City -

Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park is across the street from the back door to TFC. A nice little park where people practice their Tai Chi and ballroom dancing.

Antiques market (as I recall, it's off Wangfujien Street) Practice your Mandarin and bargain; you'll save some bucks. Remember that there are no Ming dynasty items for sale, regardless what they say. There's also a massive open-air "antiques market" that is just like a flea market in the U.S., except for the goods. That one only runs on weekends, I think.

There are some very impressive show caves in Beijing (bear in mind that Beijing covers a huge area; it's not just what's inside the Ring roads). One has some ancient stone Buddhas in it.

The Friendship Store has the best quality T-shirts and stuff. The ones they sell on The Great Wall shrink like crazy and disintegrate rapidly.

Practice saying "Bu yao!" emphatically. (Don't want!)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:48 AM on March 7, 2006

I think there's definitely more signature cultural stuff in Beijing. The big ticket sights are there, and the forbidden city is incredibly impressive. However, I'm from Shanghai, and biased in favor of it. Shanghai has its share of cultural stuff, but none of it's really well known. You can see the founding place of the Chinese Communist party, and visit the phenomenal Shanghai museum. I would say that if you really want to do the classic China cultural tour, you should go to Beijing and do the sights. If you want a pleasant getaway, that may have slightly less cultural content (not less, even, just different), Shanghai and Hangzhou will do. I think, however, that Shanghai definitely has the better reputation for tailors.
posted by subtle-t at 8:51 AM on March 7, 2006

I was in both cities last year and enjoyed Beijing much more than Shanghai. I was pretty turned off by how much of a tourist trap Shanghai is. The concession areas are very cool, especially the french, but the city struck me as one big outdoor shopping mall. Beijing on the hand has enough "big city" to make you feel like you're in a thriving city yet enough culture to get a decent idea of what large metropolitan cities in China are like. The Forbidden city is amazing BUT be prepared for unorderly crowds of little chinese women who won't think twice of elbowing you out of the way to take a photo. The great wall makes for an amazing day trip. I wasn't down with doing "touristy" stuff but I'm so glad I went to the great wall and you will be too.
posted by photoslob at 10:54 AM on March 7, 2006

I'm actually planning a trip to China myself, and the advice I've gotten has been to spend more time in Beijing than Shanghai. Excerpt from an email sent to me by a friend who has lived and traveled in China for some time:

I thought Shanghai, for touring, was good for a few days at most. It's a big, industrial city with, to my view, surprisingly little historical interest. Beijing, by contrast, has ten times as many parks and twenty times as many temples, and thirty times as many museums.

For me personally that sounds rather interesting--I'm interested in touring bits of the tech sector--but I gather that, for tourism in general, Beijing is the place to go.

You might try a day trip out to one of the parts of the Great Wall that's not commercialized like Badaling. I've also heard good things about the Beijing Art History Museum, the zoo, and of course you should try to find a performance of Peking Opera (very colorful, acrobatic, and traditional dramatic form.)

I'm interested in whatever information about tailoring might show up in this thread, myself; I'm planning to get a tux made so I can wear it to a friend's wedding right after I return to the States.
posted by fermion at 11:04 AM on March 7, 2006

I was just over there in May.


Great Wall: Awesome, because its untouched.
Forbidden City: Cool, but touristy and fake looking.
Summer Palace: Alright, they haven't taken care of the place or preserved it very well.

The Bund (I didn't go, because I got sick on the train back from Zenzhou, but I hear its awesome at night)
The Pearl Tower & Jin Mao Tower: Pretty cool and an outstanding view of Shanghai
Shopping: Huge knock off markets
Nearby Suzhou/Hangzhou: Suzhou was awesome, we went pearl shopping and went to the Garden of the Humble Administrator, as far as Gardens go it was probably the best we visited.
Yu Yuan Gardens: Not as good as the garden of the humble administrator, but its in the middle of Shanghai and has alot of shopping around.

About bargaining:
Vendors usually charge an openning price 8x the price they expect to sell for. As a point of reference, we got:

Rolexes between 70 and 140 Yuan
DVDs: 10-25 a piece, depending on packaging. Anime DVDs are considerably more.
Gameboy games: 40-80.
Memory Cards: about 10-20 USD less than the equivalent price.
Purses: 200-800 Yuan, depending upon whether or not they were stolen or fake (you can tell the difference).
Sun Glasses: 50-150
Suits: 500 Yuan, I think. Mine was about 67USD.

Don't shop for antiques, they are all fake. Most jade is fake.

Do not be afraid to shop around. The vendors will always want to make a sale RIGHT THEN. Sometimes they will CHASE YOU DOWN to make a sale. If you shop around and play different vendors against each other, you can get a pretty good deal. Just remember that a 5 -10 yuan deal that took you 30 minutes to get is probably a waste of your time though.

Also, I hear that they are confiscating fake golf clubs in San Francisco, so if you fly back in there, keep that in mind.
posted by mhuckaba at 11:10 AM on March 7, 2006

Re: Bespoke. If you go to Beijing, apparently the place not to go is Dave's.

Check this comment:

Just got back from a visit from Dave's Tailoring in Beijing. The staff is of no help at all, neither is the environment friendly.

Being in the business of tailoring suits and having a good rep, one would think they would be more receptive to welcoming new customers and introducing them to a better quality product, but no. It was like pulling teeth to get them to answer simple questions like who is the cutter, how do you do finishing on the suits, do you use horn buttons, etc...all the normal stuff a potential cutomer would ask. I even expained that this would be my first "bespoke" suit and I was interested in the method and process.

It would be great if we all had the knowledge of a tailor and personally knew the tailor, we wouldn't have to ask questions. But we don't always have that luxury.
Definetly not a good experience and until they get off their snootiness and get their act together, I won't be recommending this place to anyone.

posted by subtle-t at 11:23 AM on March 7, 2006

This article should get you started on your search for Beijing tailors. Apparently a bunch of them congregate around Ya Show Market near San Li Tun.
posted by subtle-t at 11:31 AM on March 7, 2006

Great Wall: Awesome, because its untouched.
Depends on what part you go to. Badaling is completely reconstructed. Some other (untouched) parts are eroded to mounds.

Forbidden City: Cool, but touristy and fake looking.
Odd - it's very authentic. It also houses some really neat stuff, like the clock museum.

Summer Palace: Alright, they haven't taken care of the place or preserved it very well.
That must be the one in subtle-t's link; the one in the city is very nice.

Don't shop for antiques, they are all fake. Most jade is fake.
Depends on your definition of "antique". Are Chairman Mao pocket watches or Little Red Books antiques? Not all the jade is fake. It may not be old, but it is jade. Some of the modern crafts are stunning. If you go, look for the small crystal bottles with scenes hand-painted on the inside. The jade balls comprising a carved ball within a ball within a ball (etc.) are unique - I have not seen them sold in the States, even in Chinatown. Yes there's a lot of cheap crap, but it's exotic cheap crap. The small paper kites are very artistic; they'd make great decorations.

The best part of buying a fake Rolex was the band. Very nice, and unlike anything I have seen here. Worth way more than the watch.

Another city that has a lot of culture, scenery, and history is Chongqing. There's a monument to the Flying Tigers in the park at the top of the highest hill. I only spent a few days there, but my (Beijing-raised) wife and I liked it a lot.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:42 AM on March 7, 2006

Beijing is definitely worth a visit, perhaps instead of Shanghai if you can only do one or the other; I'm biased though because I lived in Beijing for a year, so I don't know what Shanghai has to offer quite as well.

Like other posters have said, the Forbidden City is a must see- it shouldn't be too crowded in April since a lot of the crowds are made up of Chinese tourists from other parts of the country, but there are no major holidays around then so if you go during the week it should be tolerable. I second the Jingshan park suggestion, climb to the pagoda on the top and you'll get a gorgeous panoramic view of the city, which provided the pollution isn't too bad, will make for some fabulous pictures. Watch out though, ever-increasing desertification causes some nasty dust storms in the spring.

Go to the Yonghegong Temple (Lama temple- Buddhist), and the Baiyuanguan (White Cloud Temple-Daoist). They are both active (monks still reside there) temples with tons of gorgeous artifacts and exhibits.

The summer palace is ok, but if you're already going to go out there, I recommend going to Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) park- it gets crowded as well, but there's yet another temple in there that is very pretty and tends to be a little less crowded (because you have to pay again to get in there). It's called the Azure cloud temple, but it's no longer active. It has some cool historical stuff though, like the Sun Zhongshan mausoleum.

Don't go shopping at Wangfujing (although it's worth a visit because it's the glitziest shopping area in Beijing, world trade center aside), but do go to Panjiayuanr, the "dirt market". I wouldn't actually buy much there, since it's mostly all stuff you can get for less elsewhere, but it is a lot of fun to walk around. While you're there, you'll be close to Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, which is one of the more spectacular temple/parks in Beijing. Also, Tiantan is near the Hongjiao pearl market, which other people have recommended. The third floor is the one with the pearls, but there's actually a fourth floor too (you have to go up the emergency exit stairs, not the escalator, so it feels a little hidden) where they sell pearls of a much higher quality than on the third floor. Bargaining is a must with all shopping (except obviously, supermarkets and the like).

The Great Wall really is a good day trip, but avoid Badaling unless you want a very Disneyland like experience of it. Simatai and Huanghua are much more natural, much less crowded, and very beautiful sections that are within day-trip distance of Beijing. Don't bother with the Ming tombs though, most of the interesting stuff was looted from there a long time ago and everything worth seeing otherwise you can more or less see from a postcard of it.

An unforgettable, very Chinese shopping experience is Xidan, on Xinjiekouwai street (the circle and straight subway lines both stop there, so it's the interchange station). You probably won't want to buy anything there, but it's really something to be experienced, especially if you don't go to the big department stores but fight your way into the unmarked "bargaining" building, which is seven glorious floors of stalls selling jewelry, accessories, clothes to the young and trendy.

As for tailoring, subtle-t is right, they are mostly located around Sanlitun (which, btw, is the bar/embassy/expat district- lots of fun, but expensive). I don't know about suits, but I know if you get a custom qipao they usually cost about $50$-80, but they also take about three weeks so that multiple fittings can be taken. You might be able to get a suit in one week, though.

Anyway, I could wax nostalgic about Beijing indefinitely, so if you have any more questions, feel free to email me (in my profile). Either way, have an awesome trip.
posted by Oobidaius at 12:13 PM on March 7, 2006

Oops, it's Yahow (雅秀) market, not Yashow.
posted by subtle-t at 12:46 PM on March 7, 2006

Some great advice in this thread. Something that hasn't been mentioned is that you can certainly do both locations in one trip. Depending on your pace, you could get a good overview and flavor for Beijing in, say, 4-5 nights and Shanghai in 3-4.

Beijing is more about historical sights: Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Great Wall, Lama Temple, ancient markets and so on. Money goes farther, experiences are more local, English is less widespread. Beijing is certainly more (as you put it) "Chinese" in a historical sense than Shangai, although with the ramp-up to the Olympics the old-world aspect is lessening rapidly. Make it a point during your visit to explore the hutong and take in some truly local meals.

Shanghai is more modern and cosmopolitan. You'll find better food, shopping, nightlife and hotels here, but less history of the three-thousand-years-ago variety. The pollution is worse, the transit better, and so on. Shanghai is convenient for day trips to Suzhou, Hangzhou and other smaller cities, and the city itself is great to explore on foot. It is unique and full of style, and while it is a "big ol' city," well, so is Beijing. Shanghai is no less worth visiting, but the experience is somewhat different.

Beijing-to-Shanghai is a manageable three-hour trip by plane. I encourage you to take in as much as possible.
posted by werty at 12:52 PM on March 7, 2006

Response by poster: Even if this thread isn't finished, thanks a ton! I've been more than reassured that Beijing is the right choice, we have a lot of great input on what to see, and per werty's suggestion we might even pick up Shanghai as well! I'm still wary on the Beijing tailors, but hey, I can't quite complain about a suit when I'm paying $70 for it!
posted by soma lkzx at 1:41 PM on March 7, 2006

eat eat eat. eat everything in sight. in beijing, find a jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant (there's a good one just off of wangfujing), or find some sichuan food spiced with ma. Up until last year, the FDA wouldn't allow ma into the US, so its tongue-numbing properties are something few westerners have ever really tasted. try gong bin sichi do (might be messing up the name... it's fried green beans in chilis and ma. super tasty) or ma po dofu.

eat savory or sweet steamed buns from street vendors in the morning, or the plain-but-super-addicting yo tiao (fried dough). eat noodles and boiled peanuts. eat fried slices of pumpkin, or a pile of shredded cucumber, mushroom, and bamboo covered in a clear sauce that you can't really place, but makes it taste heavenly.

if you like spicy food, they will happily ignite your tonsils into pure magnesium flame. the crazy thing is how many different ways they have to do it. go insane trying all of the different chili condiments you see.

as an herbivore, china was the single best veggie eating experience on the entire globe (though i haven't been to thailand or india yet...). i couldn't believe how many meals just blew my mind whether they were in a 4-star restaurant or a hole in the wall. my wife says (from her meat-eating days) that the peking duck really is worth the hype, if you order it in beijing. i took her word for it.

eat eat eat, because chinese food in china has no connection at all to whatever they're serving in chinese restaurants in the states. it literally fills you with joy at every meal.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 3:02 PM on March 7, 2006

I recommend Beijing Yongdingmen Hotel if you're looking for something cheap and don't mind reasonably rustic / off the beaten tourist path. The hotel's proprietor, Renny Wei, is a really nice guy who speaks English. He will be happy to pick you up at the airport, drive you around town, take you out for meals, give excellent sight-seeing recommendations, make train reservations, etc... He drove my friend and I to a section of the Great Wall that was impressive and not beset with hoards of tourists (as were some sections of the Wall that we passed on the road). Have fun!
posted by syzygy at 10:58 AM on March 13, 2006

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