A weekend in... Beijing
Travel to China is on the increase. And since the summer Olympics, British people may well feel an added affinity with our distant friends in Beijing. After all, they went through it too in 2008 - the anxiety, the anticipation and the euphoria. Like London, a spectacular opening ceremony got things underway, a dazzlingly precise and expensive firework display that introduced Beijing as the world's emerging super city.
No longer the preserve of tired businessmen, Beijing's reputation has been softened by the games as a reward holiday destination for anyone with a bit of money to spend and a real appetite for travel.
Where to stay
Day 1: Ancient China
Beijing has been at the centre of Chinese life for centuries and no trip would be complete without visiting the Forbidden City (pictured, top), the huge imperial palace built between 1406 and 1420 that homed Chinese emperors from the Ming through to the Qing dynasties. The 980 beautifully preserved wooden buildings span an epic 7,800,000 sq ft – making Buckingham Palace look like a modest house in the suburbs by comparison.
On your way back, you'll want to tick the historic (and huge) Tiananmen Square (above) off your list. Depending on what time of year you travel, this 440,000 metre sq city square (the third largest in the world) will either be hosting some kind of state-run public celebration or, more likely, full of ordinary people rushing about or enjoying their lunch break. Historically, the square has been the scene of violence and bloodshed, most famously during the pro-democracy protests 1989 during which protestors clashed with the army. For anyone experiencing a Communist state for the first time, the legacy this conflict left behind – check points in and out, the constant, watching presence of the police –- will make for a unique if a little unnerving experience.
Although not heavy drinkers, in recent years the Chinese have developed a taste for what in Britain is a notoriously 'hard' tipple: Scotch whisky. But leave any hang-ups from home behind you: whisky done Chinese style is an experience you should not miss.
For your evening's entertainment, make your way to the brand new Johnnie Walker House (pictured above) just a few moments walk from Tiananmen Square. Here the world's most famous brand of Scotch has built a four-storey private members club (that you can either join, or visit as a guest) that encapsulates the best of both whisky cultures. Part luxury hangover for the city's elite, part homage to the artistry of whisky (you can sit in on excellent tasting sessions and learn about the drink's creation and history), it's the epitome of Beijing cool – just be sure to try a scotch with green tea before you leave.
Day 2: Trendy China
After sampling the ancient delights of Beijing, you might want to head out and see why it is also one of the world's most exciting modern cities. If you like your culture, you need to head straight for the city's Art District. A former factory area, it is now a series of bohemian galleries mixing painting, photography and fashion (as well as plenty of cafes) and is a great place to pick up a unique memento from your trip.
From there, it's a very short walk to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, Beijing's rapidly vanishing maze of alleys and courtyards that offer both some of the most atmospheric snap shots of the city and many of its best hidden gems in terms of shops, bars and coffee shops. Finish off here, and between these three distinct locations you'll have got a good taste of just how diverse and surprising a city Beijing can be.
What better way to round up your short visit to Beijing (particularly if you're feeling boozed-out after the whisky the night before) than with a peking duck banquet? Da Dong Roast Duck is one of the city's most famous a restaurant: everything on the menu here is delicious, and though many of the names will be familiar from takeaways back home, the difference in taste and quality will be a real eye opener for most. It's Chinese custom to put all the food in the middle and share, so order lots and make sure you try a duck. The beautifully cooked meat is served with a selection of things to dip it in – including sugar!<
With such a huge language barrier to contend with, a trip to Beijing can be a sometimes frustrating experience. The old English guilt of not knowing a second language is magnified when you can't even take a guess at what you're reading or hearing. But with a bit of patience and humility, this city - at turns ancient and modern, gritty and picturesque, friendly and unfathomable – is feast for anyone with a zest for life and willingness to experiment. In that sense, London and Beijing have far more in common than just an Olympic legacy.