1. Grab a Drink at a Rooftop Bar Overlooking the Forbidden City
A full exploration of the Imperial Palace and Forbidden City, a complex sprawled over nearly eight million square feet, takes the better part of a day. When you’re done, order a cocktail and rest your legs at Yin, the rooftop bar at the Emperor Hotel.
You’ll find the building near the east gate, and Yin is reached via an ascending series of terraces from the boutique hotel. Views take in a panorama of the royal grounds, and the menu is stocked with innovative concoctions — many made with the evil Chinese liquor baijiu, so it’s drinker beware.
2. Ride a Tandem Bike around Houhai Lake
To save on rickshaw fees, hit up one of the bicycle rental stands, which rent by the hour and day, and pedal yourself around the lake district. You can even pick up a three-person tandem. I’m happy to say it’s a whole lot of fun to wobble down the narrow streets with the locals cheering you on.
A word of warning: our bike seemed to date from Chairman Mao’s day. We quickly discovered the tires were half-flat and the brakes were shot, resulting in Fred Flinstone braking moves by three pairs of feet.
3. Cook Dumplings in a Local’s Kitchen
Tour operator East Tours runs a gig where you can take dumpling making lessons at the home of a local. She’ll show you how to put together the filling and roll out the dough — harder than it sounds, believe me.
Stuffing the dumplings requires even more practice; don’t lose heart if your first half dozen look pathetically deformed.
The beauty of this tour is not only in getting a look at traditional Chinese cuisine but also at the homes and lives of everyday citizens in a real neighborhood — probably not an opportunity you’d have otherwise.
And of course, you get to eat what you cook.
4. Go Karaoke
Karaoke is a staple of the social fabric in China, just like in other East Asian nations. Don’t miss out. Venues can be found in most hotels and seemingly along every major street. They’re sometimes called KTV, so watch for that on signs.
Protocol: Check in and pay for a specified amount of time at the front desk, after which you’ll be escorted to a private room with audio-visual equipment, microphones, a TV, and couches. You can order drinks and sometimes food.
When my three travel companions and I went, the five-pound song library featured plenty of familiar tunes, but the same video of a bunch of Chinese teens running around in the snow played during every song.
5. Crunch into a Scorpion or Seahorse on a Stick
The Donghuamen Night Market, near the Forbidden City, is the place for street food.
You can find more sedate offerings such as dim sum, soup, and fresh veggies, but don’t bypass the bamboo skewers of silkworms, scorpions, seahorse, snake, and starfish. I also discovered a caramelized lotus root I couldn’t get enough of.
You don’t have to eat to enjoy yourself — half the fun is in gawking at the food and talking with vendors and other patrons. Our group of Americans and Canadians made friends with some Greek tourists; as I walked behind the others, a vendor screamed “sheep penis!” right in my ear, laughing at my double-take as he dangled the organ in front of me.
6. Walk an Unrestored Section of the Great Wall
The Great Wall is long. Busloads of tourists get dropped off at the famous sections near Beijing every morning, but at other places unmarked by restoration or tourism, there are surprisingly few people. The experience of discovering the “wild wall” is powerful.
The Simatai-Jinshanling section allows you to do this. At the Xiangshui Lake scenic area there are another two, as well as a restored section. To get there, instead of walking ahead to the main gate, turn right or left; both directions lead farther into the village and towards original stretches of wall.
For more, consider a horseback tour along the wild wall, or a stay at one of the two hotels that have private access. Red Capital Ranch, Beijing’s first eco-tourism resort, owns ten restored villas set on 50 acres, while Commune by the Great Wall is another recommended resort, with villas surrounding a path that leads to part of the wall available only to guests.
Make sure to check out the Matador classic, I was on the rebound with a Chinese clown.